The 10 Dishes That Made My Career: Matthew Lightner

The Atera chef traces his path from Missouri dive bars to the heights of modern gastronomy.

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Photos: Liz Barclay

Atera's Matt Lightner knew early on he wanted to bring people together, but he didn't always think it would be with his food. “I always joke that I wanted to have a dive bar when I was 6 years old," remembering the type of no-frills saloons he went to with his family growing up in Missouri: "[They] were these divey places where you’d put your boots on and go to drink cheap beer—that was the culture. People would have a good time smoking their cigarettes and drinking their crappy beer, and I thought, Wow, people really like that. I wanted people to be happy."

Dive-bar dreams may seem like an unlikely starting point for a chef now known for running one of NYC most ambitious modernist kitchens, but the more Lightner talks about the foods that excite him, the more it’s clear that the impulse to make people happy is at the heart of his cooking, under the layers of complex techniques and foraged ingredients. It’s the emotional thread that connects the “quail egg” at Atera (aioli and milk gel that’s formed in the shape of an egg and pickled, served as one of the pre-meal snacks) to the deviled eggs of a Midwest childhood.

Lightner stumbled into restaurant kitchens out of necessity, as a 14-year-old making a quick buck as a dishwasher, but it didn't take long for him to realize he'd found his calling. “You know, when you do something and you’re good at it, when most people suck at it, you want to stick with it,” he says. “It was like, At least I don’t have to worry about anything else, I can just do this.

He worked his way across the West Coast, eventually becoming chef de cuisine at L’Auberge in Southern California, before embarking on a program in Spain that involved an eating tour of the country followed by 18 months in the kitchen at Mugaritz, one of the high temples of minimalist gastronomy. If the high-powered regionalism of the West Coast wasn’t enough to put Lightner into full-fledged locavore territory, Spain sealed the deal. Much of the world’s share of Michelin stars belong to restaurants there that are housed in crumbling farmhouses, tucked between sheep’s’ meadows in towns with fewer inhabitants than a FiDi condo. They have their own kitchen gardens, or the local farmer who rides down every morning with the day’s leeks, primarily out of convenience. It’s a seductive naturalism that, coupled with the genre-pushing creativity of the region's chefs, pushed all of Lightner’s buttons at once.

Today, the two-Michelin-starred Atera has done the best it can to echo the experience of sitting on the rolling hillside of the Basque country in the concrete wasteland of Tribeca, with a living wall of herbs dominating the dark room lined with reclaimed barn siding, and dishes presented on stones or nestled in moss. Though there’s no elderly farmer on a bicycle and Lightner rarely gets out into the forest to harvest his own wild herbs anymore—as he did often in Portland—the city's Greenmarkets provide all of the local ingredients necessary to maintain that sense of connection to place. Lightner pays homage to a Spanish mentor with dishes like the beet ember, a single beet slow-roasted for hours and grilled until it looks like a lump of coal, and ups the ante with his own sleight-of-hand, like a "razor clam" that guests are invited to eat shell and all (turns out the shell is a baguette meticulously dyed with squid ink).

Here, Lightner shares the 10 dishes that made his career, from sandwiches with his dad's ham to highlights from his Spanish sojourn, plus some of the creations that have helped put Atera on the haute-cuisine map.

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