A number of transplants are making waves in the New York City restaurant industry of late. David Bowien brought us Mission Chinese, an outgrowth of his successful San Francisco pop-up. Andy Ricker planted Pok Pok here, the first satellite market outside of his home city, Portland, Oregon. And Matt Lightner gave us Atera (77 Worth Street, 212-226-1444), channeling the creativity he applied at Portland’s Castagna before he was picked off by a group of investors for the Big Apple.
That restaurant opened almost two years ago, and it immediately gave New York something new entirely: a temple of gastronomy bent on challenging the boundaries of American cuisine via techniques Lightner picked up at Mugaritz and Noma. This is a serious restaurant dashed with whimsy, where dishes are not always what they seem — the chef is most famous for plating courses to look like something else entirely, shaping food so that it resembles tree bark or flowers.
His work — and that his food comes together well on the plate and over the span of a multi-course omakase — has earned Lightner a spot among the top brass of New York City’s chefs; not bad for a guy who claims he began cooking out of necessity. “I started cooking to make money to buy clothes and stuff like that,” he says. “I had no interest at all in going to college and being in these boring classrooms that are packed full of people — that seemed like a poor way of learning. I wanted to do something with my hands.” He moved from Omaha, Nebraska, to Oregon with his sister, and then spent the next several years moving up and down the west coast before he jetted to Europe for deeper training.
When he returned to the States in 2009, it was the middle of the recession, and so he headed back to Portland, where he met Castagna owner Monique Siu. He wasn’t set on staying in the Pacific Northwest, but the restaurant gave him a chance to make some money and apply the lessons he’d learned across the Atlantic. He garnered national attention, and then he was approached by Atera’s owners to move out here and command the kitchen of the restaurant they were building. “I was like no, no no,” he says. “It took about two months. We finally came up with an idea. It’s a tough business; there’s so much that you have to do, and it’s pretty demanding financially and mentally — you need a really strong support team. We started to click in the context of that, so it ended up working out.”
In this interview, he talks about what he wishes he could import into NYC from Portland, the importance of a constructive food dialogue, and where the New York restaurant industry goes from here.
How has the original vision for Atera evolved?
I left Castanga at the end of the summer in August, and Atera opened at the beginning of the spring; it was only a six-month transition. So [the food at Atera] was very similar at the beginning, but it’s different now. The quality of ingredients, staffing, and beverage program have continued to push forward. When you buy a new house, it takes many years to really make it feel like home. You build on it and build on it, and it gains history and maturity.
If you look at really good entrepreneurs, when they build a business, they want to create a name and feeling and philosophy — the great ones have a warming quality to them. When you build a restaurant, that should be your focus. Can you build a restaurant with the ethics and philosophy? That’s challenging. We focus on that a lot. Everything has a meaning, purpose, and sense.
Talk to me about the philosophy behind Atera.
I could sit here and say it’s all about products or about reinterpreting American cuisine — but it’s really about how we work. Our employees go through this awakening process, and that’s what our philosophy is about. You don’t just come to Atera for the recipes — you come to learn how to work. To learn the finer details in life. To organize better. To think stronger. To focus more. I want it to be professional. I want my employees to learn an all around picture of wellness.
Any big surprises in opening a restaurant in New York after working in Portland?
New York City is a beast — the city creates the standard for how to operate. I don’t think that’s the best approach. Operators should predict how their place is going to run. I think if they did that, you’d see a little more diversity. As it is, 10 places open, and nine are the same and one is different, and that’s the one that makes it. Look at those that are successful — chances are, they really are doing something different. But there are economics, demographics, and so many things that really go into it.
Anything you wish you could import from Portland to NYC?
NYC doesn’t need to do more, it probably needs to do a little less — everything’s so trendy. Everything that opens gets labeled as a trend immediately, and if doesn’t, no one’s gong to talk about it. Places that have been open for 10 years are really good, and they get hurt by that. I also wish there was more demand to work with the local farms. You shouldn’t be able to open a bistro in this town without using your local farmers. There need to be more one-on-one relationships. In Portland, you don’t have the most mind-blowing food, but you have simple food made with the best products out there. Everyone here says they go to the market, but working with your farmers is a different thing.
What about differences creativity and entrepreneurialism?
It’s always easier to take a risk in a smaller market. You put in $250,000 instead of a million dollars to open a restaurant. $250,000 is a lot of money, but then your rent is $4,500. Here, it’s $20,000. Here, it takes a lot of balls here to say, “I’m going to do this crazy shit,” and then have 20 critics come in and only 15 percent are going to love it and all of them have something negative to say because that’s the style. Demographics here don’t allow for big risk-takers. You have to know what you’re doing, and you have to have good vision about what you’re doing.
Talk to me about the role of the media in the industry.
Media is extraordinarily important — it allows you to talk and get your voice out. If you couldn’t do that, everything would have to be a neighborhood restaurant, and everyone would come in from four or five blocks away, and that’s tough. Plus, it’s important to have a dialogue about food. It needs to be constructive — there should be a level of criticism on both sides. That’s how you get an ongoing progression of getting better. In New York, though, that all happens in the beginning — whatever happens in the first two months, that’s what you’re going to be stuck with until much, much later on. There should be consistency in this dialogue — the two-star restaurants should still be relevant next year. Otherwise they slowly decline, and then boom, their ten-year lease is done, and they’re gone.
Up next, Lightner talks about where the industry goes next.
Where does the New York restaurant industry go from here?
It’s going to continue to do what it does. There’s no stopping that. One person does the Cronut, everyone wants to do the Cronut. One restaurant has a successful fried chicken stand, everyone does a fried chicken stand. There’s one successful barbecue restaurant, 100 barbecue restaurants open up. And there’s going to be more success for out-of-town chefs. There’s a big push of these outside chefs again, just like there was in the ’80s and ’90s.
What precipitates that out-of-town chef movement?
A lot of people think you can make a million dollars in a week here — they’d be better off going back to school for tech and moving to San Francisco. But you also have the chefs who are impassioned and want to put their voice out there and show people what they do.
Why have out-of-town chefs done so well here?
Timing — as things move and grow and cuisine gets better in different regions, it uncovers open niches that aren’t filled in New York. There are specific niches that aren’t happening here. That allowed for this to happen.
Do you think transplants face bigger challenges?
Not necessarily. There’s always a struggle in the beginning of a restaurant to get accolades. And once those accolades go away, you still struggle as a normal business. So you have to put yourself out there and have a dialogue with your customers, which is a lot more challenging than people think. If you’re not a good operator, it doesn’t matter how many accolades you get in the beginning — you won’t be busy or successful.
What’s your creative process like?
My creative process is 24/7. I work mostly on the idea — on the reason I’m doing a dish, on the texture I want, on the experience I want from that — until things click. I’m not someone who puts a bunch of shit on the table and starts looking at it. It mostly comes from the idea.
How long does it take you to develop each dish?
Sometimes no time — we just put it on there. But some dishes I’m working on come from three years ago, four years ago, five years ago.
What are your goals?
Becoming a better mentor — it’s difficult. I spend a lot of time doing dishes and creating dishes and watching all the tiny aspects of what we do. I’m a bit more shut out.
Up next, Lightner names local favorites.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
I just moved to Williamsburg, and I love how there are so many good coffee places. I love Sweetleaf. They produce a nice cup of coffee, and they’re really cool people.
Best place for a beer or a drink:
I’m biased, but the bar at Atera is making amazing balanced cocktails. It’s all about balance — it’s not getting in a hurry and rushing things. For beer, definitely Torst. I walk in there, and I’m surprised the place isn’t packed every single day. It’s really good beer and really great people.
Best place for a special occasion:
Masa. If he’s there making your sushi, it’s a certain powerful feeling. I’ll save up and go there because it’s worth it.
Best place to be when you have nowhere to be at all:
Any random dive bar drinking some shitty gin and tonics.
Best neighborhood for food:
Williamsburg can be up and down, but the feeling there is good.
Person you’d most like to cook for:
Andoni [Luis Aduriz] at Mugaritz. To redefine cuisine, you have to stop looking at all the chains that hold it down and look at everything with virgin eyes — Andoni’s been able to do that for his entire career.
Person you’d most like to have cook for you:
My mom. I’ve sacrificed so much when it comes to family, relationships, and friendships because of this industry — in 10 years, I’ve only seen my mom seven times.
Person you’d be nervous about cooking for:
No one. I moved to New York because I wanted it to be like Spain with important people coming in all the time. You learn how to transform anxiety into focus and not nerves.
Dish you could eat forever:
Pizza and cheeseburgers. If I could not get extraordinarily fat I’d probably have a cheeseburger for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack.