Rex Huang has a decade on most of the people in his line of work, and that’s a good thing, because having less time for self-exploration keeps him focused. He left behind a career in business for the burners, getting his start in the business when he asked for one day to prove his worth as a stage at What Happens When. Now he’s a sous chef under Matt Lightner at the tiny, inventive downtown restaurant Atera (77 Worth Street, 212-226-1444), where he’s culling lessons he hopes to eventually apply at his own restaurant. Here, he talks about getting his start, the greenmarket, and why the restaurant industry is better than his desk job.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking as a hobby, and it just grew into a serious passion. It was always a dream of mine to open up a restaurant, but I decided I would try before I got older. This is not my first career.
I was in business development for IT companies, web companies.
What kind of stuff did you when this was just a hobby?
I loved to just go to the market and see what was out there, what was fresh, and what excited me. The people I choose to work with have that approach — they’re really ingredient driven and finding the full expression of what nature has to offer.
Do you go to the market for Atera?
Yeah, sure. We go to the Union Square green market and say, “Let’s see what these great purveyors have to offer.”
What’s different about going to the market for this kind of seating?
We don’t do a lot of seats. We only serve maximum 34 in the dining room so it’s a lot easier for us. We don’t need to source large quantities. We can go and say there’s only one bundle of parsnips.
Some of the dishes here are like mini sculptures.
Sure yeah, a lot of stuff we do will be like that. But we’re not a place that likes to do a lot of adornment. Obviously we love pretty things so we love making pretty plates. We want to present food in a way that’s visually pleasing, but in terms of artistry, we like to have the art imitate life.
What do you think Atera’s context is?
I don’t want to call it postmodern, but the context is a little bit of an underdog, a little bit of the unexpected: We don’t have signage, our chef is not from New York, and a lot of us, like myself, aren’t life cooks, so we really like to play on that — how you can surprise and how things aren’t always as they seem.
How’d you get your start?
I started with John Fraser at his pop-up What Happens When, so that was a really unique experience.
What was hard about it?
Starting at a pop-up was probably one of hardest things that happened to me. It was hard because it was demanding; there was really no time to get broken in.
How’d you get in having no professional experience?
I walked in the door and said I’d work for free. I said, “I love cooking, I’m pretty good at home, I know I don’t do it professionally, but give me a day to show you.” They had only been open for a week and they needed the help so they said, “You know, we don’t have to pay him.”
Why’d you pick What Happens When?
Honestly because I’d heard a lot of good things about him. My idol was always Thomas Keller, and Fraser had worked with him. I could never walk into Per Se, so this was as close as I could get. And the business side of me loved the idea of the pop-up: It was just so in-the-moment and such an awesome concept.
How do you like executing someone else’s vision?
It’s great because there’s a lot of collaboration. [Matt Lightner] will have an idea, but it’s maybe not a complete dish. The number one thing is to learn his palate and the way he likes doing things. Once you get accustomed to how he likes to do things, if we have ideas, we work together to make it fit within this realm of Atera.
Did you have a mentor?
Yeah, Hadley Schmidt. He’s the chef at Northern Spy Food Company, and he’s a dear friend of mine. He’s the one who gave me the shot.
Compare yourself to when you started. Still as hungry?
Absolutely. I think starting later probably helped me out a lot: There’s a sense of urgency with the end goal whereas if I started younger, I might have been like, wow, I have many years to go, I have time to try this and see that. Of course I would have loved to work on a farm, travel, and work for other different great chefs, but what helped is not having time to lose focus, to know that I need to acquire these things in my tool box to get to the next level.
Is this better than being at a desk?
Yeah, I love being hands-on. I like that the whole industry is very team oriented. It’s not as professional as some of the other settings I’ve worked in, but everyone is in the same boat. There can be a lot of fission and fractures in a corporate setting. This is similar to working for a startup because you spend so much time together and look to improve as individuals and as a team.
What’s important to pay attention to as a sous chef?
For us, I think it’s most important to kind of equip and guide people and put them in a position for success by making sure they have their products, coaching them through, and making sure you know what the chef expects because you’re the liaison.
You said you want to open a restaurant. What would it be like?
For me, it’s probably what the market will bear: I have a lot of ideas on how I’ll treat my food and treat my ingredients, but the exact form is really up to the opportunity.