It's been about seven months since its opening, and Atera, in TriBeCa, has four stars from New York magazine and three stars from the New York Times. It's a particularly notable feat, considering that the restaurant's chef, Matt Lightner, is not from New York. He left the successful Portland restaurant Castagna to come here, where he wasn't interested in doing casual, hip, accessible dining. Atera, instead, is a chef's counter that, like its ill-fated predecessor, only does tasting menus. In the following interview, Lightner talks about the challenges he faced at the beginning, how much he owes to his experiences abroad at Mugaritz and Noma, and what he's thinking about now, as the restaurant moves forward.
When and how did the possibility of coming to New York come about?
I was approached about this job when Compose was in the process of closing. It took a bit of convincing. They wanted to do something really fun and interesting, and for many years, I had been trying to go to New York, but something always got in the way. When I got back from Spain, it was the height of the crisis, for example, and it never really worked out. There was a part of me that always wanted to be here and cook for some of the great chefs.
I like a good adventure. You get to a point where things are good and you just want to be challenged more. And here, everyday, it's a challenge, even when it comes to where you're going to live and how you're going to get to work. Then you have to figure out whom you're going to source from, how you are going to be more inventive, etc.
It really doesn't feel like I've made it, though. This city pushes you every day. You always have to be thinking about how you're going to get better and how you're going to move forward.
Did you always want to have the tasting menu format?
Yes. It's very personal, and you want it to be an experience you have control over. We're very fortunate that we don't have to start off with a large à la carte menu.
What were the biggest challenges when you made the leap?
First and foremost, you have to find the right people. I've been very, very lucky to have met people and made connections that allow me to find really good cooks. A lot of the people that have helped me out were cooks that I met while working in Spain. For years in Portland I had developed relationships with farmers and families, and I knew their products. Here I needed to start from scratch. It was like opening a whole new book without knowing what you were gonna read. That was enlightening, though. I went up to Maine, and people were talking about wild mushrooms, which we don't get in Portland. It was great to be exposed to this stuff and then figure out what to do with it.
Did you ever consider the fact that a lot of chefs that have made their names outside of New York aren't always welcomed with open arms, especially when they're doing something as ambitious as this?
I wasn't aware of it until I got here, when people started mentioning that to me. At the same time, though, I didn't come to New York to do Pacific Northwest cuisine. I came to New York to work on my style of food and have a sense of what the product is here. And also, to get a grasp of what the palate is like here and be sensitive to that. It's important to always be mindful of that. Maybe one day this place morphs itself into something that is considered a quintessential New York City restaurant, but right now I'm working on what I just mentioned, as well as developing my own style. To a certain extent, we bring you into this restaurant and want you to forget about what's going on outside.
What are some other challenges you didn't foresee?
I came here knowing that there were going to be many able cooks, but it's a different beast. The amount of hours that I work here is trying, and cooks here can't live down the block. When I was at Castagna, I had cooks that lived right down the block. They'd show up half asleep, but they'd still show up. Now you have people that have to commute an hour each day and then have to work 17-hour days. It's even more strenuous, especially when you want them to be focused on every little thing they do.
Now let's talk about the cooking experiences you've had that are mentioned in pretty much every piece on Atera: Mugaritz and Noma.
The experience at Mugaritz — the whole time I was in Spain — was life-changing. Before I went to Spain I was a good chef, but one thing I didn't know was how to execute at the level they execute at. I remember being in the cold room at Mugaritz the first week and I had to peel twelve pounds of langoustines. You don't just have to peel them. You have to peel them perfectly, even when it's freezing in there and you can't feel the tips of your fingers. It can't just be good. Every minute thing has to be perfect, even if no one you're serving will notice the difference. Also: there are like forty stagiaires there, and you meet people from all over the world. I'm very grateful to Andoni [Aduriz].
Spain, in general, has a wonderful sense of the product. They have a lot of product, but they focus in on maybe ten, which then become profound national products. Before, I thought that a leek you would brunoise and maybe make a ragù with. There I learned about the possibilities.
I got in there for about a month.
Did it have an impact?
Yes, definitely. What he has done is so original, so beautiful. He didn't say he was going to make a landscape on a plate. Instead, just by drawing from the natural landscape around him, he achieves that. That was profound — looking at products and seeing all the possibilities.
You mention wanting to develop your own style, so how difficult is it to shed the impact of those experiences — how much does the food here owe to places like the ones we just talked about?
Well, I mean, they're both extremely influential. They're both extremely influential for people that haven't even been to them. They are the restaurants of our time, like elBulli, which is still very influential. So, a lot of chefs owe a lot to it.
So does it upset you to hear people label it as a Noma clone or something along those lines, which happens to a lot of restaurants these days.
People are going to have their opinions. I would just suggest that they eat here and then they can label it how they like. Sometimes I think it's the urge to label it, and if they can't answer it right away, then it's like, "Well, OK, it's like Mugaritz or it's like Noma."
You have the Mugaritz stones on the menu.
Yeah, but the stones are much different. It's not like I brought the potatoes and put clay on them. It just depends on the perception of it. I think if you come here and eat, you'll get a sense of how we view things, which is unique.
So how do you find your own voice? Is it conscious or do you just let it happen?
It's definitely conscious. Having your own voice is very important. I don't cook the food because other people are cooking it and it's popular. I cook the food that I enjoy to eat. I want to experiment and have fun, and that's fun.
For me, I want to look at the food that we are doing now and see that it is different and an evolution from what we started out with. I want to look at the food that we were doing and say, "Really? We were doing that?" That's kind of where we're at now: reassessing and constantly adjusting. You can't stop thinking about that. I think that some of the food in the beginning was fun, but we were so busy that now I want to take the opportunity to slow down and think. Years ago, Mugaritz would do a stuffed tomato with beef glaze on top. Look at what they're doing now. I need to find time to research and time to travel.
Let's talk about the review period, which you came out of with some pretty stellar assessments.
The process is spectacular, and there is nothing quite like it. There's a lot of reviewers, too. You realize that basically everyone is reviewing you. That's what I told the cooks: everyone gets the same thing, everyone is reviewing us. You stress over whether they're eating everything, whether they're drinking or not. That never stopped.
Was it ever too much stress to handle?
You start going crazy and thinking about it too much, so you just realize that you can't control it and just need to do what you do. But when I got the call from the publicist that Pete Wells was about to review us, it was this odd feeling. "Is it over yet?" But of course, it wasn't. We've been very, very fortunate, though. But like I said, it's about constantly improving and evolving. More than anything, I want to make people happy and stimulated that might not think they will be before they try the restaurant.
It's an opinion, but it's an opinion that comes from a man that knows what he's talking about. So at the very least, we have to think about why something didn't work for him. Maybe something went too far, maybe it wasn't enough — we have to at the very least think about those things. In a lot ways, you have to be very negative and critical about everything you do. Sometimes I go crazy and change things too much, though.
You want people to enjoy it, and it's all very personal, but you know you will get criticisms and you need to learn to take the positives from the negatives.
Finally, do you feel settled as a New Yorker, and have you felt welcomed here?
I think that still will take more time. I've been on the move for like ten years. I've been here for one year, so maybe in another year, I'll feel more settled and have a routine and feel healthier. We have been very fortunate in that we've definitely been welcomed by chefs here. You want to serve that community and be a part of it. To have those chefs come in and enjoy it has been a huge pleasure. I don't feel happy when someone doesn't enjoy the experience. It could always go the other way, so it's a big deal to have chefs come in here and open their hands to you. The business is competitive, but it should only be competitive in the sense that you push yourself and compete with yourself so that you can do a better job. You can't eat at the same restaurant every night of the week.