Cooking has allowed Nebraska native Matthew Lightner to travel the globe. His career has included stints in Spain, Cophenhagen and Portland. In 2011, Lightner teamed with Jodi Richard to open Atera in Manhattan, and he’s earned rave reviews for his seasonal, contemporary tasting menus. I met Lightner on April 6 at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Lexus Grand Tasting, and he shared several culinary insights.
Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
I fell into it out of necessity. I started working because I needed a job when I was a teenager, to make some money. The food service industry was appealing because you could get a job washing dishes, or something like that. Then I just fell in love with the whole craft of it, the whole feeling of the hospitality industry.
What do you remember about your very first shift in a restaurant?
My very first shift in a restaurant, I was washing dishes, and it was pretty amazing because it was very traditional, very rugged cooks, very busy restaurant, and it was super intense. You had to move very, very fast, and plates were coming out of the dishwasher at 200 degrees. There was this level of excitement that was pretty amazing.
What brought you to New York?
The project that I worked on. New York’s an amazing city, the project was a good way to get into the city and continue to do what I wanted to do, continue to explore the type of cuisine I want to do, and do it amongst other great chefs.
What would you say the key criteria are for a dish that would go on your menu at Atera?
There’s really no criteria. It’s just of kind of what interests me, what I think is fun, what I think is enjoyable, real self expression.
What was the last dish you developed for the restaurant, and what was your inspiration?
Awhile ago, we started to do some different kinds of preserving. We ended up preserving these celery root in vinegar, and then we dry them. They get really dry, and then we were going to shave them on something, but decided to reconstitute and candy them. When they’re cooked, they’re like little walnut pieces. We put them with warm walnuts in walnut ice cream.
What are the advantages or disadvantages of having a restaurant in New York versus Portland?