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By Richard Leong
NEW YORK, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Making it in New York is tough for a young chef, but Matt Lightner managed to replicate the success he achieved at his Castagna restaurant in Portland, Oregon, in the Big Apple with relative ease.
Critics have raved about his cooking for its inspiration from nature and his use of cutting-edge techniques to transform local ingredients, such as freezing foie gras to make it appear like peanuts.
Michelin has awarded two stars to Lightner's Atera restaurant in New York, even though it has been open less than a year.
The 32-year-old native of Norfolk, Nebraska, worked at top European restaurants such as Noma in Denmark and Mugaritz in Spain. He recently spoke to Reuters about his culinary journey and his success with Atera.
Q: Were you surprised about the rapid success of Atera?
A: "(Atera is) a very personal dining experience from things I like and things I had. So you never know when you are doing things that are not typical. When people don't have a reference point to it, it could always go either way. We feel we have been very lucky and fortunate that we have had the support we have been getting."
Q: What do you think is the ingredient to its success?
A: "It always has to be the food first. We are such savvy diners nowadays that ambiance is not enough ... We wanted to make something different, something challenging, but make it approachable, make it delicious and make it with the best products we could possibly find. It's been a formula that's worked out pretty well."
Q: What did you learn when you worked in Europe?
A: "Spain has been my biggest influence. At Mugaritz, just the way they look at things ... We have tortilla. We have leeks and all different kinds of things. Now let's look at things through different lens. Now let's start creating recipes and not just changing classic recipes to fit us. Through rediscovery, you end up doing something new, grounded in years of history, that becomes appealing again."
Q: How does foraging inspire your cooking?
A: "The idea of foraging is that you look for unique things, which bring inspirations. These are products you can't get at the farmers markets. A lot of them are wild, indigenous ingredients. These are ingredients which are lost and could be rediscovered. They could be micro-seasonal. A certain bush produces a small berry, and it lasts a week. That's the fun, inspiring thing about foraging."
Q: Do you think the foraging trend is overdone?
A: "I think the trend will start to slow down. Unfortunately, that happens, I think. A lot of it is driven by the restaurants and also the press as well. When things are hot, they're hot, and they want to talk about them. When things are popular, people go down in that direction."
Q: Why did you decide to become a chef?
A: I grew up in the Midwest. My parents' had gardens, cooked and canned. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, when my mom was working two jobs and my dad was working one job with hours enough for two ...
"My mom would always cook these classic dishes she grew up with. When we would go out to dine somewhere, it would be a time we could forget a lot of the stuff that was going on. It was really a time when we could relax and have fun. I always wanted to make dishes that make people very happy. Then cooking fell into a necessary point when I wanted to make money when I was 15 year old. ... I wanted to pursue doing something with my hands."
Scallops cured with fresh herbs and pine, grapefruit and geranium (Serves 4-6)
1 branch of white pine, or spruce
1 cup of picked tarragon
1 cup of picked fennel fronds
1 cup picked dill
1 tblsp of fresh yeast, or 1 tsp of dried
2 tblsp of sugar
2 tblsp of salt
1/4 cup of cold water
Finely chop the pine and herbs together. Mix all dried ingredients. Then carefully add in the water to make a slight paste, add all herbs and toss this mixture together with the scallops. Place in an airtight container for 12 hours.
1 large leaf of rose geranium
3 tblsp of grape seed oil
1 tsp of apple cider vinegar
1. Segment the two grapefruit, making sure to reserve all the juices. Take half of the juice and pulp, and place in a small saucepan with the rose geranium and cook down on low heat until consistency of a jam, roughly 5-10 minutes. Cool immediately.
2. Discard the geranium leaf and mix the mixture with the other grapefruit pulp, the vinegar and the grape seed oil. Lightly season with a touch of salt. Keep in the refrigerator.
3. To prepare the scallops, carefully whip the marinade without using any water. Prepare a grill, either gas or charcoal. It is important that the grate on the grill is very clean and very hot. Now carefully mark the scallops on each side, but it is important that you do not cook scallops but lightly char them. Chill the scallops for at least half an hour in the cooler. Once they are chilled, gather a large platter and slice the scallops about 1/4 inch thick vertically and carefully arrange on the base of the platter.
4. At this point it is good to use any seasonal herbs and flowers as garnish. We normally use at this time of year fennel that is beginning to bloom, fresh dill, fresh tarragon, the small leaves of lemon balm, and an assortment of flowers - pineapple sage, bergamot flowers, borage flowers, and tangerine marigolds and lemon-scented marigolds.
5. Dress the scallops with the grapefruit and rose geranium, sprinkle with some flaky sea salt and carefully arrange all your picked herbs and flowers on top, covering the complete surface of the scallops. (Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Von Ahn)