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Monday Morning Agitator

Matt Lightner Out At Atera and Ronny Emborg In – A Blow to American Cooking

This is bad news for those of us who care about the way American cuisine is progressing. Not that I have anything against Ronny Emborg, but the Atera job is one of the prime opportunities for an American chef who cooks in a progressive style. There are so few restaurants in the U.S. that feature progressive cuisine that the idea that the spot is lost to a European chef – especially one who hasn’t done anything significant in quite some time – is a blow to the development of American cooking.

One wonders when owners of restaurants make these types of decisions, whether or not they understand what makes their own restaurants tick? Atera, though funded by people with deep pockets, was actually Matt Lightner’s creation. Matt pretty much designed every inch of the place and the restaurant was custom built to suit his needs. The result of his efforts was that one of America’s best young chefs had benefactors that allowed him to try and forge a new style of cuisine for America.
Now all of that is lost. In fact if it wasn’t for Matt, who operating owner, Jodi Richard, claims she “discovered", (which happened after a mutual friend of ours tipped her off about Matt because insisted that this friend come to Portland with me in order to eat Matt’s food), she would probably still be trying to figure out how to reopen Compose.

Why another American chef wasn’t given the opportunity to replace Lightner is a mystery to me, although, the consensus among OAD voters is that Jodi is basically clueless about these things, and the Danish-based firm that does the restaurant’s PR was able to take advantage of that and engineer the switch. It’s a shame because given the many talented young chefs we have in the U.S., it would have been great, as well as important to American cuisine, to see one of them running the restaurant’s kitchen. Meanwhile,
given what I have heard from people on the inside about the working conditions at the restaurant, I shouldn’t be surprised that Matt is leaving. And the fact that they announced this switch on a holiday weekend, tells me that the owners knew this was bad news and they were trying to downplay the switch.

As for Atera, I have to say one wonders whether they will survive. The fact is that most restaurants do not survive a chef change well, with many of them closing as a result. This is more likely to be the case when a restaurant has multiple Michelin stars, and the cuisine is so closely associated with the personality of a specific chef. Another issue is bringing in a chef from Europe who has no experience working with American ingredients. Most foreign born chefs who have successful careers in the U.S. have spent time working in American kitchens for other chefs first, where they can acclimate themselves to the conditions. I have been trying to think of one who was an exception, but I am having a difficult time thinking of a chef who has walked into a kitchen cold and has been successful. And I suspect that Emborg’s background cooking New Nordic cuisine – a style of cuisine which is starting to get tired and appears to be on its way out – is one more impediment to success.

Back in March of 2012, when the restaurant was about to open, I wrote a review of Atera where I said the following; “However, you would be foolish to discount my recommendation of Atera because it is clearly the best restaurant that has opened in NYC in years. And for those of you who are fans of Modernist cuisine, it is easily the best place in the city to experience the genre, and there is a good argument to make that it is only a matter of time until it becomes the best in the country. And this is based on only one friend’s and family meal that I was invited to last week." Given Lightner’s departure, I think it’s a good time to update that prediction so here goes:

If Ronny Emborg does not replicate the two Michelin Stars that Lightner earned (which I predict he won’t) there will be, as the saying goes, trouble in Denmark, and I predict he won’t last 18 months at the restaurant. Of course Emborg could prove me wrong and he might turn out to be the best thing since someone figured out how to pickle herring. But that’s not what I’m feeling in my gut. And if I am correct, then maybe the restaurant’s owners will do the right thing and hire an American chef to cook at the country’s premier Progressive American restaurant.