Welcome back to Family Meal, where we head behind the pass to see how restaurants feed their staffs. It’s a daily ritual that most diners don’t get to see, but it can speak volumes about the way a place does business. Today, we hit Matthew Ligthner’s much-discussed Atera in Tribeca.
The pantry inside Atera’s basement prep kitchen is filled with an extraordinary supply of what could pass for nature-walk souvenirs: labeled and dated stems and roots, a bag of lichen, flat rocks the color of gray mud stacked neatly in a Cambro box. Ten cooks circulate around the space, exchanging small talk, stripping pollen from a bunch of flowers. This is par for the course at a restaurant known for making chocolate truffles that look like oily black walnuts served on a bed of moss. But if Atera’s menu is all about emulating nature in its various graceful and stark forms, the kitchen’s family meals are all about comfort food.
Chef Matthew Lightner hands off the last of the season’s green tomatoes to a tattooed cook, who slices them with his Misono knife. They are sealed inside the sous vide machine with allspice, clove, bay leaves, and pickling liquid — a quick marinade. They’ll be a side dish at 4:30 p.m., when all of the restaurant’s cooks, captains, pot washers, and servers assemble in the restaurant’s basement kitchen.
Lightner explains that kitchen staff gets three meals per day — shifts at Atera can last as long as fifteen hours, and there’s rarely downtime. "Sometimes we’ll have oatmeal and fresh fruit with coffee for the very first meal," says Lightner. "Most of the time, we just play it safe."
Because prep for the tasting menu of twentysomething courses at Atera is comprised of hundreds of individual, interlocking prep components, a sick cook can throw everything off. So, Lightner says, he always makes sure a bowl of fresh fruit, like navel oranges, is set out with the food.
The dishes that show up on the restaurant’s nightly changing menu require an almost unimaginable amount of prep: a dish of duck hearts and herbs involves 25 different varieties of flowers, fronds, and tiny leaves. And that’s just one of over twenty different plates diners will eat that night. Lightner doesn’t have an exact figure for the number of pre-portioned items that his ten cooks assemble each day, but he estimates his kitchen sends out about 750 "plates" — an imprecise word, since so many dishes are served on boards, beams, and those beds of moss — per night. The kitchen’s mise en place is portioned out onto parchment, bundled into bouquets, poured into vials, lowered into glass jars, set out on Japanese trays. The current bestiary includes curls of fried lichen, scarlet, and blue flowers, two kinds of ash. "All the work is portioned almost perfectly," Lightner says, handing a bag of romaine hearts to a cook making salad in the prep kitchen’s "cold room."
Even with all that, it’s the cooks’ shared responsibility to put family meal together. For example: It takes sous-chef Victoria Blamey a few hours to assemble 36 of the restaurant’s "roses," made from individual "petals" of liquid-nitrogen-frozen rosewater. But in the basement kitchen, other cooks interrupt her work to ask what she’s contributing for dinner, and Blamey halts her rose-assembly to show off two sheet trays of caramelized peach and hazelnut almond frangipane on puff pastry crust.
Even with all the high-tech cooking going on for diners, rustic food wins for family meal: Bánh mì and oven-fried chicken are the norm. On the day we visit, the sous vide green tomatoes are as sophisticated as the 4:30 p.m. family meal gets. No one uses the rotovap to infuse croutons with lichen, or fires up centrifuge to deconstruct the vinaigrette. Instead, it’s plates of roasted pork and salad, served on the restaurants eight-foot-long prep tables. Everyone stands and eats, going over the previous night’s hiccups, or fleshing out their late, late-night plans. For a minute, anyway, Lightner’s staff relaxes.