Call him our gastronomic Harry Potter…David Blaine…Pablo Picasso. Whether they deem him a wizard, magician, or artist in the kitchen, the local and national culinary critics can’t seem to stop praising Matt Lightner, 30, executive chef at Castagna since October 2009.
A few of his accolades in 14 short months? Named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s 2010 Best New Chefs in America. Nominated for a 2010 Rising Star chef award by the James Beard Foundation. Chosen as one of 10 to Watch in 2010 by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine. Catagna received the Oregonian’s 2010 Restaurant of the Year award, making it one of only two restaurants in Portland to have been honored with the title twice. And, of course, it was one of Portland Monthly’s Top Restaurants of the Year in the 2010 Restaurant Guide.
A graduate of the Western Culinary Institute a.k.a. Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland and trained in the field by the likes of Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz (a Michelin two-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain) and Philippe Boulot at the Heathman Restaurant & Bar here in Portland, Lightner has made his own mark by using both traditional (e.g. grilling, brining, smoking) and modern (e.g. sous vide, painting, powdering) cooking techniques to play with local, often wild ingredients in entirely new ways. The result is innovative dishes that surprise and educate diners by elevating true flavors and invoking a visual connection to the fertile Northwest.
New Year’s Eve is essentially the food scene Super Bowl, but here the young chef takes a brief break to answer a few questions for us about what’s cooking—past, present, and future.
1) What one item on your menu right now would you say best represents your philosophy of cooking perfected on a plate?
A dish of lightly-cured scallops dressed with a milk made from parsley root, an ice made from the juice of unripe pears, and dandelion greens. It allows us to use very mainstream ingredients in a new fashion, taking a time of year that’s generally rich and heavy and, instead, making it refreshing.
2) What’s a food trend you predict for 2011?
Chefs’ using fresh juice, and herbs appearing as an ingredient, not just a garnish—essentially, lowering the calories while upping the flavor.
3) What’s a 2010 food trend you’d like to see disappeared?
Putting everything on the plate. I know there’s a lot of great product out there, but practicing a bit of restraint can actually highlight items even more.
4) What other menus do you like to scope out here in Portland?
5) Here we are in the dead of winter—what are some of the techniques you plan to play with as we launch into the new year?
This time of year we are inspired by the hunting season so we look back in time at some pretty old traditions such as curing, drying, and making sausage—but doing these things in our style, and very, very carefully.