You would not expect to find Matt Lightner working at a New Seasons think tank. In 2018, the former Castagna chef and prodigal Portlander returned home after six years at New York City’s modernist Atera, where he earned two Michelin stars and three from the New York Times. It’s not at all a stretch to call Lightner the most accomplished chef in Portland’s recent history.
When he returned earlier this year, instead of opening a modernist temple, he hitched his wagon to New Seasons Market, the rapidly growing, home-grown grocery operation, now with tendrils in Seattle and California. His task? Bring a fresh perspective to the 19-year-old grocer, especially in the prepared foods department—a segment of supermarkets typically delegated to a third party, ignoring the wealth of readily available ingredients in-store.
Right now, Lightner’s flagship creation is the New Seasons meal kit, a take on larger subscription programs like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. The first wave of kits includes Columbia River Steelhead with New Potatoes, Broccolini, and Bonito Butter; Miso Glazed Chicken with Sweet Potato and Kale; Spice Roasted Carrots with Tahini Dressing; Cauliflower Pilaf with Fresh Turmeric & Fennel; and Turnip Curry with Lemongrass and Dates. They’re currently available at nine markets across Oregon and Washington, and will be at every New Seasons by the end of July.
A New Seasons meal kit is something of a revelation: all of the produce is organic, the meat is antibiotic-free, and many things are local. And, thanks to Lightner, the recipes themselves are at a level of creativity, spice literacy, and freshness you won’t find in a typical meal kit. Says Lightner: “We want to give them restaurant quality—fun and edgy. Not boring, like culinary school.” Whole coriander? Heck yes. Ingenious three-ingredient sauce with butter, bonito flakes, and soy sauce? Amazing. Pre-made spicy sesame dressing? Thank the lord.
With each kit, you’re also learning to cook a new vegetable, or being introduced to a new spice or herb. “When they teach you at Blue Apron,” says Lightner, “they teach you the dish. We want to teach you the vegetable. When you learn the vegetable, you learn all the dishes.”
That said, this first round of meal kits has its flaws. In general, cooking times can be significantly off. Herbs, like bunches of dill, cilantro, or mint, can have disproportionate ratios, with way too much of one and not enough of the other. Packaging can be confusing, too. Only the chicken and steelhead boxes ($24.99, feeds two) are complete meals with a starch, protein, and vegetable. The others are side dishes ($18.99, feeds two to three), or very light vegetarian/vegan options, though you wouldn’t know it looking at the label. In short: this isn’t the mindless, auto-pilot meal kit you might be used to. Use your own judgement.
Still, the program is in its fledgling stage, and unlike dedicated national meal-kit programs, New Seasons is first and foremost a grocery store. “This business is a friggin’ freight train,” says Lightner. “It’s going nonstop; it’s crazy and the demand is there. But there’s also demand for innovation. You’re trying to throw that on to that freight train without getting killed. It’s incredibly difficult.” Lightner says meals will rotate seasonally. Hopefully, that will mean even more local ingredients, environmentally sound packaging, and dialed-in recipes.
The other big question: Will Matt Lightner open his own restaurant in Portland? For now, the answer is no. “It’s not the best time to open up a restaurant," he says. "There’s just a lot going on—lots of restaurants just for the sake of restaurants, concepts for the sake of concepts. When I’m ready, I’ll be ready.”