Pulling up a seat at the counter has been given new meaning by chef Matt Lightner. At his New York restaurant Atera there are seats at the stylized counter for only 18, but diners are in for a 22-course tasting menu that conjures the wild (foraged foods, that is), and the wildly experimental (such as gin-cured diver scallops with juniper-infused meringue or sweetbreads in hazelnut-toffee sauce), often served on natural elements like moss or stone. Just six months after opening, in 2012, Atera was awarded two Michelin stars.

Lightner soaked up the inventiveness and the technique when doing an 18-month stint at Andoni Aduriz’s renowned Mugaritz, in Spain, and an apprenticeship at Noma, that Scandinavian homage to the fresh and foraged. But Lightner was a forager long before his international adventures. In 2001 he graduated from the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, ground zero for Pacific Northwest hunters and gatherers, and cooked with chef Philippe Boulot, an elegant champion of the seasonal, formerly of The Heathman.

After a stint as chef de cuisine at Del Mar, California’s L’Auberge, Lightner returned to Portland as executive chef at Castagna, where he was named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs in America” in 2010, received nominations for Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation in both 2010 and 2011, and was included in Restaurant Hospitality’s list of “10 Chefs to Watch” in 2010.

Now, with the cutting-edge Atera (the name means “to go out” in Basque), Lightner is on a whole new trip: “We want people to have fun, and to discover food,” he says. “We want them to go through a rediscovery process.”