Chef Matthew Lightner to open ōkta Hotel and Tributary in McMinnville this summer
FFor years now, Oregon’s wine country has been labeled as poised, eternally “the next Napa.” Why not? The Willamette Valley, a 150-mile-wide swathe of vineyards and agricultural fields, 37 miles south of Portland, produces Grade A wines and products – fiercely artisanal, independent and idiosyncratic. What was missing was a restaurant that defines the region, a place worthy of a pilgrimage to complement a passionate culinary culture with its own vibe.
Be ready. Change is coming to McMinnville, the unofficial capital of the wine region. It’s in tune with the times, as young roasters and jam makers emerge alongside decades-old veterans like Nick’s Italian Cafe. And, in early August, McMinnville will have a authentic high-end cuisine destination: ōkta, a hyper-seasonal 26-seat restaurant at 618 NE 3rd St. At the helm: Matthew Lightner, one of the most innovative chefs in the country.
In 2011, Lightner left Portland and quickly earned two coveted Michelin stars in New York. Two years ago, he quietly returned to Oregon to pursue his longtime dream: a restaurant with its own farm and R&D lab. The farm, seven miles from the restaurant, will eventually produce most of the ōkta’s food. Lightner plans to plan his menus in his fields. There is no cold box truck farm, as he puts it, “just my hands”. Meat and fish will be sourced from like-minded Oregon producers.
Menu details are secret at this time. Lightner, who has always evaded labels, wants to explore a new definition of Oregon cuisine, rethink the modern pantry, dig deeper and see where it leads. “From the moment you walk through the door,” he promises, “the experience will be totally immersive.” It’s clear, as I wrote in 2012: “Lightner is the real deal, a true artist, with transformative insights into nature’s cooking, eyesight that hits you like a stun gun, and possessed technical skills. by only a few dozen chefs in America.”
ōkta is located in the new Tributary Hotel, a companion boutique hotel in a renovated 100-year-old building. Eight suites are designed to recall the guest quarters of a home. A new take on hospitality and a serious focus on Oregon wines are part of the plan, led in part by Lightner’s partners Katie Jackson and Shaun Kajiwara. It is a personal project for the married couple. In their other lives, they are known as leaders of Jackson Family Wines where they champion sustainability and regenerative agriculture, Jackson as Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, and Kajiwara as Vineyard Manager.
Why is this a big problem? Farm to table is practically the law in Portland. Gas stations probably have their own foragers at this point. Beyond that, didn’t Portland reject gastronomy? This may all be true, but to make a point of it: we badly need something we’ve never seen before, a challenge to the status quo.
Yesou may remember Lightner’s time as chef at Castagna from 2009 to 2011. He had arrived in Portland in an old Chrysler, an unknown young prodigy fresh from the kitchen of Mugaritz, a foodie think tank in the Pays Basque. He was an exciting young talent who cooked dishes unique to Portland and received national recognition for his efforts – a spot on Food & Wineof the 2010 Best New Chefs list as well as nominations for James Beard Rising Star Chef.
But the chance to open his own house in New York, on his own terms, appealed to him. In the space of seven months, in the most dissected culinary scene in the world, Lightner has risen to the pantheon of chefs in the Big Apple. His restaurant Atera has been awarded two Michelin stars and a three star review by New York Times Food critic Pete Wells, who noted, “Whether he’s decorating a corsage of edible wildflowers or dying a wand with squid ink to fashion a copy of a clam, Mr. Lightner again opens our eyes to the activity of nature.”
One person keen on McMinnville’s future is Mike Thelin, founder of the famed Feast Portland food festival and a top trend spotter. Expect the Willamette Valley to play a starring role in its September Food Festival. “McMinnville reminds me of neighborhoods in Portland in the early 2000s,” Thelin tells me. “Different types of progressive agriculture are huge in this area right now. There are a lot of great minds there, a lot of people investing here. Don’t let the sleeping town veneer fool you. This is going to get deeply interesting.
The name ōkta is a playful interpretation of the scale used by meteorologists to measure cloud cover. For Lightner, this has a spiritual connotation: the clouds are always moving, changing, transforming, with their own rhythms and seasons. As he explains: “We like to look down to see what the area is revealing to us at any given time. There is inspiration everywhere. But sometimes you have to look up.
Hotel Okta and Tributary, 618 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, Or. Reservations will be available in May, oktaoregon.co, tributaryhotel.com, IG @oktaoregon