Matt Lightner

Born: Norfolk, Nebraska; 1980.

Culinary school: Western Culinary Institute; Portland, Oregon.

Experience: The Heathman Restaurant & Bar, Portland, Oregon; L'Auberge Del Mar, Del Mar, California; Mugaritz, Errenteria, Spain; Noma, Copenhagen.

How he got to Mugaritz: "I wanted to go to Spain, and I applied and applied to restaurants there. I must have applied to El Bulli 18 times. But I did get a phone call from Andoni Luis Aduriz [Mugaritz's chef/owner] himself. My Spanish is really bad, but I could understand that he said, 'I have a program: You take a month of Spanish, you travel all around Spain eating at restaurants, then you cook here for a year.'"

Scary career moment: "When I came back to the U.S. from Noma in 2009, there was so much gloom and doom about fine dining, and everyone was going to food carts. I was like, 'Should I go back to Europe?'"

Ingredient obsession: Onions. "There are so many things we can do with them: Do we roast them, then juice them; do we caramelize them with smoked marrow? Do we poach them? Do we pickle them? The options are endless."

Favorite guilty pleasure: Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies.

Favorite cookbook: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.

Whose menus he checks out: Paul Liebrandt at Corton in NYC; Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen ("I wish he'd start a blog,"); Daniel Patterson at Coi in San Francisco.