Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton, tells Sophia Soltani about the defining moments in his career, choosing cookery classes over physical education in school and how he withstands buckling under the pressure of running 16 restaurants.
Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton can be hailed as somewhat of a gastronomic superstar in the culinary world. Having trained with Ferran Adrià and Gordon Ramsay, he now runs 16 restaurants, including Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House, Berners Tavern and the recently opened Marina Social in the Intercontinental Dubai Marina. Despite his wealth of knowledge and celebrity status, Atherton remains tenderly humble, claiming he never set out to get a Michelin Star and that the status in itself is just an accolade. Crediting much of his success to his dedicated team, he is quick to explain: “It’s not me who washes the dishes, pours the drinks, empties the bins or represents the identity of the restaurants when I am away, that’s my team.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your career history and how you first became a chef?
I knew from an early age that I always wanted to be a chef and it was nothing more than the fact I just loved to be around food. From the age of 16 I decided that I was going to be a chef, so I took a job in a local hotel in my hometown of Skegness and I quickly realised that even though it was supposed to be the premier hotel in that area it was still not the type of food that I wanted to cook.
At 16 I moved to London without telling my mum I was leaving. I slept at a youth hostel in Earl’s Court and got a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Glasshouse, which at that time was run by Anthony Boyd. I started right at the bottom, washing pans, sweeping floors, changing bins, peeling vegetables and I was there for almost three years, working all the way up to become a pastry chef. Boyd was really well connected and after I had proved myself to him a few years later he got me a job at LA Tante Claire for Pierre Koffman, and the rest is history.
What is your earliest memory of cooking and what first enticed you into the kitchen?
My mum and stepfather bought a hotel in Skegness and I used to have to help out during school holidays. It begun with just washing the dishes, then helping to prepare the salads, plate up the prawn cocktail – which was always the Friday night starter at the hotel – and those are my earliest cherished memories. At 13 I was one of only two boys who chose cookery over an extra PE (physical education) lesson, which shocked my school mates as I was always one of the tough ones, we only made simple things like pizza but it gave me a real sense of achievement being able to take something home to show my mum.
You have worked alongside some world renowned chefs, including the likes of Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffman, can you tell us about these experiences and how they shaped your career?
The word ‘celebrity’ means so many different things today, so being called a ‘named chef’ is more my thing. I’d like to think that I am a named chef because my restaurants are successful, that young people want to come and work for me because they believe in my skills and want to learn from those and feel that they can progress their career, not just to become an endorsement chef associated with the name.
What defined and shaped me was the fact that I had worked for top-notch chefs at the peak of their career, including Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, both chefs during my time went on to gain three Michelin Stars, Ferran Adria who was just about to explode onto the culinary scene was classed as the world’s greatest chef of that generation and these elements combined, helped my success. Learning those skill factors from these top boys for when I went off to make it on my own people were always going to be eager to see my creations based on my mentors.
You joined the Gordon Ramsey Group in 2001 where you successfully launched six Maze restaurants worldwide, what was it like to work side by side Ramsey and what did you learn from him?
In 1998, when I had just come back from working unpaid for one season at El Bulli in Spain with Ferran Adrià, Gordon Ramsay asked me to work with him. He was a great mentor for the 10 years I worked for him. He would constantly remind me and say: “Only you can create your destiny, it’s your choice how hard you work and how much you want things.”
I honestly wouldn’t be able to do what I do today without having worked with Ramsey. He is definitely the single biggest influence on my career as far as being a restauranteur and chef go as a complete package. Because he was the first British guy who took British cuisine to a global market with restaurants in New York, LA, Dubai, Miami, Qatar he was just everywhere and he was the first Brit to do that. So to sit back and watch both the successes and failures taught me so much, I learnt from those attributes as I am sure my guys learn from me – the good and the bad. Ramsey taught me to work extremely hard to make sure everything I do, I do methodically and passionately.
After your time with Gordon Ramsey you went on to launch your own restaurant group – The Social Company, what key factors encouraged you to ‘go-it-alone’?
My Gordon Ramsey wage didn’t sit up to par with my wife’s passion for handbags! But on a serious note, I was 38 years old and I went home one evening and started talking to my wife about the future, we discussed opening our own restaurant and I expressed the importance of doing it sooner rather than later, I didn’t want to get to the point where I would eventually run out of energy. You can start to lose your mojo staying in one place too long and I had gotten to that point.
I was extremely lucky to have the love and support of my wife who encouraged me, because it wasn’t an easy move to make, it was a big risk. I had to give up the nice holidays, risk the house, every single penny went on the line for this restaurant, and it was like a game of Snakes and Ladders at the start – you start to climb to the top then that snake catches you and puts you right back to the start. We put our whole life into this restaurant and I am so thankful that my wife supported the decision, because look where we are now.
What have been some of the most challenging moments in your career and how have you overcome these challenges?
When you first launch a new business, in my case the restaurant, your life just changes overnight and I don’t mean you instantly become insanely rich, it changes in the way that everyone wants a piece of you, from the media to chefs and business people – everyone wants a piece of the pie. And it is very difficult because you become the success story, so a really big challenge is when you try and take yourself out of that situation, study it, observe and digest it when there is only one of you to go around.
The pressure can suddenly become immense, and there have been times I’ve looked around me and thought: “Gosh, all I want to do is cook, I never asked for all this pressure” – when really I did, it comes with the territory.
As a highly respected, named chef what factors do you attribute your success to?
Hard work is definitely number one. Mumber two; a loyal supportive family, because without that stability you can’t succeed and perform, plus an extremely understanding wife always helps! And amongst all that I have a really talented team around me as I am only one man. I rely on my team here in Dubai, in London to represent the brands and restaurants whilst I am away in four different countries over four nights cooking four different meals. I am extremely loyal to my team and want them to grow, but it is vital they show me the exact same loyalty and dedication back.
Talking now about Marina Social in Intercontinental Hotel, Dubai Marina, what gives your outlet a competitive edge and how do you plan on making this venture a success?
It is like everything – there is no such thing as a guarantee in life it just doesn’t exist, and what is a success today could be a complete failure six months down the line because you’ve let it slip away. So having a restaurant is like having a moving target you have to constantly keep your eye on the bullseye. I always look at my customers, their feedback, pricing, the menu, what people are saying about the décor so I am continually at it, I never say to myself: “You are open now, you can relax”.
I also think our location here in the Marina is ideal, we are opening up the terrace now because of the cooler climate and you just feel the buzz of Dubai, the city’s energy, which is reflective of what we are serving up here, we are also the only Social as far as my brand is concerned in the Middle East.
Are there any plans for new outlets internationally?
We have no imminent plans for anything else in the Middle East at the moment but we are opening a Japanese restaurant in London in March 2016 called Sosharu. It is a really exciting project for us as it is a real new concept for the brand because we don’t generally cook Japanese food. This came about as I’ve had a young chef training with me for a long time, he showed real passion for Japanese culture and cuisine so I paid for him to go and live in Japan and work for some of my chef friends over there to learn about the scene.
After he came back we cooked a few dinners together and the food was really fabulous, I knew then he was ready to launch into something, so off my wife and I went and bought this restaurant in Clerkenwell, London. The menu will span sashimi, teppanyaki and robatayaki dishes with the interiors all based on an izakaya theme with a secret dining room for 10 people. It’s all very exciting stuff at the moment!
You have restaurants dotted around the globe, how do you ensure that your chefs are all in tune with your requirements and represent the ethos of each individual outlet?
It is important for me to ensure that each chef has a little bit of their own personality on the menu, that the chef has some ownership of the menu as opposed to me just dictating what I think should be on there. They come up with the dishes, for example now I am in Dubai, Tristin who heads up Marina Social has a few new dishes he wants to show me. We’ll eat them, discuss them, look at the textures, flavours, acidity levels and presentation to see if it fits in with our current menu.
Why was it important for you to partner with a hotel as opposed to opening a standalone somewhere like DIFC where star-studded restaurants are popping up left right and centre?
It was important for me to partner with a hotel on the basis that you get all of the mechanics pre-existing such as HR and accounts, whereas when you do a standalone venture so far away from home it is very easy to get it wrong. Here I have the comfort of knowing I have the power of a team of people, collaborating with the hotel that already has a captive audience.
How do you foresee the F&B industry in Dubai growing over the next 12 months?
The Middle Eastern market will continue to grow strong, and the reason I say that is because everyone asks about Dubai’s saturation point, and what will happen now is each hotel will start to have just one or two good restaurants as opposed to 10 different outlets. This is the way forward as opposed to having two full restaurants and eight empty.
What is the latest trend being seen in the industry and why?
Young chefs are starting to embrace a much more naturalistic style of cooking, molecular gastronomy has finally had its day and is now on the chopping block. So each chef is looking inwards. Scandinavian chefs are cooking their food, British chefs are finding ways to be creative with British food, so for me that is really important and I hope this continues to flourish as chefs pay attention to the quality of the produce as opposed to just trying to do something fancy with it.
What is hot on your menu and what do you personally like to indulge in?
My two favorite ingredients when I am feeling rich is sea urchin and caviar – I absolutely adore eating caviar.