Even if you’ve never eaten in a restaurant by Jason Atherton, you’ve eaten in a restaurant influenced by Jason Atherton. In the five years since the Michelin-starred London chef opened Pollen Street Social, Jason has helped stir something of a revolution in the great culinary cities of the world. The restaurant made its mark swapping stuffy degustation menus for dangerously inventive dishes designed for real people rather than gastronomes and food critics. So if you enjoy fine dining that feels like a dinner party, one with exquisite food and service alongside a telltale buzz and a convivial atmosphere, you can probably thank Jason.
“Customers no longer want to be told by a chef that, ‘We’re only doing an eight-course menu, like it or lump it,’” laughs Jason, who has since established 16 restaurants worldwide including Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Street Social, Manhattan’s The Clocktower, Dubai’s Marina Social and his first-ever Australian venture, Kensington Street Social, in Sydney’s fast-evolving Chippendale precinct, which opened earlier this year. “These days, people want to dip in and dip out of experiences and that’s just the way the world’s gone, you know? At high-end restaurants, people often say, ‘That’s not a done thing, you’ve got to have three courses with wine to match,’ but that’s not what we’re about. I think it alienates your customers. We use the word ‘social’ because we want people to come in, have a beer, enjoy a starter and a glass of wine or tasting menu if they want to. Of course, we cook great food and are interested in making everything as amazing as possible. But whether a customer visits for 10 minutes, two hours or four hours, we give the same focus to each individual encounter.”
Jason, who has that distinctly British way of avoiding the sentimental in favour of a no-nonsense pragmatism, clearly goes a million miles a minute – yet there isn’t a hint of the arrogance you’d associate with that strange modern invention: the celebrity chef. Perhaps, that’s because Jason, who was born in Sheffield, UK, and grew up in the seaside town of Skegness, is unmoved by grandiose visions.
Moving to Skegness after his parents divorced, he and his mother lived in a caravan for three years before she remarried and began running a hotel (where Jason was again relegated to a caravan in the backyard in the summer so his room could be rented out). He found himself helping out in the hotel kitchen and also enjoyed home economics, so once he finished school took a stint with the Army Catering Corps. Jason hated it, however, and returned home where he took a kitchen job in a local hotel before moving to London at just 17 to pursue his obsession with cooking.
“I’ve only ever wanted to be a chef,” says Jason. In London, he lived in a youth hostel and his first job involved sweeping floors and changing the bins. But before long he was working under Ferran Adria at Catalonia’s El Bulli, (then one of the culinary world’s epicentres).He went on to work for Gordon Ramsay at Maze and continued working under the chef for nearly a decade. Gordon gave Jason the chance to run the kitchen at Maze, the fabled Kensington eatery that hooked Londoners on small plates, sealing the fate of its head chef in the process.
“When I was working for Gordon, I really started seeing my career take off,” says Jason, who went on to open five international branches of Maze before parting ways with Gordon in 2011. “I thought I was probably on the road to something special when I was at Maze. One thing I learned from Gordon was the importance of determination. Whatever else you might hear about him, a lot of brought on by his own behaviour, he was so determined in any circumstance to be successful and he never took his eye off the prize. And I really admired that in his spirit. He was very determined to be the best chef he could possibly be and a lot of other things on top of it. I thought, ‘well, I’ve always wanted to be a chef so if I can just focus all my energies on being a great chef then it’s got to pay dividends, right?’”
And focus he did, remortgaging his home for £500,000 and securing further investment from a friend that allowed him to form his own restaurant group, The Social Company in 2011.
For Jason, who uses handmade Japanese knives that retail for £1000 a piece, being a great chef means working obsessively, zealously hunting down local ingredients and turning out dishes that somehow speak to both the culinary zeitgeist and local tastes. At Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Street Social, you can graze on smoked eel with foie gras and Hokkaido scallops while basking on the outdoor terrace. The Clocktower, a 90-seat eatery on the second floor of Manhattan’s iconic Metropolitan Life Tower, serves up Long Island duck with sauce l’orange alongside a 250-strong wine list. Meanwhile at Sydney’s Kensington Street Social, you can snack on crispy skinned mulloway with pippies and potato dashi, sip a ‘Vegemiteini’ cocktail or try the ‘English breakfast tea and toast’ (that’s wild mushroom tea alongside toast topped with relish and bone marrow – an Atherton signature; a dish that somehow winks at classic British culinary rituals while turning their conventions inside out).
“You have to research local ingredients,” says Jason. “When I came out to Australia, I made sure I spoke to chefs like Peter Gilmore and friends who were working here for most of their careers, so even though I’ve never competed in that arena, I can get a sense of what people eat and why restaurants there are successful. In New York, they like their food a little bit more acidic and their puddings a little sweeter than we do in the UK. It’s important to just embrace what’s going on in that city. There are so many chefs in London who fail because they bring menus from their hometowns and people don’t like it. Pollen Street Social is now an internationally renowned restaurant but I’ve always said that you have to make it a neighbourhood restaurant first, because if the neighbourhood doesn’t support it, it’s a long time before you’re in profit.
“The great thing about a restaurant that can pay its bills is that you have money in the bank to buy new plateware or new uniforms and you can constantly refresh it and put it back into your business. I’ve never taken any money out of Pollen Street, I always put it back into business and it’s a way better restaurant than it was before. If I didn’t make a single penny out of it, that would never happen. You’ve got to think about it as a business first and foremost and then you can mould it into whatever you want it to be.”
In 2014, The Social Company had a turnover of £70 million and has since added numerous restaurants to its stable. Staying in touch with all his restaurants each day via Skype, texts and emails, Jason also holds weekly conference calls and, along with his wife who is a company co-director, personally receives all customer complaints. Still cooking at his flagship eatery, Pollen Street Social (which scored a Michelin star within six months of opening), Jason tells me that global acclaim counts for a lot less than putting in the hours and staying the course.
“Pollen Street Social was a struggle to start with and even though it was a successful restaurant, you’ve still got to fight for your customers, deal with the pressure of the media saying that you’re the hottest thing in London,” recalls Jason, who doesn’t open his venues on a Sunday to allow his teams rest.
In the next year or so, Jason will open an Italian restaurant in London in addition to The Pig and Palm, a sleek 70-seater in his wife’s hometown of Cebu City, Philippines.
“People expected me to cook El Bulli food, but that was never my style – so I just created the kind of food I liked. Of course, everyone likes an accolade but the minute you try to chase your next Michelin Star, it’s very dangerous because you’re aiming for something you may or may not get. My business brain always tells me to cook food people want to eat and to just cook for your customers. Ultimately, that’s what you open a restaurant for.”