Interview: Jason Atherton
Three years ago, Jason Atherton bet the house on Pollen Street Social. Literally: he remortgaged his home to fund it, stumping up 75 per cent of the cash out of his own pocket, money saved from more than two decades cooking everywhere from the world famous elBulli in Catalonia to the fiery environs of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze.
It’s safe to say the gamble paid off. Pollen Street Social, his first UK venture, became one of the city’s destination restaurants, a place to be seen as well as to eat. When the cavernous Berner’s Tavern in the Edition Hotel opened during London Fashion Week last year, guests included Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. A few months later Brad and Angelina booked it for their BAFTA party (“I’d taken my kids away skiing for the weekend,” Atherton says. “I was on a ski lift with my eldest daughter and I was getting pictures on my phone of Brad and Angelina sprawled all over Berner’s Tavern. How my life has changed…”).
A few weeks ago he opened his fifth UK restaurant, City Social, to no less fanfare – this time David Gandy and Benedict Cumberbatch made up the celebrity contingent. It sits on the 24th floor of Tower 42, providing panoramic views across the Square Mile. It’s here that I met him the morning after the launch party, just before service was due to start. Atherton has been described as “unassuming” and “down to earth” – a far cry from the stereotypical motormouth celebrity chef – but there was more than a glimmer of swagger when he bustled in; an hour late, it must be said, but it’s not every day you open a multi-million pound restaurant, even if it sometimes seems that way.
There was no trace of bleary-eyed excess from the night before – “I had a couple of sips of champagne then went onto water, I wanted to celebrate the venue, not trash it” – and he looks rather dashing in a blue and grey check suit and fuchsia tie (the suit is a bespoke creation by Savile Row’s Steven Hitchcock, who also designed City Social’s uniforms). I, on the other hand, was slightly nervous, having been one of the handful of restaurant critics not to fall madly in love with Berner’s Tavern. Chefs aren’t famously forgiving creatures – at least getting punched in the mouth during an interview would make a good story.
But if he’d given my review a second thought he wasn’t letting on: “I can’t control one person’s opinion – one critic might absolutely hate it; they might not like the music or the décor or the food – that’s life, you just have to suck it up and get on with it.”
Thankfully, I’m quite enamoured with his latest venture, which is every bit as restrained as Berner’s Tavern is opulent. He has a sharp eye for detail and it comes across; as we’re sitting at the bar he tells the barman that the napkin holders are too full, and later notices a light fitting somewhere in the distance that’s a bit squint. “I have a touch of OCD,” he confides. I hear that’s common in chefs… “Yeah, totally, this one guy I admire, Thomas Keller, has shoes for the kitchen labeled Monday to Friday so he never wears the same
ones twice in a week.”
Blur bassist turned cheese-maker Alex James reckons chefs are the new rock stars. He likes to tell an anecdote about seeing one drive a golf buggy into a swimming pool. Is that Atherton’s life now, hanging out with models and chucking tellies out of hotel windows?
“No, I don’t feel like a rock star,” he says in an accent that only slightly belies his upbringing in the East Midlands. “I don’t have a roster of celebrity mates who I wheel out any time it suits me. I feel lucky I can hang out with Hollywood stars and count them as friends but I have as many high-flying City mates as I do celebrities – they’re the people who come to the restaurants so they become friends. The people who deliver our vegetables are just as important as Benedict Cumberbatch.
“Having said that, if you said to me ‘pick any era you could be a chef’, I’d say right now. London has never had it so good. When I started cooking 25 years ago, eating out was a luxury, now it’s a necessity. We have the best of everything, this amazingly diverse culture of Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean, Spanish food, you name it. It’s one of the only places in the world where you really have that.”
So how would he describe his own cooking?
“I spend a lot of time over in Spain – Ferran Adria [head chef at elBulli] is a big friend of mine – and I take a lot of influence from there but I don’t cook Spanish food. When I left elBulli, everyone assumed I was going to do elBulli food, but I don’t, I cook Jason Atherton food. My top bit of advice to young chefs is ‘find your own voice’, otherwise you’ll never find your way.”
So if he cooks Jason Atherton food in Jason Atherton restaurants, why do none of his 12 venues (including ventures in Singapore and Hong Kong) bear his name?
“A lot of the chefs in the 80s and 90s were obsessed with having their name over the door. But how can 10 restaurants run around one person? They can’t. People call me a celebrity chef but I don’t get hung up on labels. All I am is a guy who has a vision. Someone came up to me in Hong Kong once and said: ‘You’re Jason Atherton, right? Have you been to 22 Ships, its the hottest restaurant in Hong Kong.’ He had no idea I owned it, and to me that is so cool. It’s really important to me that Jason Atherton is an almost mysterious figure who just happens to own the company.”
So who is Jason Atherton? He was born in Sheffield from proper northern mining stock and raised in a caravan in Skegness after his parents split. As a kid he worked the donkeys on Skegness beach before running away from home aged 16, when his mum was on holiday, to get a job in a kitchen. From there he worked his way through some of the most respected kitchens in the country, including stints with Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis. He’s married with two young children; his wife Irha is a co-director in the family business. He’s also an ardent Tory. His dream dinner party guest, he says, would have been Margaret Thatcher.
“It’s a bit controversial because a lot of my family are miners, but I’m a Conservative and I think she’s a legend. She made Britain entrepreneurial. The way she stuck to her guns and turned us around that time was incredible.”
The enthusiasm also extends to the current government, for whom he was recently appointed food and drink ambassador: “I think the coalition has really worked. I’m a big David Cameron supporter. He’s the man for the future and he should be given another couple of terms. You can already see what he’s done for London, even though it’s been tough.”
Given the tough times, was he ever worried he’d made the wrong decision betting the family silver on Pollen Street?
“It was a gamble – at the time my kids were in a nice private school, I’d managed to get together some money. Then we re-mortgaged the house and if it failed it would have been back to square one, a game of snakes and ladders where you hit the last snake and end up right back at the start – it’s frightening. But you’ve gotta just go for it, believe in yourself. By that stage, I’d already been cooking for 24 years – I can shake a pan or two.”
It seems rather appropriate that Atherton now owns a restaurant in the Thatcherite heartland of the City. Was that always the plan?
“We had our eye on the City for a while but didn’t go actively looking. We were approached to take over an old bank but nothing felt quite right – the old bank thing has been done a million times. So we waited. Then, out of nowhere, Gary Rhodes retired to Dubai and Restaurant Associates [who own the space] said ‘what do you think about this?’ It was only half the size it is now but I said ‘If we’re going to do it, I want to make it as spectacular as Berner’s Tavern’, so we took the lease on the whole space and City Social was born. What better place to launch in the City than at the top of an iconic building?” Next up will be a restaurant in the New York Edition Hotel, opposite Madison Square Gardens, his first venture in North America, which is sure to be every bit as extravagant as Berner’s Tavern. Just how much bigger will the Atherton empire grow?
“I wouldn’t call it an empire. Empires are grown by people sitting in corporate offices saying ‘this is the region we’re going to attack next and this is how we’re going to do it’. There’s a plan in place for how they’re going to take over South America or wherever. We don’t do that. All I do is go to work and cook really good food. If it’s a chip, is it the best chip? If the answer is no, then that’s not good enough. If people notice and want me to start a new restaurant somewhere, then we take a look.” Mission accomplished: I doubt there’s anyone in the foodie world who hasn’t noticed Jason Atherton. And, for the record, his chips are pretty good.
First published in City A.M.