“I don’t get above my station or think I’m anything special. I still see myself as that little chef who arrived from Skegness all those years ago.”
Had the 16-year-old Jason Atherton known of his culinary fate when he arrived in London in 1987, he ought to have felt pretty smug. For since leaving Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2010, he has opened four successful restaurants in the capital—each one with its own identity. What’s more, he has an envious international portfolio, with restaurants in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, not to mention the numerous awards he’s been honoured with, including two Michelin stars, 78th Best Restaurant in the World and, most recently, named one of GQ’s Men of the Year 2013.
Yet, despite his achievements in recent years, Jason is remarkably unassuming and laidback with a happy-go-lucky disposition. “The thing for me is I don’t really plan anything.” Jason explains, while sipping on a coffee in the bar of Pollen Street Social. “I know that sounds silly and probably not very organised, but when an opportunity or new project comes along, and with my restaurateur’s hat on, I firstly look inward to the team and ask, ‘Are we capable of doing it?’ Then I ask, ‘Do we want to do a new project?’ Because it’s not just me doing it on my own, the team will be involved, so they also have to want to do it. I then look at whether or not we have a chef and manager who want to become a partner in a new project. There are lots of questions we ask ourselves. If the answers are a resounding ‘yes’ then we do it. It’s as simple as that.”
Jason’s simplistic yet methodical approach to business has got him far. This year in particular has been a big one for ‘Team Atherton’. With Pollen Street Social open for almost three years, this year saw Jason embark on an expansion programme, which saw Social Eating House open in Soho, Little Social open across the road from Pollen Street Social and the launch of Berners Tavern at The London EDITION, also in Soho. “We had Social Eating House on the cards for a long time and then all of a sudden, the premises where Little Social is became available, across the road, and we were approached with a sensible price—so we took it.” Jason adds, with more than a hint of irony: “I didn’t want people muscling in on our street—this [Pollen Street] is our street now!”
Little Social, in contrast to Pollen Street Social, is not a fine-dining restaurant. With a dimly lit dark mahogany interior, a long bar and a wall lined with deep red-coloured banquettes, Little Social is the bistro arm of Atherton’s empire, offering heartier dishes such as the pork chop and the braised lamb shank. “Anne Sophie-Pic or Guy Savoy—they’ve all got these little sister bistro restaurants across the road or around the corner from their mainstay. I thought, we’ve got our Michelin star restaurant, Little Social can be our sister bistro restaurant.”
The most recent of Jason’s London launches took place in September, at The London EDITION, offering an all day menu in one of the grandest, most glamorous, dining rooms in London. “Not to talk about myself as the third person, but, if Jason Atherton was to open up a Wolseley style restaurant, this would be it. It’s an all day dining concept—one menu serving good British food. It has style and panache,” says Jason.
The menu at Berners Tavern features dishes such as the grass fed steaks cooked on a charcoal grill and Blythburgh pork belly. Within the restaurant itself, every decadent detail has been considered and no expense spared—with two large custom made bronze chandeliers, inspired by Grand Central Station, hanging from the 18-foot ceiling, dominating the height. While the taupe coloured walls are covered with a series of portraits, landscape and still life artwork. When the restaurant and hotel opened, cleverly coinciding with London Fashion Week, it was host to some of the biggest and most glamorous parties in town.
While Berners Tavern is part of The London EDITION—owned and operated by Marriott International in collaboration with Ian Schrager—Jason maintains control over the restaurant. “The design, the kitchen, the produce—this is our first hotel deal and it’s important that we have control over everything.” He explains: “When you go to bed with someone like Marriott and Ian Schrager you don’t want to be shackled by them telling you who you have to buy your produce from and how much you can spend.
“I don’t need the money. I do this for the challenge, not for the money. If I was in it for the money, I’d probably do another business. I want the challenge of being a part of a restaurant like Berners Tavern, which is a monster, seating 156 guests, compared to Pollen Street, which seats 60.”
Jason grows his team at each restaurant from within—promoting staff to senior positions, such as Phil Carmichael, who is now head chef at Berners Tavern.
“Phil has cooked with me for over ten years. I do service here [Pollen Street Social] everyday I’m in London and I pop into all my other restaurants when I’m here.”
It’s not just his London restaurants that Jason has to divide his time between. He also has three restaurants in Singapore (Pollen, Esquina and Snacks), one in Hong Kong with a second opening in December (22 Ships) and two in Shanghai (The Commune Social and Table No.1). “Tomorrow, for example, I’ll get on a plane and go to Hong Kong for a few days, then over to Shanghai and Singapore. I do that trip four times a year then when I get back, I’m straight back into the restaurants here.
“A modern day chef is a multitasking role. It also depends on the individual and what their capacity for progression is. Some chefs are happy running their own restaurant and then going home at night with none of the worries of the business. I completely respect that and those chefs, because that’s a tough job.”
Jason was working under Gordon Ramsay, his employer for nine years, when in 2010 he decided to leave the realms of employment and open his own restaurant. Not before he’d opened restaurants for Ramsay in London, Prague, Cape Town, Melbourne and Qatar.
“I was very happy working for Gordon,” Jason says. “I loved working for him and the company was very exciting, but then it got to a point where it was time for me to give it a go—have complete control of my own company.
“And in spite of what’s been written about Gordon Ramsay Holdings in the past, I don’t have a bad word to say about him. If it wasn’t for Gordon, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Three years after leaving Ramsay to launch Pollen Street Social, his first solo restaurant, business is doing well for Jason. What makes Pollen Street Social so special is not just the good food, but also its lack of conventionalism. As a guest, you’re not expected to partake in a mammoth tasting menu if you don’t want to. At Little Social and Social Eating House the formalities of fine dining have been stripped back further, still, with exposed tables and a more relaxed feel. Pollen Street Social promotes this style of ‘deformalised fine dining’, too, so I ask Jason if it was a conscious decision when he first opened to create a more relaxed environment for his guests to feast in? “Look, I’m a simple northern boy,” he says, before proceeding to tell me about his recent trip to Monte Carlo. “I went to Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV for dinner last weekend. It was the most opulent dining room you could ever imagine. It was just beautiful. In the UK, we’re generally not used to that level of grandeur and I wanted to create a dining room where the food is fabulous and the décor is elegant, but simple, where people can just come in for a starter and a glass of wine, if that’s what they want.” He explains: “If you go to a Michelin star restaurant in France and ask for just a starter, the waiter will look at you as though you’re mad. I saw a niche in the market and at the time had my business hat on. You don’t have to sit down and spend three hours digesting a tasting menu. There are no rules.”
Jason tells me about the simple steak dish that has been on Pollen Street Social’s menu since the beginning. Served with duck fat chips and a Béarnaise sauce, he says: “We’re in the top 100 restaurants in the world, we’ve got four AA rosettes, we’re in the Good Food Guide—and it might just be steak and chips, but it’s the best steak and chips in the country—the steak, from the Buccleuch Estate, aged for 65 days, with the best cooked chips.”
Jason might be constantly on the go, but he’s at the top of his game right now. “I never stand still. This place [Pollen Street Social] might only be two and a half years old but we’re giving it a small refurbishment. Then Berners Tavern opens and once that’s open and we’re happy with everything there, we’ll be heading out to Hong Kong where I’m opening a new jamón and secret cocktail bar in December.”
When a man like Jason handles his business with style, suavity and modesty in tact, it’s destined for success. “I don’t get above my station or think I’m anything special. I still see myself as that little chef who arrived from Skegness all those years ago.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEAN CAZALS