A chat with Jason Atherton: his career, his restaurants & his Hong Kong opening

Chef, Jason Atherton, branched out on his own two years ago after having worked for Gordon Ramsay for 11 years, many of those as executive chef at Maze in London. The gamble to be his own boss paid off and he now has thriving restaurants in London, Shanghai, Singapore, and from October, Hong Kong.

I sat down with the affable and seemingly humble Atherton for a chat about his career, his new opening, and what’s next.

The slide show at the end features images of Jason, and dishes from his London and Singapore restaurants.

Describe your cuisine style.

I have been cooking for over 25 years. My training and background is haute cuisine, Michelin-star cuisine… it is something I can’t shake. From it I got discipline and technique… you don’t cut corners for example. I also don’t believe in sloppy presentation, even the most humble of dishes shouldn’t be presented in a sloppy way.

My food is very much European, because of my background. I play with Asian ingredients if they are at hand but my food is not fusion.

How are your restaurants in Shanghai and Singapore doing?

The bistro in Shanghai is well established now. Esquina, a tapas restaurant in Singapore is small and so is something I am doing for the love of it not for money. The staff and the guests have so much fun there, it has become a runaway success.

Pollen recently opened in Singapore. It is more fine dining although I don’t do mega fine dining, not even in London, even though Pollen Street Social in London is put in the same category as those that do. I like people to feel comfortable when they dine, I want to take out the seriousness of fine dining without taking away from the food. I like to call it de-formalising fine dining and that is exactly what we are doing in Singapore at Pollen. It is also about providing it at a price that makes the restaurant not just a special occasion restaurant.

Tell me more about your distinction between being a chef and a restaurateur.

I say to critics and the media if you want to judge me as a chef then eat at Pollen in London. I am there 60 per cent of the time and when I am there I cook, I physically cook there.

Concerning the other restaurants I am taking the role of restaurateur, they run under my direction, and if you want to judge me on these restaurants judge me on that, as a restaurateur not as a chef.

The way Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges (Vongerichten) run their restaurants is an inspiration for me, particularly Thomas, whom I am very close to… the way he manages the restaurants and his people gives me inspiration for mine. These are restaurants that have the right people in place, with the support they need, and the backing of an internationally known chef. Like Keller I want to give growth to my team and be involved in the business as long as I can. I want the people who do all the hard work to benefit too, not just me.

With an ever growing number of restaurants in London and Asia, cookbooks, TV, endorsements and more, are you intentionally building a culinary empire, much like Ramsay?

I am no Gordon Ramsay. My company is run very differently. My office is in my kitchen in Pollen in London, I don’t sit at some massive desk stroking a white cat like (the chef equivalent of) Dr Evil. That’s not me. I consider myself to be humble, I am a cook and the growth is organic. Wherever the wind blows I go if it is right. I get many, many offers, the majority of which I turn down. I recently had an offer to be a brand ambassador and they offered me mega  bucks but just before I was going to sign on the dotted line I pulled out, it wasn’t for me. I came into this world with no money and I will leave it with no money, hopefully having had a good time in-between. I would like to get to a point in my career when I am mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Jean-Georges and Thomas but there is no grand plan.

Sometimes I pinch myself to see if all this (success) is real.

Tell me more about your Hong Kong opening.

22 Ships will be a casual tapas bar in Ship Street, Wanchai, seating 35 and will open in mid-October. I wasn’t interested in doing a Michelin-starred joint, that takes so much hard work and also I am not wanting to do fine dining around the world that’s a different ballgame altogether.

The goal is that it will be a place where diner’s will say, “I have had a great night, or I had a great dining experience”.

Not everyone will like it, for some the stools will be too high or the music too loud, but that is okay, it will find its own market but I will do everything I can to ensure that it is a place for one of the best meals in Hong Kong and one that will be value for money. That is important to me and is a practice at all my restaurants. I believe that value-for-money is something people respect and combined with great food equals a restaurant’s longevity. I want it to be a fun place to hang out.

Tell me about the menu.

The menu will be slightly different to the menu we serve in Singapore.

And, even though it is tapas we take the food seriously, for example if a dish includes a poached egg, it won’t be just an ordinary poached egg, it will have been cooked at low temperature. This also extends to ingredients, as we will only use premium ingredients, for example, the pork and chorizo burger uses Iberico pork.

In addition to a la carte we will also be doing a tasting menu. We will also serve an international selection of wines and Spanish sherry.

Besides the Iberico burger other signature dishes are scallop ceviche with radish salsa, and nitrogenised peanut butter ice cream.

With an increasing number of restaurants in Hong Kong serving tapas how will you standout?

I am not here to do battle with other restaurateurs so I am not going to say it has better this or better that. I am here to provide the best: service, food, price. Diners will have to come and see for themselves and judge it for themselves. I will let the food do the talking.

What’s next?

I will be opening another restaurant in Shanghai, it was originally meant to open this year but due to business reasons it has been postponed until early 2013.

I am also opening another restaurant in London in 2013, currently its working name is Social Eating House. The current head chef of Pollen in London is moving across to head up the kitchen. It will be a more modern style of bistro, with a bar that will operate as a standalone bar. And the chef’s table in the kitchen will seat 10, which we are calling the Supper Social Club.

Jason’s Favourite Things:

Favourite kitchen equipment – Thermomix, I have five at Pollen in London. I like to blend things.

Favourite comfort food – A bowl of cornflakes. I have a bowl of cornflakes every night when I get home after service.

Favourite cuisine to cook at home – I always cook Asian food at home. I like all the Asian cuisines and cook them all. My current obsession at the moment is Japanese. I went there in March. I love the discipline, the use of seasonal products that are the very best, and the constant strive for perfection. I think that perfection is an ideal, there is no such thing as perfection, but I believe if you chase perfection you are on to a good thing. I might open an Asian restaurant one day.

Favourite Hong Kong food experience – I believe you can’t go to a country and not try its local cuisine. I love the dim sum in Hong Kong, all the dumplings and buns are excellent. Something I particularly enjoyed was Xiaolongbao, you have to master eating those carefully. I also enjoyed the experience of eating street food. 

What would I always find in your fridge at home? 

Not much. Milk, marmalade, butter and vegetables.

If you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Japanese. It is clean tasting and most of it is good for you.

Talk me through a typical day when in London.

I get up around 6am and hit the gym for a couple of hours followed by breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and coffee. I then head to the restaurant and focus on dish development and supervising the prep for lunch. Lunch service takes me through till around 2pm. From 3-5pm I take care of the business side and have meetings. 6pm is the start of dinner service, which lasts until around 11pm. I have a debrief with the team and get home around midnight. I then have a run for around 40 minutes and then a bowl of cornflakes before getting to bed around 1am for a few hours sleep before it starts again. The traveling for business is nice as it breaks up the routine a bit.

Extras

Take a look at Jason’s website for more and click on this link for a video of a typical day.

A first-person interview with Jason will appear in SCMP’s Post Magazine on 16 September, with more comments on the Hong Kong opening, his thoughts on working for Gordon Ramsay and the purchase that changed his life. To read the interview click this link: My Life: Jason Atherton.

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