Chefs look restless sitting in their own restaurants. Jason Atherton is no exception, glancing around the dining room at Pollen Street Social and shifting in his seat. “Where’s the receptionist?” he asks a member of his front of house staff. “Can we have someone out here to greet the customers please?” He turns back to me and smiles. “They love it when I sit out here.”
Atherton understands the need to start spending more time out of his kitchen. At the same time he wants everyone to understand how it works, now he’s heading up his own rapidly-expanding restaurant group.
“This is the restaurant where I cook, judge me here as a chef,” he says. “If you have a bad meal here, I’ll take it on the chin; and if you have a great meal here, I’ll take the praise. When I open somewhere new, I’ll put my chef whites on and stand there for the first couple of weeks and see what is coming out of the kitchen, but I’ll never cook there. Anything else I’m involved in beyond here is me as a restaurateur. That’s me trusting people I’m employing and giving them the opportunity to shine.”
Since he left Gordon Ramsay Holdings, where he created and ran the hugely successful Maze, in 2010, Atherton has been in and out of the kitchen. He opened Pollen Street Social, his Michelin-starred flagship in Mayfair the following year, and now has three restaurants in Singapore and one in Hong Kong – and consults on a another in Shanghai.
He spends an average of 10 days every six weeks in Asia. The rest of the time he’s in London, where he’s opening another two restaurants this year. Little Social, a 40-seat bistro and Social Eating House.
Atherton, who at 16 left Skegness in Lincolnshire to train as a chef, thinks that many still find it hard to accept chefs as restaurateurs. “A journalist in Asia said to me recently: ‘You own a lot of restaurants now, you’ve become another one of those chefs.’ I get it, but I came to London with nothing and I’m employing hundreds of people at a time when things are hard. I plough everything back into the business – I’m not taking the money out.”
How does he think London is supporting its current restaurant boom, with new openings up 25% for the last year on record and the number of restaurants closing also down?
“Good food has become the norm in London,” he states. “When I came to London, about 20 years ago at the back end of the recession in the early 1990s, there were a lot of brilliant chefs who went bust and had to close great restaurants, because the market couldn’t support them. Back then dining out was considered a luxury. Today people feel like they have to go out for dinner, it’s a part of who we are and what we do.”
He believes there has been a shift in the style of restaurants. “I want to open restaurants that please me and please my customers. Why open a restaurant just to please a guidebook? I know that’s difficult for some chefs to get their heads around. We’ve got a Michelin star and nine out of 10 in The Good Food Guide here, but you’d never know it by the way the restaurant looks – and I like that.”
Not that Pollen Street Social arrived fully formed. “When I opened here I let my ego get in the way,” he recalls. “I tried to make the menu too fancy and too complicated. I was so nervous because my mortgage was attached to the business. I didn’t know if I should go super-casual or do fine dining. I was trying to be somewhere in the middle and lost my confidence.
“Now, two years in, the restaurant is working well. It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re doing something on your own for the first time. I learnt a lot from that experience.”
He’s also learnt a lot from his time in Asia. “Singapore has been very kind to me, both my business partners are from there and I just love Asia,” he says. “I’m married to an Asian woman [his wife, with whom he has two daughters, is from the Philippines] and I can imagine myself retiring somewhere in Asia one day.”
He would never have opened his Asian restaurants if he didn’t enjoy visiting there. “If you don’t actually want to go there, it will seem like twice the work,” he says. “The food will also be affected, because there’ll be little or no love in it.”
This November he’s taking his wife on a luxury Asian cruise with Silversea. “I have to cook a dinner for 100 people,” he explains. “We sail from Hong Kong to Singapore over five days and we stop off at Vietnam, where we’re doing a tour of the food markets. I’ve never cooked on a ship before.”
Although he now has to be a businessman, his first love remains cooking. He was the first British chef to work at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s legendary restaurant on the Catalan coast, where, before it closed in 2011, young chefs lined up to work for free to experience its crazy culinary creativity. His love for Spanish food is requited by the two tapas bars he operates in Asia.
Back in London, he describes his style of food at Pollen Street Social as “Modern British with an eclectic outlook.” He elaborates: “It’s essentially British, but if I want to use a bit of Iberico ham or some soy sauce, I’ll use it. I think lots of people are now pushing the local ingredient thing too far, like only using sunflower or rapeseed oil, instead of olive oil.
“It’s common sense to use good, local ingredients when possible. Go beyond that and it starts getting slightly silly.”
Although one day he’ll take more of a backseat role in the business, he can’t imagine a time when he’s not still involved in restaurants and cooking.
“I’ll always dabble. I have to have an outlet because I love it,” he says, looking around his dining room again. “I’ll always need to be doing something creative with food and restaurants. That’s who I am.”