Jason Atherton has worked for some of the biggest names in Britain's booming food scene: Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, among others. He also learned a few tricks from Spain's legendary Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli perennially lands on lists of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Most recently, he has been the man-behind-the-man at Ramsay's Maze, which he opened in London, Melbourne and other locations. The London location earned Atherton a Michelin star and many other accolades, including third-highest score for the country in the 2009 Good Food Guide. But this year he decided it was time to leave his well-feathered nest. Soon he will be opening Pollen Street Social in London's tony Mayfair neighborhood. During a recent visit to London, we asked the 39-year-old about how his experiences have influenced his career and the design of his dream restaurant.
RH: You left home when you were 16 and came to London. How does a 16-year-old runaway survive in the mean streets?
Atherton: I was very lucky to have heard about a youth hostel called the PM Club. It was a hostel for young chefs and waiters, which now doesn't exist. It was government funded. I think it was 25 pounds a week in those days — for that you got a bed, a very small breakfast, a room that was shared between three to five people and communal showers. Some of Britain's best chefs today have gone through the PM Club.
I bought the Good Food Guide (it's like Zagat) and applied with all the restaurants in the middle. I wanted to work somewhere advanced, but not too advanced, so I didn't get lost. The only one who responded was Boyd Gilmour. I was the lowest hand in the kitchen, but because even at 16 I was very driven to be the best, I rose through the ranks quickly, then decided to move on and got a job with Pierre Koffman at the now-defunct La Tante Claire. He is still a great friend of mine, and he follows my career. He was a big inspiration in flavors. His whole ethos was if it doesn't taste good, there's no point in it being on a plate. It doesn't matter if it looks good. Lots of chefs can make things look good. It's something I still follow to this day.
At 24-25, I ended up running two restaurants, Air and Mash (fine dining and microbrewery) in Manchester. I was in charge of some 50 chefs. I'd gone through a lot of sweary, hothouse kitchens where tempers flew, and military rule was the everyday norm. So I went up to Manchester with the London attitude that by screaming and shouting I could get things done. And that's just not the case at all. When you are trying to command 50 people, you need serious management skills, and I didn't have those. I had the skill factor in my own hands, but passing that down in a mature, responsible manner is a thing you have to learn.
RH: So you picked up those leadership skills?
Atherton: Yes: how to talk to people properly, how to keep a well-oiled machine running, how to motivate people, how to train people properly, how to balance P&L sheets. These were all things that were alien to me. All I was interested in is how perfectly the vegetables were cooked, or why, when the guest asked for meat cooked medium did you cook it medium rare — all these things that would drive me insane. You've really got to take an overview of the whole business. So after a year and a half of that I proved that I could run a kitchen, and won some serious accolades for a young chef. I decided that I wanted to learn. I couldn't take it anymore — the pressure was too much. So I packed my bags, rented my flat out and off I went to Spain.
RH: You targeted El Bulli. How did you get your foot in the door?
Atherton: I sent a lot of letters to Chef Ferran Adria, but he didn't answer any of them, so I had them translated into Catalan, and sent those — still no answer. I knew then that Spain was going to be the new big thing, a lot of noise was coming out of there. So I thought you know what? I've got a few quid in the bank, let's just backpack our way to Spain, let's learn a little more about food, let's have a little bit of fun, and if he will give me a job, fantastic, I'll stay for the season. I showed up there and said, “Look, I will literally do anything. I've written letters, here's my CV, I've worked for three-star chefs, I'm more than capable of doing any job you give me. I'll wash the pots, I'll fetch vegs from the market, whatever you want — I'll do it.” And they said, “okay, stay for a week, see how you get on.” They gave me a box of langoustines to prep; they were prepped in 10 minutes, when it was taking other staff an hour and a half. So even though I didn't speak the language, they were more than happy to have me in the kitchen, and it wasn't too long before I was on the sections doing the actual service.
RH: What did your time at El Bulli teach you?
Atherton: I learned that restaurants had changed. I was used to restaurants being starter, main course, dessert; massive wine books full of French wine; waiters dressed as penguins. This is what I was brought up to believe was the modern restaurant in Britain. I also watched Ferran run his dining room and kitchen; it was just a breath of fresh air. So I realized I wanted to open a restaurant that completely belongs to me in every aspect. Ferran taught me to question every guest detail, every point from when you enter the restaurant. What's your first interaction with the receptionist? Why does it have to be, hello sir do you have a reservation? Can I take your coat, here's your ticket? That happens everywhere in the world. How can we make that interaction more memorable? Something as simple as that Ferran teaches you to question.
RH: Then you came back home to work with Gordon Ramsay. What was that like?
Atherton: People have to remember that Gordon's changed a lot over the years. Gordon's now a TV chef. He's completely changed. When he was in the kitchen, when I joined him 10 years ago, his food was absolutely phenomenal. He was the biggest talent the UK had seen for probably quite a while. The precision of his food and the depth of flavor were phenomenal — hence, why I wanted to work for him. I had 10 good years working with Gordon Ramsay. But I didn't want to be a chef who's always cooked in the shadows, I wanted to be a chef who's stood on his own two feet and said this is my restaurant, this is what I stand for. That's the whole reason I worked for all these three-star chefs. They were tough kitchens to work in, but I loved every minute.
Probably the greatest lesson I learned from Gordon is to be generous. Gordon is a very generous guy. In his restaurants, the portions are very generous, his hospitality is very generous. He's always said you've got to give the guest everything. Whatever they want, you've got to give it to them.
RH: What do you have planned for Pollen Street Social?
Atherton: Every chef does this: you have your little sketch pads where you write recipes and ideas, and you sketch out your perfect restaurant. Mine will be about 6,500 square feet. It's got a nice bar area, because I think it's important for people to feel comfortable when they walk into a restaurant. I hate being ushered straight to a table. Because for me, especially when you're in a busy city like New York or London, they want to sit you down straight away and rush you around. You've got an hour and a half, then we have the next seating. So the bar area is really important to me, because I want people to come have a drink beforehand, and I want people to be able to sit back and have coffee and chill out and relax. So we'll have a nice 40-cover bar, chef tables, 50 seats in the main dining area and a couple of private dining rooms. The menu is fine dining, but it's not three-star French. Not stuffy. It's modern British food.
RH: Define modern British food.
Atherton: There are a number of Michelin-starred chefs who are creating our own cuisine. We are using British ingredients, presenting them in a very modern, avant-garde way. For instance, a signature dish I've been working on is 10-hour cooked Tamworth suckling pig with Somerset goat's curd soup and parsnip and wild chickweed salad. This would be a late autumn /early winter dish. It's served with an apple vinegar sauce. Really it's a Sunday pork roast, but it could be on a menu in Paris or New York.
RH: What do you think of the state of British cuisine? London is now a restaurant destination, but are Brits eating better?
Atherton: Absolutely. I cohost a program called Great British Menu. It's done so much in the last five years. Fifteen of the hottest young chefs in the country are chosen, and they all cook their own style of cuisine to represent their regions. They go off to the countryside to choose their beef, speak to farmers, all that type of stuff. Then they go back to the studio environment and cook against their peers. It's forged a unity; I have friends all over the country whom I didn't have before this program.
The launch of the gastropub happened here about 20 years ago. Two young chefs bought a run-down pub and decided to leave it as it was. They just cleaned it up because they had no money, and started serving good, simple British cooking, but served it a little differently, with a little world influence. And still today the place has a waitlist. Today people just don't go to the pub any more. So rather than go to waste, they're sold off cheaply, and young chefs have an opportunity to be able to expand on their own without having to spend $2 million on a restaurant in central London.
RH: Is this a good time to be opening in London?
Atherton: There are two sides to the coin. Yes, it's a good time because I got my site in central London at a good price. I've been able to negotiate very hard on the rent and the lease. Designers are falling all over themselves to work with me because they want to keep their businesses going and look buoyant themselves. Suppliers are also very keen to work with me because of my reputation. So in that sense, it's good. In the other sense, we are in a recession, and we've had a change of government. We've just got to hope that the government goes back to supporting entrepreneurship.
We're not going into the market to take on Gordon Ramsay or all the top chefs in the country. We'll start off quietly. We've got a nice, elegant menu, we won't be too expensive and we've got a very competitive wine list. Plus, there's no formula like good old hospitality. We just want people to come in and have a good time and not be charged too much for it. I think if you do that you give yourself a fighting chance to survive in a recession.
RH: Are you experimenting with any new ingredients or techniques?
Atherton: We've been working quite a lot with raw food and with putting vegetables in our desserts. So one new dessert has beetroot and yogurt. We freeze the yogurt, then blend it so it's like a powder. Then we candy purple and yellow beetroot disks and arrange them in the bottom of a bowl so they look like a flower, then fill the midde with beetroot sorbet and basil-flavored meringue and serve it with the “snow” yogurt powder on the outside.
My new restaurant will have a research center — that's something else I learned from Ferran Adria. I don't want to call it research, because that sounds like a lab. In reality it's a nice, big office, with a bank of computers down one side, a library at the end and a beautiful area with a high- end home kitchen. My senior chefs and I will have peace and quiet downstairs and can practice new dishes and technique without having the hustle-bustle of getting ready for lunch and dinner. It will be a studio where we can shoot photos for cookbooks and have proper P&L meetings, where the senior team will sit and have lunch and dinner together around the table. I'll be in a familiar environment, so I won't have to leave the restaurant.
RH: Be careful what you wish for.