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Table Talk: Jason Atherton and his golden touch

In the first of a new series, tabloid! chews the fat with celebrities about food, eating out and their paths to gastronomic success

  • Jason AthertonImage Credit: A.K Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Jason AthertonImage Credit: A.K Kallouche/Gulf News
  • Image Credit: Supplied
Tabloid

Sorry, New Dubai residents, one of your favourite haunts is changing. Less than two years after the launch of Marina Social, Jason Atherton already wants to kick things up a notch at the bustling restaurant and lounge.

“We want to update the restaurant to make it a little bit sexier,” he tells Gulf News tabloid! on a surprisingly cool afternoon at the InterContinental Dubai Marina eatery. “We’re going to put a new pub-type concept into the Marina Social Bar. It’s the social company’s version of a British pub, and no it won’t be a gastropub,” he teases. “It’s more like a speakeasy.” No prizes for guessing it’ll be along the lines of the Blind Pig, the top-floor hideaway at his Soho restaurant, Social Eating House. “There’s a lot of British expats living in the Marina right now and they want a taste of home but they like it in a modern new way that’s exciting. So we’ll work on that.”

The new concept, being created with designer Dale Atkinson, should be operational by the end of the summer, and will feature old-fashioned pub games and medieval-inspired cocktails, including one to be drunk out of a horn. “The idea is to take a very retro concept and make it modern,” he explains over coffee, occasionally shutting his eyes to focus on answering our questions as we discuss Brexit (buying British produce will help the business), the environment (global warming has been good for British grape growers), calorie counts on menus (he loves the idea), shoes (Crockett and Jones are great for someone on his feet all day) and his transition from chef to businessman (more on that later).

Rebooting the classics is also the way Marina Social is approaching Ramadan. The venue was shut during the holy month last year, but the timing this year, ahead of the summer holidays, means it makes business sense to stay open. “So we’ll do our version of iftar,” Atherton says, “but obviously we’ll stick to the Marina Social ethos.”

Expect to see contemporary versions of the old standbys — babaghanoush, for example, forms the base for a pan fried sea bass, which is garnished with powdered spring onions and Arabic bread. “So we’re trying to do cool things like that. It just takes iftar to a new realm, you know.”

The Marina Social Bar, meanwhile, will stay open to cater to the resident expat crowd. A new menu is also planned for the restaurant over the summer.

If he appears more market-focused than many of his colleagues, that’s because he is. Largely self-taught, Atherton, now 45, cut his teeth as a 12-year-old helping his mum run a bed and breakfast in Skegness on the Lincolnshire coast, before running away to London to become a chef at the age of 16. He trained with Pierre Koffman, Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adria before joining Gordon Ramsay in 2001, for whom he opened Maze, first in Mayfair, and then around the world. It was with Ramsay that he stepped out from behind the pass to oversee operations, but that early ambition to make something of himself has stayed with him ever since.

“Even then I was very much in the kitchen 18 hours a day,” he says of his early years at Maze. “There was so much to get right, because it was such a different concept. There was 170 staff working in the restaurant. I had to answer to Gordon for everything. The bottom line, the food costs, the wine margin. You know. Why are the cocktails not very good — and I knew nothing about cocktails. I had to get involved in every aspect of the business to answer to Gordon. Suddenly I was very, very active in the business and it was a massive wake up call to be on top of my game, you know what I mean?”

So he studied in his spare time. He talked to sommeliers about the wine list, to his manager about service basics, to the cleaners about toilet schedules. “I knew if I got it right, other opportunities would come quickly. And that’s what happened. I ended up working at nine places in like seven years for Gordon. We did a fantastic job of it. At one point the businesses were worth 40 to 50 million pounds.”

That was when, he says, he realised he had the skills to do it for himself. In 2010, he opened Table No 1 in Shanghai, and followed up the next year with Pollen Street Social, a mile up the road from Maze. It won a Michelin star within six months. Today, he owns or has interests in 17 ventures around the world. Hai Cenato, a New York-style Italian restaurant opened in Westminster this year. At least three more are in the works, possibly all in Shanghai if meetings with investors bear fruit.

Indeed, it is London where his biggest successes lie, where he delights diners with concepts such as his Full English breakfast ¬— a dinner starter of a slow-poached egg with crisp bacon, croutons and morels on a bed of tomato jus. Berners Tavern at the London Edition hotel is the highest-grossing restaurant of any Marriott hotel in the world, he says, and has been for the past three years. “That’s huge because they’ve got 7,200 properties so they must have like 14000 restaurants. And Berners Tavern is the number one restaurant, and Clock Tower, my restaurant in New York, is number four. So I’ve are got two very successful concepts for them. And that’s when I knew I had this skill to convert spaces into not only something we’re very proud of but also places what [sic] make money. And investors like that. So we became very attractive as a company.”

Atherton oversees everything with his wife Irha, whom he met here in Dubai while he was running the kitchens at Ramsay’s Verre over at the Hilton Dubai Creek. “It is a big business,” he admits, in between a quick look at his phone, “but it’s still very much a family business. We run a tight ship, and keep everything lean and mean.” As comfortable as he is in boardrooms canvassing venture capitalists, he insists he’s happiest in the kitchen. “I’m not a CEO and I don’t pretend to be. I am a chef and I like being a chef. I go to work in my chef jacket and drop the kids off to school in my chef jacket. I love being surrounded by cooks up until midnight — I get back on Friday and I’ll be up in the kitchen in London to one o’clock in the morning.”

How does he do it? By taking three lessons from the kitchen: delegation (“get things done fast and en masse”), meticulous organisation (“clear my inbox before I step into the kitchen at 6pm”) and an insistence on staying immaculate (“if you look the part, people are ready to invest in you”).

So what’s next? Typically, Atherton answers almost before I’ve finished the question. He’d like to win a second Michelin star for Pollen Street Social. There’s a new cookbook in the works, for next year. As for new restaurants, besides the probables in Shanghai, he’d like to roll out Hai Cenato around the UK, as well as the Middle East and Asia. “I’m also speaking to venture capitalists at the moment to see if they have the appetite, but like I say, to quote Forrest Gump, life’s a box of chocolates, right, pick one out. Take a bite to see what happens... I don’t really have any plans you know if nothing happens and I’ve got this far I’ll die a happy man because I never thought I’d get this far.”

RAMADAN SOCIAL

We asked Jason Atherton how you can have a properly social Ramadan at home. Here are his top tips:

1. “My number one rule: Keep it simple.” Too many people over-exaggerate their recipes, so that they end up just being completely engrossed in the kitchen and are totally stressed out, he says, advising that hosts stick with easy, familiar recipes. “As a guest, I don’t want to feel uncomfortable because their host is right in the kitchen non-stop, stressed out about whatever it may be.”

2. Plan ahead. As one might expect from a chef with gorgeously presented dishes, Atherton says it’s best to prepare whatever can be done in advance. “The dessert and starter you can prepare the day before. Put it in the fridge finish it and then try have a hot main course.”

3. Pretty things up. “Spend time dressing the table,” he says. This too, can be done ahead of time. “Make the table beautiful — flowers and candles, all those things make people feel beautifully at ease.”

4. Think about beverages. “There’s no need for something expensive, but go off the beaten track? Make sure you’ve planned for your guests so there are no awkward moments. Ask what guests’ favourite drinks are in advance — if they don’t like sparkling orange juice and that’s all you’ve got, they’re going to be sat around with water.”

5. Finally, the fashion maven advises dressing the part. “Make sure you leave yourself a good half an hour to go and get changed. Get ready. Feel glamorous yourself. You do not want to host your guests while you’re all sweaty from the kitchen. Instead, have your table laid out with your starters, and ready to go — then you can play the part of host to the fullest.”

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