If British cuisine is enjoying a golden age, then Jason Atherton is its uncrowned king. But behind the acclaim and the awards lies a man whose focus has remained firmly on food.
Six years ago, Jason Atherton was known — if he was known at all — as one of the talented constellation of young chefs working alongside Gordon Ramsay. That group (a line-up that also included Marcus Wareing, Mark Askew, Angela Hartnett, Bruno Loubet and Mark Sarjeant) have all gone on to make their individual marks on Britain’s dining scene, in very different ways. But Atherton, perhaps more than any one else in his generation, hasn’t simply made a mark; like Alan Yau, Terence Conran, and Ramsay himself in previous decades, he’s gradually redefining the nation’s dining landscape.
Born in Yorkshire, Atherton first made his name in the mid-Nineties at Oliver Peyton’s Coast and Mash & Air, before going on to work with Ferran Adrià ElBulli in Catalonia. He joined the Ramsay Group in 2001, where he opened the acclaimed Maze — first in London’s Grosvenor Square, and
subsequently in Prague, Cape Town, Melbourne and Qatar.
But five years ago, Atherton went out on his own, launching Pollen Street Social, a 60-seat space on a tucked-away Mayfair backstreet, which received its first Michelin star less than six months after opening. By 2013, his passion project had become a full-blown restaurant group, with three further London locations — Little Social, Berners Tavern (lauded by one newspaper as London’s ‘defining restaurant of the decade’), and Social Eating House — plus outposts in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. New York and Dubai followed last year. So far, 2016’s been pretty busy too, with the acclaimed Japanese restaurant Sosharu in Clerkenwell, as well as successful launches in Sydney and the Philippines (in his
wife’s hometown, Cebu) — all orchestrated from Atherton’s headquarters, in the old Paramount Studios building in Soho.
Next year, there’s another big new venture on the cards, with a restaurant opening as part of the long-awaited resurrection of the old Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. But before that, two launches slated for this autumn (a deli in the City of London, and an Italian eatery in Victoria’s new food quarter), will take Atherton’s running total to an impressive eighteen — each, in their own fashion, embodying his inventive, relaxed approach to eating out. And somehow, around all that, Atherton has also slotted in television appearances, two Social cookbooks, a tableware range for British retail giant John Lewis, and even a fragrance (created with cult perfumer Boadicea). Busy? He’s just getting started.
Eve Hemingway: I’d like to start at the beginning and ask about your childhood — and what food meant for you, growing up in the North of England?
Jason Atherton: My parents owned a guesthouse in Skegness. Mum used to cook everything from fresh, so there was always fresh food around the house. We always ate what the guests were eating, so we ate very well. It was everything from crumbles to sticky toffee puddings, to roast beef, to
fish Fridays, to home-made pâtés and prawn cocktails; the more classic traditional stuff, what people would expect in a guesthouse in the North of England. Every now and again, we would get taken down this tiny little street called Chip Alley, and that was our little treat. We were allowed to have fish and chips at Epton’s — which was a really great fish and chip
shop in its day. No idea what it’s like now, as I haven’t been for years. But it was a real treat to sit there and have bread and butter, fish and chips, mushy peas...
E.H. Chip butties?
J.A. Yeah, I’d mix it up. It’s quite hilarious. I’ll be in New York cooking now, and I’ll take one of our home-made brioche buns, deep fry some triple-cooked chips, put some brown sauce on top, and sandwich it between the two slices of bread. And they think I’m fricking bonkers, all these young American chefs in the kitchen, thinking I’ve absolutely lost the plot. But
it’s comfort food. It’s what you’re used to.
My wife is crazy about anything that’s sour and vinegary, and stuff like that. It’s what she’s used to, as she was brought up in the Philippines. Everything was sour, even the fruit. They prefer it sour. So they pick mangoes early, and then they cover them in vinegar and salt and sugar, and that’s like a treat. Me and the kids have them, but we’re like that (pulls a face).
E.H. (laughs) It’s too much, yes. Lots of British comfort food is quite heavy — and a lot of processed foods seem to pander to that desire, to what we’re used to.
J.A. Yeah, of course. Food memories are one of the most powerful things in the human mind. It’s not about how something looks, as that fades over time. I say this a lot to our cooks. If you make a beautiful tarte tatin or apple pie, and it tastes just divine at Little Social, then you’ll go away and that food memory will be with you forever. But you might forget
what it looks like.
E.H. It’s that Proustian thing with the madeleine, being taken back with taste. Do you have any of those triggers from your childhood? If you see a prawn cocktail, do you get taken back to Skegness?
J.A. It would probably be — if I’m completely honest, I still remember looking at it now — Mum would make jam rolypoly, with Bird’s Custard. And I always remember mixing the custard powder. I was only very young. It was very light, and it was a really weird concoction. You’d mix it with milk and then you’d boil it up, and then all of a sudden this magic custard
would be made.
We make crème anglaise in Dubai, but we thicken it with corn starch to give it the Bird’s Custard taste, and loads of fresh vanilla. We serve it with a rhubarb soufflé, so [it’s] rhubarb and custard, and all the British people go crazy for it. And I think all the Middle Eastern people think ‘What the hell’s going on?!’
(This original article on Jason Atherton continues in our Issue Eight)