Having spent the decade since leaving Maze growing his restaurant empire to a 18-strong global group, Jason Atherton is turning his attention to developing his next generation of leaders. As he returns to Grosvenor Square to open the Betterment in the Biltmore hotel opposite his former haunt, he tells James Stagg how he’s building for the long term
Some 10 years ago, Jason Atherton was winning plaudits and new admirers working as executive chef of then Gordon Ramsay’s Maze on London’s Grosvenor Square. When he left the restaurant, as one of a series of high-profile departures from Gordon Ramsay Holdings, the chef could not have imagined that he would return a decade later with a 18-strong empire to his name to open a restaurant across the square from his former haunt.
The opportunity is “a dream” for Atherton, who is to park his tanks on his former boss’s lawn through a partnership with the 308-bedroom Biltmore hotel, which will open later this year under Hilton’s luxury LXR Hotels & Resorts brand after a £60m redevelopment. It’s a positive end to one of the few rocky patches Atherton has experienced as a restaurateur, having closed Temple and Sons at Tower 42 last August, his Japanese restaurant Sosharu in Clerkenwell in July 2018, and Social Wine & Tapas in June this year.
“To return to Grosvenor Square with something so exciting is the dream. Those sites rarely come along,” Atherton explains. “After spending nine years away, I never thought I’d return. When the offer came, we thought it was an opportunity to do something really special. The area is a hotbed for great restaurants, so it’s imperative we get this right. We want to build things for the long term.”
As well as running the 120-cover Betterment restaurant, the Social Company will also be responsible for banqueting for 350 people and room service at the hotel. Atherton has installed Paul Walsh, who launched and led his City Social restaurant for five years, as head chef, and sees the site as an opportunity to really make his mark on the prestigious London postcode.
The food will focus on light proteins, with Atherton conscious of recent changes in eating habits, particularly among London’s elite. “The style will be light, with side orders being the star of the show. You can order a sea bass with some amazing side dishes. We’re making a big deal out of them so that we can make them really interesting,” he says.
The partnership with the Biltmore is just one of a number of new projects in which Atherton is involved. He’s just relaunched his Little Social site as No 5 Social, with Kostas Papathanasiou at the helm, and is close to signing a deal on a new site for Sosharu in Soho, which will be a welcome return for the izakaya-style Japanese restaurant.
At both sites Atherton has backed his talent by handing them shares in the business. It’s part of his strategy to invest in his core team and provide himself with an exit strategy when the time is right.
“This company has changed my life – it has let me fulfil my dreams in the industry – so I want to build a company that’s sustainable for the people who helped me build it in the first place, so that it changes their life as well as mine,” he says.
It’s all part of a decade-long plan for Atherton to take a slight step back while supporting the development of his talent. “When I’m 55 they’ll either do a management buyout, working with banks in a deal that I’ll set up, or they can buy it slowly over 10 years. In the meantime, we will teach them how to run a tight business and manage their profit and loss properly,” he explains.
Part of balancing the books is being pragmatic about the future potential of a business, something Atherton has faced head-on with Social Wine & Tapas and Sosharu, where he wasn’t afraid to cut his losses. He sees it as all part of running a successful operation.
“We ran Sosharu for two and a half years and did everything we could, but we got to a point where we had to let it go,” he says. “Social Wine & Tapas was the same thing. When we opened on James Street in Marylebone, we were the only decent restaurant on the street. In the early days we were packed. But then other big operators came in, with better sites and outside seating, and we lost out.
“There’s a thing about fear of closure in the industry. Closing isn’t a bad thing – I think it’s a sign of strength. You don’t close restaurants because they’re doing well. You do it because they’re losing money.
“In the past five years, London’s landscape has changed because of social media, millennials, changes in tourism. In the past people would build restaurants for longevity and they’d be a training ground for the next generation, but there’s no certainty now.”
Sosharu moves to Soho
The new Sosharu will be a more restrained investment, befitting its Soho location, which Atherton is confident will put less pressure on the site to make such significant early returns. Executive head chef Alex Craciun will continue to run the business, which will be walk-in only and offer keenly priced cocktails and beers, as well as slightly pared-back menu – though Atherton is certain the experience will be no less impressive than the original.
“We’re working on a site in Soho for Sosharu,” he confirms. “We’ve a good price on the rent. We won’t invest as heavily as last time though, when my wife and I put in £2.5m on an expensive fit-out. It was beautiful and it breaks my heart to talk about it, but it is what it is. The fact is, it didn’t work and we had to shut it down. Everyone makes a big deal out of closing restaurants, but the restaurant world has changed.”
One of the principal changes cited by Atherton is loyalty, particularly among the younger generation. He explains: “We have to accept the fact that there’s little customer loyalty around these days. If I look at all my loyal customer base, they’re all over 40. Younger people just aren’t loyal to one restaurant. They want to go to the latest hot opening – which may well be empty in three years.”
That said, Atherton has generated quite a following at Pollen Street Social, which has been his flagship operation since it opened in 2011. Though he concedes that even in Mayfair the pace of change is considerable.
“London is changing fast,” he says. “Who’d have opened a restaurant in White City five years ago? But now that [Araki chef] Mitsuhiro Araki has gone back to Japan, the area has the best sushi restaurant in London with Endo at the Rotunda. Mayfair is getting so expensive that only people like Richard Caring can afford to compete – and he’s going to end up competing with himself. The only thing left in Mayfair now are concept restaurants – the independents like me will get phased out. It was sad to see Anthony Demetre’s Wild Honey go. That was a great little restaurant.”
To take Pollen Street Social into the next phase, Atherton is planning a refurbishment that will include the creation of a 16-cover development kitchen and restaurant, to be called Home, located in the site next door, where he plans to “see what we can do with food – really pushing the boundaries”.
Although Atherton is deeply involved in the detail of all his restaurants, Pollen Street clearly remains his passion. It’s the site where it all began and the restaurant he would continue to build, even after his teams have negotiated their buyouts.
“Stalwart restaurants are important to the fabric of the city, though restaurants change. Pollen Street isn’t the same as when we started – it’s continuous development and improvement. The dream is that all the people who run my restaurants want to buy more shares off me so that I get some payback. I sit on the board and help them run it. I’d keep Pollen Street and run my own little restaurant, serving bistro food that’s completely me.”
But he isn’t ready to slow down quite yet and new openings are never far from his mind. As well as the Biltmore, Sosharu and Home, Atherton is looking at several new opportunities abroad, operated as licence agreements.
“We’ve Sosharu in Shanghai and we’re looking at Rome,” he says. “We’re also talking to Edition about potential in Las Vegas and Tokyo. But I don’t need to build many more restaurants now – I want to enjoy them a little and not travel too much. We want to make what we have great. You can’t go on forever.”
The Biltmore in London’s Mayfair will become Europe’s first property within Hilton’s luxury LXR Hotels & Resorts brand.
The 308-bedroom Millennium & Copthorne hotel will feature the Betterment restaurant, which will be run by Atherton. The chef will also manage banqueting for 350 and room service as well the Terrace, the Tea Lounge and the Pine Bar. The Betterment will be run day-to-day by Paul Walsh, who will move from City Social, where he achieved a Michelin star within seven months of opening.
Atherton says the seasonal menu will be based on proteins cooked on an open grill, with side dishes forming the flair of the meal. So the likes of Herdwick hogget, turbot or cod en cocotte might be paired with snow pea and bacon, baby spinach and bottarga, or onion flower with chive emulsion.
Atherton adds that the name of the restaurant has been chosen by his wife, Irha, to represent progress, advancement and improvement. He explains: “We chose the name the Betterment to encapsulate our journey from opening Pollen Street Social in 2011 to today, highlighting the progression of our food, ethos and way of thinking.”
Jason Atherton’s Brigade
This summer Jason Atherton is to front a new six-part series for BBC Two in which he will take a group of six young chefs around Europe to learn from the best in the business.
The idea is that Atherton hones their technique and teamwork as they travel the continent, creating a brigade that is capable of taking on the world’s best. Ten chefs will be mentored each week, with those falling below Atherton’s standards at risk of being replaced.
Atherton says the show appealed for its educational focus: “I want to teach the next generation of chefs what it really takes to work at this level – to instil some of that work ethic. You need real attention to detail and dedication. You have to live and love hospitality. Everything is about making people happy – and that’s what you have to do it for.”
All the chefs are billed as “undiscovered talent” by the BBC, and Atherton is tasked with turning them into the finished product.
He adds: “I get to take the brigade to various locations around Europe, working with top chefs and doing things like foraging, hunting and fishing.
“We spend the whole time together and I put them through their paces to show them what the job really entails. I’ve really loved the filming – it’s amazing to watch the chefs develop and to see how far they have come in 12 weeks. It’s inspiring to take what is really a bunch of misfits and develop them like this. It’s so rewarding.”