Jason Atherton is a patient man. While he hopes for future accolades and recognition within the culinary world, he is in no hurry. "For me it's a marathon, not a sprint," says Atherton, chef-partner in Cuisine Collection's four-month-old L'Anis restaurant in London's Kensington, and a man who's wise beyond his 29 years. "If I had been in here when I was 24, though, it would have been an all-out assault on the guidebooks."
Working his way through a number of high-profile kitchens over the past 10 years has allowed him to become more philosophical. "Local people are your business and you need to build up their trust and loyalty," he says. "Once you become a good local restaurant, customers tell their friends who live a bit further away and then you become a good London restaurant. Once you're a good London restaurant, the accolades will start to come," he says. "So many young chefs think that if they haven't achieved a Michelin star within the first year it's all over. But it all takes time."
It's a very different Jason Atherton from the 24-year-old "gung ho" chef whom Cuisine Collection joint owner Claudio Pulze remembers from his early encounters with the Sheffield-born man. "I'd heard that Jason was the chef to watch, and when he cooked for me I was extremely impressed," says Pulze, who soon afterwards offered Atherton a job within his restaurant group. "I have always believed Jason will go far. He has matured over the last few years and has found a balance between serving what he knows the public wants and what he wants to cook. He has developed into a business manager, and in the next few years we'll see Jason at the top with the very best."
While Atherton is flattered by the compliments from Pulze, as he was at winning an Acorn Award this year, he doesn't let it go to his head. "It's down to me to prove how good I am," he says. He takes inspiration from his collection of some 4,000 cookery books - "I buy three or four every month. It's a passion" - and from eating in the world's finest restaurants. In Atherton's number-one spot is a meal he had earlier this year at Alain Ducasse's Monaco restaurant, Le Louis XV. "It was simple and perfectly executed. It's just mind-boggling how they get it so simple and yet so good."
Also making Atherton's top-three-meals list are those he had at Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, and London's Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. He is also a fan of Philip Howard, Heston Blumenthal, John Campbell and Michael Caines. "What really pleases me about the UK now is it's no longer a case of one talented chef in the limelight taking the industry forward, as was the case 10 years ago. Now there are about 20."
Atherton's introduction to the catering industry was little more than an effort to please his mum. Having completed six weeks' basic training in the Army Catering Corps and decided life in the Armed Forces was not for him, he was coaxed into applying for a commis chef position in the County hotel, Skegness, the town in which he was raised. "I got the job and found I didn't have to put in much effort to get things right. It just felt natural, and I decided that if I was going to cook, I might as well do it properly. I began buying cookery books and soon realised that food could be a lot different from the trout and almonds and steak diane I was doing at the hotel."
It was at this point that a passion for food struck, and Atherton took the decision to make a career move to London. Armed with a copy of the Good Food Guide, he approached the likes of Pierre Koffmann and Nico Ladenis in a bid to get into a kitchen that was producing the kind of food that excited him. After several knock-backs, he landed a commis position at Boyd Gilmour's eponymous restaurant, which had just opened in Kensington Church Street. There he stayed for two-and-a-half years before moving on to hone his craft on every station in the kitchens of La Tante Claire and Chez Nico. A stage at Harvey's followed, leading to a place in the brigade at Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental).
But it was Atherton's next job which brought him into contact with the man he considers to have had the most profound effect on his career. As sous chef to Stephen Terry at London's 145-seat Coast, Atherton learnt how to run a kitchen. In spite of the fact that he was amazed at how Terry served food of such a high standard for so many covers, he realised that being a chef wasn't just about cooking. "In a lot of kitchens you're not taught to develop skills such as man management, and that's why for years there were chefs running around screaming at their staff. If you have to run a kitchen by fear then you seriously lack man-management skills."
After three years with Terry, at the age of 25, Atherton gained his first head chef position at Oliver Peyton's Mash & Air in Manchester. "Cooking-wise I was ready, but mentally it was a big strain," he says. "Looking back now, I know a lot of things were wrong. I was too eager to impress and tried to combine too many flavours. It was satisfying to get good reviews, but it is only food at the end of the day, and people come through the door to have dinner, not to be treated as a guinea pig for someone else's ego."
Two years later Atherton was ready for something new. "I was cooking as well as anybody but I felt I was getting stale," he says. "I had gone through the fusion thing and just wanted to go somewhere completely different." Having seen Ferran Adrià's first book, El Sabor del Mediterrane, Atherton decided that that somewhere was El Bulli, Adrià's three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain. "It's for sheer inspiration. There's no point going there to learn to cook. You're going to learn the science of cooking and see the combinations in the mind of a genius." Having had no response to letters or phone calls to Adrià, Atherton donned a backpack and arrived at El Bulli to ask for a stage in person.
Working for nothing and living in a hotel using his savings, Atherton spent three months in Adrià's kitchen, learning to break new ground in flavour marrying, before heading back to London to be reunited with Terry as his number two at Cuisine Collection's Frith Street restaurant. It was here that he first worked for Pulze and, on Terry's departure, went on to head the brigade. The closure of Frith Street prompted a short spell at Cantina Vinopolis, at London's wine centre, before leading the challenge of opening L'Anis at the end of August on the site of the short-lived Good Cook on Kensington High Street.
At L'Anis, Atherton is currently building a loyal customer base with a £23.50 three-course menu with the emphasis on seasonality. "We will start adding a few more luxurious ingredients, and eventually the prices will have to go up, because that's where I want to take the restaurant," he says. For now, the evidence of Atherton's time at El Bulli stops at a date and garlic jam accompanying a foie gras terrine, although thoughtful flavour marrying, something he learnt a great deal about from Adrià, is evident throughout the menu.
Roasted sea scallops are dusted with star anise, giving what Atherton describes as a delicate, Oriental-like flavour, then served with braised oxtail and pearl barley. And lamb is matched with lavender in the form of a jus served on the side in a tiny copper pan, partly because Atherton doesn't like too much sauce on the plate, but also for interaction for the guest. Ice-creams are churned fresh for each service, and flavours include pistachio to accompany a chocolate fondant, and gingerbread with a pineapple tarte tatin.
Getting bolder, plans for next summer include a sweet corn ice-cream with pickled baby vegetables and roasted sea scallop - a dish inspired by Adrià, and perhaps an indication of things to come from a chef who, by his own admission, is biding his time. "The food here today is not the food I'll be cooking in five years' time. I want this restaurant to be in the country's top 5%, but we've got a long way to go."
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 21 December 2000 - 3 January 2001