Jason Atherton has grown into an international restaurateur with an ever-growing global portfolio. Tom Vaughan catches up with him and fellow chef Paul Hood at new London restaurant Social Eating House
We’re halfway through our interview and Jason Atherton is back after a two-minute break to read an email. “Our restaurant, Commune Social in Shanghai, has just got five out of five from Time Out,” he announces. “There’s no real guide books out in China, and the only one people recognise is Time Out. So five out of five is a big deal.” I offer my congratulations. However, if it’s news to him it’s really news to me – I didn’t even realise he’d opened a site in Shanghai.
All of a sudden, Atherton is not just a serious player on the London restaurant scene, but a serious player on the world scene, with a mini-empire of 10 restaurants across London and Asia. “As far as I can tell, I’m one of just a handful of Brit chef-patrons with sites over here who is also flying the flag abroad,” he says.
After 10 years working for Gordon Ramsay at the likes of Maze, Atherton has established himself as arguably the pre-eminent British international restaurateur, after his former boss. And when it comes to London openings, there’s no denying that the promise of a new Atherton restaurant has the media and blogosphere salivating.
The last few months has seen him augment his position in London with two more sites: Little Social – a bistro opposite his flagship Mayfair site, Pollen Street Social – and the 78-cover, Soho-based Social Eating House, which he opened in partnership with long-time employee, chef Paul Hood.
Never the easiest man to stuff into a culinary pigeon-hole, Social Eating House sees Atherton being as elusive as ever. Billed in part as a bistro, with a cocktail bar on the first floor, the nearest reference Atherton has given for the idea is the Parisian bistronomy movement.
“The reason I mentioned bistronomy is for Paul,” he says. “I don’t like to shackle people with terms, and I try not to shackle myself at Pollen Street Social. And in Paris, bistronomy is the nickname they have given to the young creative chefs who have trained with some of the best chefs in the world, but then strike out on their own and do great food at good value for money. Social Eating House isn’t here to compete with the best restaurants in the world, but the modern-day, young restaurateurs who are opening in London.”
For a protégé of three-star kitchens, such as Chez Nico, La Tante Claire, Restaurant Marco Pierre White, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and El Bulli, where he famously became the first British chef to do a stage, the quest to attain Michelin’s idea of perfection does not burn as brightly as in his famous mentors.
“My duty, first and foremost, is to make this work as a business. We borrowed money, bought a site, kitted it out and we did that purely for the reason – and this sounds crass – so that people will come through the door and give us their money. Pure and simple. How we dress that up – to satisfy me as a restaurateur and Paul as a chef – is we don’t just want any old place, but one we can be proud of.”
Unsurprisingly, the new site is in Soho – an area of London at the vanguard of the bustling new wave of casual fine-diners. It’s a three-floor affair of exposed brickwork, caramel banquets and scrubbed-up architectural salvage, with a cocktail bar (nicknamed the Blind Pig, more of which later) on the first floor and a 12-seat chef’s table in the basement.
Hood and Atherton make no qualms about chasing the zeitgeist for informality. “We want our restaurants not just to be great restaurants, but great nights out – the full package. The drinks before, the meal, the drinks after – everything has to have a bit of theatre to it,” says Atherton.
“I’ve realised that these are the places where people like to hang out. I mean, look at Burger & Lobster down the road. Here are us chefs running around forests with our scissors looking to forage pennywort, and they’re offering a burger or a lobster and you have to wait hours for a table. It’s a real lesson.”
Part of the package at Social Eating House is the site’s bar – nicknamed (but only nicknamed, for legal reasons) the Blind Pig. It is a sizeable 65-cover space with its own street entrance, and the aim is to give it an identity of its own. But if money is the motive, surely this space would be better served for dining?
“Absolutely, but despite what I said a moment ago, it isn’t all about money. If that was the goal, it would be easier to expand Pollen Street Social to twice the size, meaning we all stay on one site, it’s easier to run and we make shitloads of money. But everyone is looking for a night out these days. In today’s market, you need good food in a cool space where people actually want to hang out,” he says.
These days, much of Atherton’s mini-empire is based on this premise, from the “grungy tapas bar” Esquina in Singapore to the one-star Pollen Street Social. The latest offering prior to Social Eating House was Little Social, the new Mayfair bistro opposite his flagship.
Fluidity between his London sites is crucial. The team at Social Eating House have already gelled at Pollen Street, and chefs move between the three when needed. “I worked at a restaurant group – and I won’t say which one – where the contempt between the kitchens was impossible. I couldn’t get my head around it. If I heard someone at Pollen Street saying that working at Little Social was bollocks, I’d sack them on the spot.”
While Social Eating House was opened in partnership with Hood, so Atherton’s next London restaurant – at Marriott International’s London Edition in Berners Street – will be alongside another longstanding assistant, Phil Carmichael. Just as Atherton, Angela Hartnett, Marcus Wareing and Mark Sargent became trusty lieutenants to Gordon Ramsay, so Atherton is building his own cadre of talented chefs.
“I sit all my key members of staff down and ask them their long-term goals. If they say they want their own site, I ask what their style of food is and I tell them I’m not backing a three-star dream. I’m honest – I say I wouldn’t back it for myself, and I’m not going to back it for them. But, if they want to open some cool sites with me and make some money together, then we’ll do it,” he says.
“If Paul didn’t want to do Social Eating House, we wouldn’t be sat here. I’ve worked half a service here, that’s all.”
As well as the hotel, there’s his first City restaurant in London on the cards, as well as his planned openings abroad – a new opening in Hong Kong later this year, a second one next spring, and one in Dubai in 2014 will expand his current portfolio [see panel, p49]. It doesn’t stop there, though.
“I’m looking at maybe one or two more abroad in serious locations. I’m really interested in New York. We’ll have five, or maybe six in London, 10 abroad, and then I’m done and we’re going to enjoy it.”
There was chitchat pre-interview about a potential idea for a gourmet pizza restaurant in Victoria – is that included in that number?
“Things like that are just dreams,” he says. “When you’re in the position we are, new sites come across your desk every day. I say no to three or four sites a week – good sites at that – whereas a year ago we weren’t offered any.”
It’s a long way down the line, but has leaving the Gordon Ramsay group taught him anything about his own exit strategy?
“I’m not going to lie, we’ve talked about floating the Far Eastern part of the company on the Singapore stock exchange. You need a certain amount of turnover to do it, and we surpassed that two-fold.
“We would need an expansion plan in place, otherwise, why would anyone invest? Do I want to do that? Not really. In five or six years’ time I’ll be tired. I’ll always have Pollen Street – I love running it.
“The other day, I got more excited at the new lunch menu, with asparagus and peas, than any time I can remember. I love it – love it. It makes me so excited. I’m not ready to step away from that.”
And then he corrects himself: “In fact, I’ll never be able to step away from that.”
Paul Hood and the Social Eating House menu
For a man who has been cooking alongside Jason Atherton for seven years, to have his own restaurant in Soho is a dream come true.
“Jason has given me this opportunity,” says Hood. “It’s something you always strive for and to be able to do it at this stage of my career, I’m just so happy it’s all paid off.”
Hood’s CV includes two years as head chef at Pollen Street Social, preceded by five years at Maze, two at Thackeray’s in Kent, two at the Glasshouse and two at Monty’s, both in London.
While Atherton’s cooking had a culinary personality that was very different from his boss’s while he was at Gordon Ramsay Holdings, does Hood’s own style differ much from his own boss at Social Eating House? “I’ve been working for Jason for so long that we are very similar. Everything on the dish needs to look natural, not forced – nothing is too contrived.”
The food at Social Eating House reflects this, and the fine-dining-meets-bistro dishes produce an average spend of around £30.
● Octopus carpaccio, orange grenobloise, black olive oil (£10.50)
● Ravioli of wild boar bolognaise, Berkswell, peppered hearts and kidneys (£8.50)
● Flamed côte de porc, beetroot, white polenta, spring onion, savory (£18)
● Roast Cornish cod, kombu, chanterelles, baby gem, cockles and cream (£19.50)
● London honey almond sponge, goat’s curd ice cream, orange (£6.50)
● Homemade vanilla yoghurt, Wye Valley rhubarb, rhubarb granite, ginger (£6.50)
Jason Atherton’s restaurants
● Table No. 1, Shanghai, China (opened 2010)
● Pollen Street Social, Mayfair, London (opened 2011)
● Esquina, Singapore (opened 2011)
● Pollen, Singapore (opened 2012)
● Snacks, Singapore (opened 2012)
● 22 Ships, Hong Kong (opened 2012)
● Little Social, Mayfair, London (opened 2013)
● Social Eating House, Soho, London (opened 2013)
● The Commune Social, Shanghai, China (opened 2013)
● Berners Tavern, London Edition: opening 12 September 2013
● Hong Kong: due late 2013
● Hong Kong: due early 2014
● Dubai: due May/June 2014
SMOKED BEEF TARTARE
1 larder trimmed aged Black Angus beef fillet
For the tartare sauce
210ml Soy sauce
15 drops Tabasco
30g English mustard
225ml olive oil
45ml Worcestershire sauce
50g capers, diced
100g shallots, confited
80g cornichons, brunoise
2tbs chopped parsley
For the pickled egg yolk purée
20 egg yolks
Extra virgin olive oil
For the garnish
20 (approx) round radish
20 (approx) breakfast radish
200g (approx) sourdough croutons, cut 7mm squares fried in butter
50g (approx) mustard leaves, washed and picked
50g (approx) raw horseradish, peeled and grated over the plate with a microplane just before service
Pickling liquor recipe for the radish
250ml muscatel vinegar
200ml white wine vinegar
200g caster sugar
2 star anise
2 cinnamon stick
2tsp mustard seeds
Lay the beef fillet in the smoking room, allow to cold-smoke for long enough to take on the flavour.
To prepare the beef tartare, slice the meat at an angle across the fillet leaving thin disks of meat. Then turn and chop (but not too fine) with a sharp knife into julienne. Keep this stored in an air tight container ready to mix with the sauce
Mix the ingredients for the tartare in a bowl with a brunoise of cornichons, diced capers and confited shallots.
To prepare the pickled egg yolk puree, using the real yellow egg yolks (either pasteurised Italian or organic English which have a better colour), place into a sous vide bag and cook at 65°C for about two hours until a dense texture had been achieved.
Chill over ice. Once chilled, place into a blender and season with salt and sherry vinegar. Blend while adding olive oil to taste. Keep consistency of puree quite thick. Reserve in a plastic bottle for service.
To make the pickling liquor recipe for the radish, put all the ingredients in a bowl and dissolve all sugar in vinegar.
For the garnish, wash the mooli but do not peel it. Cut in half and thinly slice it. Keep in iced water ready for service. Prepare the round radish, shave thinly and keep in ice water. Cut the breakfast radish in half and wash in iced water.
Before service, put the radishes – except the horseradish – in pickling liquor so they take on a little of the flavour like a dressing. Wash and pick mustard leaves. Dress the plate with beef croutons, radishes, egg yolk puree. Grate raw horseradish over the plate with a microplane and serve.
ROASTED CURRIED HAKE, ROAST CAULIFLOWER CHEESE
2 hake (approx 4kg total weight or 3-4 smaller fish)
For the curry beurre noisette
50g (approx) mild curry powder (quantity varies depending on strength)
For the cauliflower cheese purée
4 cauliflowers, cut small
500g Montgomery Cheddar
40 broccoli florets
For the cauliflower velouté
4-5 large cauliflowers
700ml chicken stock
Sprig of thyme
Microplaned ribbons of cauliflower stalks
To prepare the curry beurre noisette, put the butter into a hot pan and colour. Just before you take it off the heat, add the curry powder, check the taste of the powder – it should be mild in flavour. Pass when cooled to remove the powder.
To prepare the cauliflower puree, sweat the cauliflower in a little olive oil and add the milk to cover. Add herbs and cover with a cartouche and allow to cook. Add the grated cheese and melt. Ensure the cauliflower is completely soft and drain. Blend, adding some of the cooking liquor if required. Pass through a chinois and reserve for later use.
To prepare the hake, salt well for 1 hour and wash off. Portion and colour on the plancha, then place into a pan and add the curry butter. Keep basting until cooked so the fish takes on the colour. Drain and freshen with lemon juice.
To prepare the roast broccoli, trim into florettes with little stalks so they sit flat. Quickly blanch for 30 seconds in salted water, then refresh and dry. Roast well basting constantly with foaming butter until tender and well coloured.
For the cauliflower velouté, chop the cauliflowers and place in a pan with milk (cover by two-thirds) and top up with chicken stock. Add a sprig of thyme and season. Cook until soft. Strain off the liquid and put into a blender. Adjust the taste with the cooking liquid. Check seasoning and pass.