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The Caterer

An audience with… Jason Atherton

04 April 2014 by
An audience with… Jason Atherton

Caterer and Hotelkeeper invited chef-restaurateur Jason Atherton to share his invaluable experience with 50 young chefs. He talks about the team behind his phenomenally successful restaurants, his experiences working in world-renowned establishments and why he's a stickler for a system. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports

The profile of men and women in whites has never been higher, thanks to an ever-burgeoning public interest in food and the folk behind it, so today's crop of young chefs could conceivably be spoiled for choice when it comes to role models. And those looking for inspiration from a chef with impeccable culinary credentials and a unique sense of business savvy could arguably do no better than Jason Atherton.

Last month Caterer and Hotelkeeper brought together a group of 50 aspiring young chefs for a one-off audience with the celebrated and incredibly busy chef, supported by our sponsors AA Hotel Services, Continental Chef Supplies (CCS) and Restaurant Associates.

Atherton spoke with candour about his journey from plucky 16-year-old from Skegness to Michelin-starred chef restaurateur with 11 restaurants across the globe and four more in the pipeline. The audience at Westminster Kingsway College heard his pearls of wisdom, which can be neatly summed up with the advice: don't get distracted. Those looking to emulate just a fraction of his success would do well to listen to his simple approach: "My ethos is to do better tomorrow than I did today. If you can do that every day, you can't help but succeed."

WATCH THE VIDEO HERE >>

You have 11 restaurants with two more planned for London this year [City Social and the Old Town Hall], the InterContinental in Dubai, also planned for this year, and the New York Edition, to open in 2015. You've come a long way since the Army Catering Corps. How has that journey been?

People ask me what my driving force is: do I want 40 restaurants? Do I want to be worth 'this' amount of money? But it's never about anything like that; it's about striving to be really good at what I do and helping to train the next generation.

If I can leave the industry in 20 years' time in a better place than when I started, having passed on knowledge to the next generation, then I've done a good job.

It's been just five years since you opened your own restaurant, and so it feels like a rapidly expanding empire. But how do you make sure you manage your expansion carefully? Do you map out a strategy?

It's important to have a plan, but there's always disappointment. If you say that by the age of 35 you want to be here and you want to have two Michelin stars there and it doesn't happen you feel like you've failed. The minute you start to have negativity inside you it spreads like cancer. I don't plan anything [in the long term].

If an opportunity comes, we'll discuss it as the group's executive team. If we feel we can cope with the amount of pressure, if it makes good business sense, and if we have the people that want to do it - because I can't do it - we take a project on.

We'll invest money into it, caress it and nurture it, put it through the system and hopefully we'll make [it] a success. That's exactly what we've done at the Town Hall [on the former site of Viajante].

How do you make sure members of your core team - the Social team - feel their profile is high enough and that they feel valued? I never make the company about me. There's not a single restaurant, not even Pollen Street Social, that carries my name and that's super-important [because otherwise] people will come in and expect me to be there and I'm not [Jason only cooks at Pollen Street Social].

I don't want to start lying to people. 
It doesn't mean the food and the service is bad, it means that the Social team, as we call it, is there making sure it's right.

Each chef becomes a business partner.
Phil Carmichael has a slice of Berners Tavern, Paul Hood has a slice of Social Eating House, and so forth. Andrew Walsh is a shareholder in Esquina, our tapas bar in Singapore, and he was the first chef to pay his business back - in seven months, I think. He owns 10% of the business and the second month after he'd paid it back we gave him a big cheque. He earned it; it's his money and he can do what he wants with it. Hopefully he'll look after it and one day he'll start his own business.

What do you look for in a young chef? We're going through this generation where every
thing is instant. Everyone expects everything like that [snaps fingers]. But unfortunately, 
in our industry, it's still a very slow process to learn and it always will be, I'm afraid.

Just to be a basic patisserie chef takes three to four years and if you want to go on and be even better, it's going to take 10 years. It's that simple. It breaks my heart when people say they're a sous chef at 22 - they're not; it's impossible - do they understand what a sous chef is? But they're getting £35,000 a year and that's what they want.

I understand, but unfortunately these people have got themselves trapped where they've either got to make a brave decision and go back and learn again or they've got to continue to be a sous chef in a pretty average place that will pay that money because they need you.

I'm glad it took me this long to get my own restaurant because, at the age of 38 when
I launched it, I was almost over-qualified.

You were head chef at Mash/Air in Manchester in 1996… I was, but I was sensible enough to stop. You've got to remember, I started cooking at 16. I ran away to London to be a chef. I had already worked with Pierre Koffmann, Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White. I'd worked in France at L'Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace and done numerous stages at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and anywhere I could on my days off. I was literally obsessed with learning for donkey's years.

I spent two years as Stephen [Terry's] sous chef at Coast and it was very successful before [owner] Oliver Peyton said he wanted to take me to Manchester to be the chef de cuisine of Mash and Air. Jonathan Meades, who was 
a really tough reviewer, gave us 10 out of 10 and said 'Jason Atherton is the best thing to 
happen to British cooking since Gary Rhodes', and when you hear that stuff it's great.

I was earning good money and I had a beautiful flat. I was wearing nice clothes for the first time in my life, I could afford to go out for 
dinner and I had this great lifestyle. But I was running two restaurants and I was like a bull in a china shop - I just wasn't ready. I was 
giving people too much of a hard time and, quite honestly, I was a bit of a prick. I was full of attitude and I knew it had to stop because either someone was going to kill me or I was going to kill somebody.

I said to Oliver that I couldn't do it any more, and I wrote to Ferran AdriÁ to go and work at elBulli. I'd heard about the rise of Spanish cuisine way before it came to anyone's attention, though I never knew Ferran was going
to be the global success story he went on to become. I dumped my girlfriend at the time, got on a plane and went out to Spain. 
I thought, if nothing else, I'll just backpack around Spain and see what's going on.

I spent the year working for Ferran for free and it was the smartest move I ever, ever made. It opened up a whole different world. I went back down to being a commis chef, earning no money, living in a crappy little hostel, and
it was the happiest year of my life. It was like
a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

What advice do you have for young chefs who want to get on TV or have their own cookbook? It's nonsense - don't do it for that. That'll come if you're a good chef and, at the end of the day, if you're marketable. I bet in the next five years that Florence Knight [head chef at Russell 
Norman's Polpetto] will be a huge star because she's a marketer's dream. She can cook, 
she's really nice, she's got a good nature, she's
 a pretty girl, she says all the right things - but not manipulatively, she just does. You look at her cookbook and her food is just perfect.

Tom Kerridge, and he won't mind me saying this, is no Brad Pitt, but he's so warm and his food is so accessible. Even when he's cooking two-Michelin-starred food that you can't replicate at home it looks like you can. He's marketable. He's gone from running
a really successful gastropub to winning two Michelin stars, having a massive hit BBC2 TV show and a number one-selling cookbook. But he's not gone looking for it - it found him. You've got to be head chef or at least own a 
restaurant and have success behind you before you can start doing that.

But I would never for a single second jeopardise what we do at Pollen Street Social for another restaurant opening, a book deal or
a TV show. Never. No chance. That's my life. 
The day I retire will be the day I shut that door and turn the key for the last time and Pollen Street Social will cease to exist - unless one of my daughters want to take it over. I couldn't pass it on to another chef and still have my name attached to it. It's too personal.

Do you make sure your team and the younger chefs in your brigades know they shouldn't tweet and take pictures during service or do you think that culture is already established? No chance, service time is service time. I'm not on my mobile phone at lunch or dinner time, so I don't want them on theirs. I get social media and that people have to check their phones, but service is service and I'm still very traditional about that. My kitchen is silent. All I want to hear is pots and pans. When we ask for something, it's 'yes chef' and 'it's on its way'. We're communicating, we're talking and that's just how it works. Running a successful restaurant [means] you've got
to have those systems in place. Everything is systematic. That's one thing I learned from 
Gordon [Ramsay], because he is very good at having systems in place.

My pass at Pollen Street is on display. If someone is not happy with a dish - which happens - and a waiter brings it back and sticks it [on the pass] to show me… no.

There's a system in place. We don't discuss a customer's complaint in the front of a glass screen with
a dirty plate in my face while I'm plating up clean food. They know to go round the back, and ask if I have two seconds. I then pass that plating on to the head chef, and he continues. I walk around and we discuss and make a decision about whether we take it off the bill or cook another one… it's a system that's in place.

The minute you break the system, chaos reigns - it's as simple as that. I make a 
joke that it's not a democracy, it's a regime. 
But that's a joke - it's not really a regime. 
ell, sometimes.

WATCH THE VIDEO HERE >>

THE GREAT BRITISH CAMPAIGN

During the talk, Atherton exclusively revealed that he was to take on the role of an international ambassador as part of VisitBritain's GREAT campaign, which will see him
presenting the best of Britain around the world.

He joins other high-profile Brits, including Victoria Beckham, Jenson Button and Andy Murray, as part of a broader international tourism drive to maintain the world spotlight placed on Great Britain during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

"Initially, when I received an email from David Cameron, I thought it was a hoax," he told delegates. "But I asked my PR Jo Barnes to check it out and she said the prime
minister wanted to have a meeting with me, so I attended a meeting at 10 Downing Street," said Atherton.

"Following the government's investment in the Olympics, it appointed a team of ambassadors to spread the good word about Britain, and it's an immense honour to be asked to be the ambassador for food and drink - not bad for a boy from Skegness with no GCSEs!"

Atherton will focus on the country's food, drink and tourism industries, and will be supported by colleagues from VisitBritain, who will shadow the chef's scheduled
overseas trips.

While on location (the first one took place in Hong Kong this month), he will support ambassadorial dinners and give talks that highlight Britain as a top tourist destination and a producer of exceptional food and drink. A bus featuring Atherton's image will carry the slogan "Food is GREAT Britain".

JASON ATHERTON'S RESTAURANT OPENINGS

2010: Shanghai Table No. 1, May
2011: London Pollen Street Social, April
2012: Singapore Esquina, January, Pollen, June, Keong Saik Snacks, September
2012: Hong Kong 22 Ships, October
2013: London Little Social, March, Social Eating House, April, Berners Tavern, September
2013: Shanghai Commune Social, April
2013: Hong Kong Ham & Sherry, December
2014: London Old Town Hall, due April, City Social, due May
2014: Dubai InterContinental
2015: USA New York Edition Jason Atherton's Restaurant openings

CITY SOCIAL

Jason Atherton and Compass Group's executive dining division Restaurant Associates have teamed up to launch City Social on the 24th floor of Tower 42 in the City of London. The collaboration, an extension of Atherton's consultancy work with the firm, will see the space completely redesigned for the opening in May.

Opening date 1 May 2014
Business owners Restaurant Associates and Jason Atherton
Chef de cuisine Paul Walsh
General manager Andy Downton
Capacity 90 covers plus private dining room for 22 and chef's table for 10; the bar seats 85
Designer Russell Sage Studios
Cuisine Modern British with eclectic touches
Typical dishes Details to be confirmed, but dishes will be creative yet simple, showcasing the best of British ingredients
Typical drinks Also to be confirmed, but drinks will be simple, short, spirit-based cocktails featuring Scotch and American whiskies, gins and cognacs. Akin to Atherton's other bars, drinks will be classic and served in short glasses with a selection of Champagne cocktails on offer

TURNING A PROFIT

"Every single one of our restaurants around the world makes a profit. Some of them not very big, some of them very big, but we pride ourselves on the fact that we don't run restaurants just to win accolades. We run restaurants to make money."

For a chef who made his name through his flawless and confident cooking before demonstrating impressive business prowess, that could perhaps be regarded as something of a surprising statement. But it is through that obsession with quality that Jason Atherton has found financial success.

"I just don't bog myself down with percentages and margins. I let the business open up for two or three months and then we ask ourselves if we're happy with the quality of the food, the wine service, if we have a regular clientele and if they are happy," he explains.

When satisfied with those criteria, Atherton, the executive team and the team of the restaurant will only then start tweaking the margins to make it a commercial success.

"That, to me, is crucial," he insists. "Not the other way around, because you can't take a food cost to the bank. You can get 50% food costs and make £50,000 profit a month."

He cites Social Eating House as the perfect example: "It won a Michelin star and three rosettes, so it's a massive success story, but I think we had 50% food costs in the first couple of months. Now - I'll tell you quite honestly - it makes £100,000 a month. That's a ton of money, but it's down to the team behind it."

THANKS TO OUR SPONSORS

AA HOTEL SERVICES

The AA was delighted to support the recent audience with Jason Atherton. Having followed Jason's career for many years it was interesting to hear his honest and frank views.

His own self-evaluation of not being ready to be a head chef in his earlier years is a great lesson for many young ambitious chefs, as is his hunger to keep learning and developing.

His passion, drive, commitment and work ethic, combined with empowering and making each head chef a stakeholder in his restaurants, has been key to creating such a
successful collection of restaurants around the world.

Simon Numphud, head of AA Hotel Services

CCS

CCS is proud to support respected restaurateur Jason Atherton at this unique event. An Audience with Jason Atherton was insightful and stimulating, and it was fantastic
to hear the advice he provided to aspiring chefs. As the world's foremost suppliers of the finest quality catering equipment and professional clothing, we have enjoyed a long working relationship with Jason, and it has been fantastic to see him grow from a young, inquisitive chef to a highly commended restaurateur.

Antony Ward, marketing manager at CCS

RESTAURANT ASSOCIATES

Jason is a real inspiration - his passion and determination to succeed holds no bounds and he is a fantastic mentor for young chefs. We were really pleased to support this
event. It gave aspiring chefs a great opportunity to hear about Jason's journey on the road to success and get some insight into developing a career within this competitive and dynamic industry.

Restaurant Associates has had the privilege of working with Jason for the past four years. The support he's provided to our Associates has been brilliant and the
launch of City Social in May will cement this relationship even further.

Andy Harris, managing director of Restaurant Associates

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