Return of the native

26 May 2005
Return of the native

When Jason Atherton opens the doors of Gordon Ramsay's latest restaurant, the stunningly designed Maze in London's Grosvenor Square, this week, he doesn't need to pinch himself and ask: "How did I get here?"

For Atherton, who launched the 90-seat restaurant based in the Marriott Grosvenor Square on behalf of Gordon Ramsay Holdings yesterday (25 May), is about as driven and food-aware as they come. He has built his career by pushing himself forward (pushing his luck in some cases), striving for the best and never being defeated. He has worked on his profession like a Premiership footballer or an Olympic athlete. This is a chef who, having studied at Boston College in Lincolnshire, and started his career on a six-week training course with the Army Catering Corps, ended up in the kitchens of Pierre Koffmann, Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.

His insatiable appetite for international food articles and cookery books highlighted to him the extraordinary talents of Ferran Adri well before the UK media and most British chefs had picked up on the visionary Spanish chef. He was the first British chef to land himself a stage at El Bulli - in 1998 - and not because one of his mentors "arranged" some work experience, but because he flew himself out to Spain, got himself to Rosas, hired a bike and cycled up into the mountains that surround the three-starred restaurant and banged on Adri's door. He put himself up in a hotel down the road for three months and worked at the restaurant for free.

The coming together of Ramsay and Atherton is an interesting one. As head chef of L'Anis (owned by restaurateur Claudio Pulze and subsequently converted to Zaika after Atherton's departure), Atherton was already establishing a name for himself. His food drew mixed responses - rave reviews from some quarters, less complimentary ones from others. But having known each other for several years through mutual friend Stephen Terry, perhaps it was inevitable that the two chefs would get it on, professionally speaking.
And while some voiced concerns that Atherton would perhaps lose the style and individuality he had been cultivating by joining the fast-growing restaurant group, the merger has been positive, serving as something of a finishing school for Atherton and creating an entirely new food concept for Ramsay. Visit Maze and you will see Atherton's cooking is intelligent, polished, intense and striking, and the surroundings provide the perfect backdrop for it.

"It has been a long wait, but I'm very excited," enthuses the 33-year-old chef. "It hasn't been without its stresses and anxiety, but it's good. What we've created here is something that I've always wanted. You can see from the moment you walk through the door that it's run by a chef. It's a very food-driven restaurant, but it's large. I never wanted a boutique restaurant where people are whispering, you can't make any noise and the waiters are scared to move."

Maze is brought to you following months and months of thorough research and planning. Atherton has virtually travelled the world, studying restaurant concepts and cuisines, while simultaneously keeping his classical roots at the forefront of his mind. "The whole point of travelling as a cook is to open your mind and see other cultures," he says.
"Throughout my career any spare money I've had has been spent on travelling and food in general. I'm obsessed with it. Food and the whole restaurant culture is my life, it's what I do. I don't believe I've got a job. I get up and do my life, that's what I do on a day-to-day basis. Every magazine or book I buy is a huge inspiration to me and when I go abroad the first thing I do is buy the local eating-out guide."

His honeymoon wasn't any different. "When we went to Rhodes for our honeymoon (Atherton married Irha, a Filipina he met in Dubai, last year, and they're expecting their first child in September) I immediately bought a guidebook. We went to the most recommended place - Alex's - which was absolutely phenomenal. I got to know the chef and he let me spend a morning with him, showing me the old Greek way of prepping octopus," he says excitedly. "They have this salad spinner with two paddles," he says, motioning with his hands. "They take the tentacles off and then put it in the spinner and beat it till it's really tender. They then cook it with some lemon juice and salt - the taste was fantastic. It's moments like that that are so special."

In Dubai Atherton spent three years heading up the food and beverage operation of the Hilton Dubai Creek, overseeing three restaurants, banqueting, 24-hour food service and a pool-side bar and looking after a staff of expats, Indians, Filipinos and Sri Lankans. Since returning, he has travelled through Vietnam (with fellow London chef Ian Pengelley), France and the USA.

Add to this Ramsay's unparalleled jet-setting and you get an incredible bank of ideas and source of inspiration. Just a few of Atherton's recent dining exploits have been to Per Se ("Thomas gets it really right, he's the number one chef in America"), Craft, WD50, Jean-Georges, the Spotted Pig, Spice Market and Daniel (all in New York), while in Paris he visited L'Arpge, L'Atelier du Robuchon (where he spent two weeks working last November "I was so impressed with the place, the service, the restaurant"), Pierre Gagnaire and L'Astrance.

"But you've got to be mature," he warns. "I've worked with a lot of chefs (not to name names) who have done a lot of travelling and one minute they are cooking Japanese, the next minute it's Spanish - they just follow fads. If you are smart and intelligent as a chef, you can travel the world picking up inspiration but you must never move too far away from your cuisine. You must be true to your training, you must try not to disrupt your food."

Despite the name of the restaurant, Maze, the design leads the guest through a series of dining areas fairly seamlessly. Various textures have been used by New York-based designer David Rockwell. On the floors, there's a mixture of oak wood, an incredibly deep-piled carpet (no doubt to give the effect of grass - and supposedly the most expensive carpet in the world, according to the contractor) and Terrazzo (a composite material poured into place, sprinkled with mother of pearl chips, left to set and polished). The walls take on varying elements too - polished plaster, etched glass, wood, fabric and woven metal. Even the kitchen blends stainless steel with a touch of rusticity, with one far wall covered in wood (for hygiene reasons, though, it is completely enclosed by glass).

Atherton remembers visiting Santi Santamaria's El Raco de Can Fabes [in Sant Celoni, Spain] where he was inspired by its unusually designed kitchen. "A good kitchen makes chefs feel better at work. If they think it's a pleasant place to work you get to hang on to them for longer and that makes your food stable. We had a great space here and I knew immediately I wanted an open plan kitchen, no shell, no mess, somewhere you can see everything going on. I'm obsessional about tidiness," he confesses.

How does London contrast with Dubai? "It's not that you're not appreciated in Dubai, it's that food is just food out there, it's not important to people. They get amazing interior designers to come in and create these wonderful spaces and then employ average chefs to run them. It's good to be back in the melting pot of some of the best chefs in the world. It's what you work that 18 hours a day, six days a week for."

No, Atherton hasn't fallen on his feet or landed a great opportunity. He has worked bloody hard to get where he is today and he deserves the platform and success that Maze is surely going to bring him.

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