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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Jason Atherton

09 March 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Jason Atherton

Last April, Jason Atherton put all his life savings into launching his first solo venture, Pollen Street Social, in London's Mayfair. Here, he talks to Amanda Afiya about realising his childhood dream and the impact he's making in the UK and around the globe

It's been almost a year since you launched Pollen Street Social, how's it been?
It's been amazing; there's no two ways about it. It's been a fantastic year, but it's been difficult too. Everyone only ever looks at the nice shiny bits.

We've had a fantastic year with awards and people praising the restaurant, but the first month was difficult - we got things wrong, the menu structure was wrong, the style of food was a bit too fussy. I think that we were trying to carry on from Maze and I think the world has moved on since we opened Maze in 2005 and it was time for me to change what I did.

Every time someone reviews the restaurant I look at their reviews - it's important not to dismiss negativity, as long as it's valid. The first couple of reviews had some negative comments about the food being over-complicated, the menu being too big and that it was trying to please too many people.

You had nine months in the run-up to opening the restaurant and you also travel extensively so your eyes are open to a lot. Do you think you tried to do too much in the restaurant's early days?
You're absolutely right - with travelling a lot it gives you an insight into what's successful in other countries, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be successful here and I had 1,000 ideas. I think Fay Maschler was absolutely correct in her review when she said Pollen Street Social was brimming over with ideas, but it needed to settle down, with fewer dishes on the menu. She was right; that's exactly what needed to happen.

We have a very simple three-course lunch menu now, we have a tasting menu at dinner, we have a simple à la carte at night, and we concentrate on finding the best ingredients we possibly can and we're sympathetic to them.

You had quite a free rein at Maze, but what have you learnt about yourself in the last year as an operator?
I think I have learnt how resilient, how hard working and how single minded I am - whether that's right or wrong - it's my way or the highway. It's not that I run it like a dictatorship but it's very important to have one voice.

But that doesn't mean it's a closed shop - we all work as a team. For instance, we were looking at the way we present leeks on the cod dish at lunch, and one of the commis chefs came up with a different way and showed me it - it was fantastic so we switched to that today. It's not that everybody has to follow the beat of my drum, but it's my vision of the restaurant.

What difference does it make having your neck on the line?
It's massive. People are quick to criticise restaurants, but I've taken all my life savings, remortgaged my house, jeopardised my children's education to follow a lifelong dream of opening my own restaurant. At the age of 16, when I got off that train from Skegness to London King's Cross, it was a dream to have my own restaurant and I had the balls to carry that through. I never wanted to get to 50 and think ‘what if?'.

You had some criticism at the beginning about the use of your name in the restaurant and yet there are plenty of chefs out there with eponymous restaurants.
There are lots of chefs out there with restaurants that carry their own name that don't even have a shareholding in them. At the end of the day does that really matter? Do you have to have your name above the door?

I was doing an interview in Singapore recently and they asked me why I don't call my restaurants after myself and I said because it doesn't matter about me; my culinary heritage matters, as does what I bring to my business, but nothing would please me more than for one of my daughters to go to a culinary school and take over what I have built, because there's not enough of that in my country and I'm not ashamed of my industry.

You speak to people and they say I don't want my children doing this - it's too much like hard work. There are not enough hard-working people in this country. Everything is at the click of a button nowadays, people want it easy, but to become a great chef it takes 20 years.

As a restaurateur I take inspiration from people like Danny Meyer in New York and Thomas Keller, it's the French Laundry, it's Per Se, it's Bouchon, I think those days are gone when the chef has to have his name above every door. It's so egotistical - and that's why I got upset with the AA Gill review because he said I was the last of the egotistical chefs, and that's just not true because I'm one of the least egotistical of all the Michelin-starred chefs.

My restaurant doesn't carry my name; it's Pollen Street Social. I have my name on the menu, of course I do, because it's my restaurant - but I don't use my name in that way.

A lot of chefs rush to become chef-proprietors, but you've taken your time
It's taken me a long time - Caterer and Hotelkeeper has followed my journey. It's taken me a long time and I'm so happy for that because it's worked for me that way. Some chefs out there, for example Brett Graham who is a chef patron, it's happened for him at a very early age, he's done a wonderful job of maintaining standards, improving, being very mature in that role. I felt like destiny had something else planned for me.

If I had been chef-patron at a young age, it would have been about one small restaurant doing what I did, but I work at 1,000 miles an hour, I show people my schedule and their heads fall off. It's a tough schedule to keep up with but that's what it is, that's what I do. I need a busy restaurant to keep me occupied.

You get inundated with approaches for partnerships, how do you decide whether you've got the capacity for something or not?
I just let things grow organically. I don't have a master plan as such. But I make things quite clear to all journalists, and anybody who wants to join our organisation - or anybody who wants us to do a consultancy with them - I only ever cook day to day at Pollen Street Social. It's where I want my name to be attached to, it's where I live and die by the food, and I make no bones about it, I'd like, eventually, for Pollen Street Social to go even higher in the UK guidebooks.

We already have great accolades, but of course we want to achieve even more - I have higher aspirations as a chef - but if it doesn't happen, hey, it is what it is. But what we do have is a very successful business - the job is to keep it that way.

You've recently signed with Hong Kong Airlines - tell me about the deal?
I have a company called Jason Atherton Restaurants which has a contract with Compass, specifically with Restaurant Associates, where I am a food consultant for them. I do staff training, come up with menu ideas, teach their chefs about seasonality, new trends.

I do some events for Compass at Twickenham on match days, I do golf with them, in conjunction with BMW (I'm a BMW brand ambassador) and now that company - Jason Atherton Restaurants - has a contract with Hong Kong Airlines to do the food for their new A330s, which is all Club Classic and Club Premier business to Hong Kong and back.

The planes are gorgeous, unbelievable. There are two chefs involved myself and Chinese chef Chow Chung and he's doing the Asian food and I'm doing the Western food. It launches next week.

Are you open minded about the future?
I'm very open minded, I don't for a minute think I'm some sort of hotshot restaurateur going to take on the world, I still think I'm the chef Caterer and Hotelkeeper met all those years ago when I was at Frith Street when people first started to notice who I was. I'm still passionate, I still get excited about going to new restaurants, I still get excited when a chef is making new waves and I want to go and see what they're doing, I get excited when we put a new dish on the menu, I get excited when a fresh piece of cod comes through my door.

One thing I'm big on, and the secret to my success I think, is customer service and I get upset when we get it wrong. I want everyone who comes through my door to have a good time and I'm passionate about that.

I get upset when staff don't take it as seriously as I do. But people say: "Jason you're the owner", but I was this passionate when I was a commis chef.

You've always kept your eye on what's going on globally. How important is that to you?
It's mega important. We all know - and this has been the case for a few years - that Japan is having a massive impact on world cuisine, the way they treat their ingredients, the way they are sourced, the way they treat their staff.

This Easter we're taking the kids to Japan for 10 days. Although I'm on vacation with my family, we'll spend time eating out in restaurants, I'll do one or two stages while my wife takes the kids shopping and that's important to me. The minute you let go of that, you're saying that's it for you, you're happy where you are and you want to stop growing. I don't ever want to stop growing.

I set out my stall to try and do things differently, to come up with new techniques and new ways of serving food and I take my job very seriously. I wouldn't be in the position I am today if I didn't.

People say I work like a dog, but I came to London with nothing, absolutely nothing, and now I have a company that's very successful and turns over a serious amount of money. It's not just a company, it's highly esteemed. In the 11 months it's been open it's won Time Out Restaurant of the Year, BMW Restaurant of the Year, the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year, 8/10 in the Good Food Guide, a Michelin star, and the AA gave it a fantastic review. You don't get that if you don't work hard. It takes single-minded, dogged determination and I've been doing it for 24 years and people forget that.

Your relationship with your backer Mavis Oei must surely be going from strength to strength?
I thank my lucky stars the day I met Mrs Oei, she's like my business angel, she's my business mentor, she's just fantastic I can't sing her praises enough. She's so down to earth and yet has been so incredibly successful but she likes to help people. She said when she met me she saw a driving passion and talent and she wanted to help me and that's exactly what she's done.

She's helped me in my career, she's helped me in my mental state, she's helped me in business decisions.

I'm very loyal to the Khoo family [Mavis Oei's biological family] and they will be my business partners till the day I die.

JASON ATHERTON'S COMPANIES

Pottage Restaurants
Assets Pollen Street Social
Shareholders Jason Atherton 70%, Mavis Oei 25%, Fenton Higgins 5%

Jason Atherton Limited
Contracts Compass (Restaurant Associates); Hong Kong Airlines
Shareholder Jason Atherton 100%

Jason Atherton Restaurant Consultancy
Contracts Table No 1, new contract to
announce soon in London
Shareholders Jason Atherton 75%,
Mavis Oei 25%

JC Tapas Limited
Assets Esquina, Singapore; Pollen restaurant, Singapore - to open June 2012; Esquina Shanghai - to open August 2012
Shareholders Jason Atherton 25%, Mavis Oei 25%, Geoffrey Eu 25%, Loh Lik Peng 25%

POLLEN RESTAURANT

Pollen restaurant, Singapore
Pollen restaurant, Singapore
Pollen restaurant, which opens in June in the Garden by the Bay in Singapore, is our big restaurant. They've spent something like SGN$1bn. When bidding for the site I thought wow - no one's ever had a restaurant like this.

I go to Dubai once a year on holiday. I was out there in October and always catch up with Colin [Clague] who's been running Zuma for years and he'd just started working for Caprice Holdings, opening up their operations in the Middle East. It was like fate, he talked to me about maybe going to Singapore and if I knew anybody out there could I mention his name. I said: "Funnily enough, we're just about to sign on a big deal out there and if you're interested we'd love to take you on board". Colin's a fantastic chef, he has a great palate, he's a really nice guy and he's very good at running a team.

If Pollen restaurant is a success, I think with that concept the world's his oyster because that is something that I would do in other locations - Colin would very much be part of that.

JASON ATHERTON'S RESTAURANTS

Pollen Street Social, Mayfair, London
Opened April 2011
Concept The restaurant is divided into two separate dining rooms, including the UK's first dessert bar, and serves a modern British menu showcasing influences from around the world. It's a social restaurant "where people can choose what they want freely - even if it's just a dessert - and wear what they want".
Seats 60 in the main dining room, a further 20 in the bar
Head chef Paul Hood

Table No.1 at the Waterhouse at South Bund Hotel, Shanghai
Opened May 2010
Concept Set in a Singaporean-owned boutique hotel, Table No.1 serves modern European dishes in tapas-sized portions using local ingredients. Menu items include razor clams with broad beans and chorizo, and coriander, and the now famous table of desserts.
Seats 60
Head chef Scott Melvin

Esquina, Singapore
Opened December 2011
Concept Tapas bar showcasing a menu inspired by the canapés at el Bulli and features a raw seafood bar and a baby Josper grill which is used to serve dishes such as confited lamb chops
Seats 20 with a further 10 outdoors
Head chef Andrew Walsh

Pollen at the Gardens by the Bay South, Singapore
Opens June 2012
Concept Designed by Antonio Eraso and based in the Gardens by the Bay botanical gardens which span 101 hectares, the theme of the restaurant will be Mediterranean with Atherton's own team growing its own herbs and vegetables within the conservatory itself.
Seats 120, split over two levels with a dessert bar in the style of Pollen Street Social
Head chef Colin Clague

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