“I started as a chef and I’ll finish as a chef. That’s absolutely key to me. I love being in the kitchen, I love to cook and I love to be around food. It’s my greatest strength. The minute I take my foot off the gas, that is…” For the first time in 20 minutes, Jason Atherton pauses for breath.
The bustle of the restaurant, the heat of the kitchen, living and dying by the sword (or knife, in this case): it’s all there when he speaks, which he does at a 100mph.
“Look, there’s a reason why I’ve inspired so many people to work for me,” Atherton continues, straight back into his train of thought: “This is who I am: being a chef is in my blood. Don’t get me wrong, it would be far easier not to be this way inclined, and I can see what attracts some chefs to take a step away, but that to me is the beginning of the end.”
Leaving his position as executive chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze (imagine how that was received by his former mentor), Atherton opened his first restaurant, Pollen Street Social, in April 2011. Some five years later, it’s safe to say he’s been busy: 17 restaurants across the globe, four Michelin stars and countless other industry accolades. He is probably the most successful British restaurateur in the last few years – and he did it all without a vast media profile or a cookery show to his name: “I want to be in the kitchen, not on TV,” he says. “I can say that I play a small part in shaping people’s dining habits – and I take that responsibility very seriously.”
That much is abundantly clear. Between stints at his flagship London restaurant Pollen Street Social and travelling abroad to oversee his outposts in Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York, Sydney and most recently Cebu in the Philippines, there could be no doubt that Atherton is both the engine and creative vision from which his empire drives forward. The real question is, doesn’t he ever feel tired?
I’ve lived in a state of tiredness since I first stepped into a kitchen at the age of sixteen
“I always make the joke that I’ve lived in a state of tiredness since I first stepped into a kitchen at the age of 16, it just varies in different strengths. But food is what drags me out of bed in the morning.
"I love the fact that right now we’re in the middle of tomato season, and we’ve got three or four tomato dishes on the menu that are absolutely fucking amazing. That really excites me; that’s what this is all about.”
There are no airs and graces to Atherton. His passion is palpable; he’s animated and machine guns ideas at you; he’s intensely focused, but above all he really cares.
It’s for this reason that when the airport concierge service Heathrow VIP asked him to try out its experience earlier this year, he went from an impartial visitor to offering his expertise in a short period of time.
“This is very much a first-world problem but why should we accept anything less than the best because it’s in an airport?” he asks, having spent a lot of time training the staff at Heathrow VIP to the standard he expects.
“When I go to Savile Row and buy a £4,000 suit it’s because I’ve worked damn hard, not because I’m a snob. I’m paying for that overall experience: I want my inside leg measured; to choose the lining and the pockets; to know how it’s going to feel when I’m sat down and stood up. If it doesn’t feel like pure luxury, then what am I really doing it for?”
Atherton is known for his meticulous attention to detail when dressing his dishes and restaurants, but this statement about fashion is more than a cute analogy. Outside of his chef whites, you’ll find him wearing “Thom Sweeney, suits by Richard Anderson, George Cleverely shoes and my Arnold & Son watch” – British brands who share Atherton’s ethos for quality and experience above all.
“I could go into Reiss and buy a £300 suit, but when you’re dealing with the very best, it has to be perfect. The same applies for airport lounges or restaurants: if you’re paying a lot of money for an experience, it has to be seamless and perfectly choreographed or it isn’t worth it.”
But does he feel it’s possible to maintain that as the Atherton empire continues to grow?
“We’re probably getting towards the end, to be honest. There’s a couple more restaurants in the pipeline, including a great value Italian in Victoria early next year, but we won’t open much more after that. I want to concentrate on making what we have iconic, rather than worrying about the next opening. That in itself is a whole different challenge; it’s about returning to the start and going right through the whole lot with a fine-tooth comb.”
His eyes are restless, as if scanning the Blind Pig bar where we sit for improvements. They settle momentarily on an arty poster that reads, ‘I can’t have fun if they don’t’ – and in some ways Atherton couldn’t have put it better himself. Some may wonder where this restaurateur’s pursuit of perfection stops, perhaps the same people who may ask why a chef who works long hours would love luxury clothing.
“Some people say high-end clothes are a waste of money, but it’s a waste of money to them because they don’t have the same appreciation as I do. Some individuals might spend £30,000 on the latest caravan and tow it around the bloody country because caravans are exciting for them – I couldn’t think of anything worse quite frankly but that’s just me. The problem with today’s world is everyone is so opinionated that we all just need to shut up and do what makes us happy.
“That’s reflected in my food: I only cook what I like to eat, I won’t cook ‘fashion food’ or whatever’s on-trend this week, I just want whatever it is to taste great – and I guess there are a few people who agree with me.”