The magic touch isn’t something you can learn: you either have it or you don’t. It’s a mix of talent, determination, luck and serendipity which, in the restaurant business, is inextricably bound to both culinary and business skills. Jason Atherton has certainly got the magic touch, as amply demonstrated by the 15 restaurants he runs in various parts of the world at the age of 43.
His career started under the guidance of chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adrià. In 2001 he joined the Gordon Ramsay Group, which he left in 2011 to set up his own company called Jason Atherton Restaurants. The first venue was the Pollen Street Social, which opened in London in April of the same year (with one Michelin star awarded just six months later).
This was followed by further openings in London, and then Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, New York and even Dubai. Each time, he manages to find the ideal location, such as the botanical gardens in Singapore, and the right format, whether it is social dining or blind pig. "I never follow the latest trends" he hastens to point out "I do whatever pleases me and my staff. Which, at the end of the day, is what my customers always enjoy most".
During your speech you talked about the prejudices against British cuisine.
Everyone thinks British cuisine is really bad, but it was only bad for 50 to 70 years roughly. Before WWI it was the best cuisine in Europe. Then we completely lost out on season, fresh products … when the aspiration of poor people became being middle class we started buying canned and processed food at the supermarket and sticking it in the microwave. In the early Eighties the situation started to change: all the young British chefs rediscovered the importance of farmers, producers, fishermen. A sort of "British natural cuisine" - growing our own food, catching our game, curing our own ham.
Tell us a British recipe everyone should know.
No one knows we’re amazing in making pies. The chicken pie we serve in New York drives people mad.
You built a gastronomic empire of sorts and received many awards. What makes you more proud?
I’m uncomfortable with the world empire. I’m a cook, this is what I do. I don’t want to be a tv chef - I love people doing it, they’re living their dream, and some of the tv chefs could spark a public debate about important issues after they became famous in television. But to me, the best moment was when I opened my first restaurant: I was living my dream.
And what would be the next step for you?
I want to prove that you can still win two Michelin stars with an informal restaurant, without things getting too serious. When the waiter starts saying «This is your sea bass, the chef inspirations is this and that…» I’m like «Man, shut up! I want to eat. I know what it is, I ordered from the menu!». If I want to know more, I’ll ask you more. Just last night at Berners Tavern in London, I had Reese Whiterspoon, Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Julianne Moore at my restaurant. All these famous people just want good food, good service, good value for money: this is the basis every good restaurateur should know. For me it’s the future.
To do that, you need a perfect staff. What do you look for in someone who wants to work with you?
The first thing is: I don’t want people coming to me because I have a Michelin star, I want to know if they share my same passion. I’m crazy, I’m fanatical about food! When we are on holiday I take my children to tomato farms, I'm always looking for new ingredients. I could never answer a question like "What's your favorite ingredient?". I don’t have a favorite ingredient. I love everything!
You have restaurants in Singapore, Shangai, Hong Kong. Was the Asian cuisine a big inspiration for you?
Absolutely - in techniques, and in the idea of always keeping it lighter. But my frequent Asian travels have thought me something else: no one has better shellfish than Scotland. No surprise that 65% of all British seafood is sold in France! Another reason why we shouldn't undermine our cuisine.
You worked with Ferran Adrià. What's the greatest lesson you learned from him?
I had worked for many 3 star chefs before, and in their kitchens we were never allowed to ask questions. With Ferran it was like "So we chop an onion - but why we are doing it? How is it better to chop it?". He taught me how to question everything.
Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.