Jason Atherton is a chef on a mission: A mission to continually evolve and improve his flagship offering Pollen Street Social while at the same time giving others around him the opportunity to grow. Jason found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide at his flagship restaurant, one early afternoon in August
After Maze did so well, you must be thrilled with the success of Pollen Street Social?
About 15/16 years ago I was very lucky to work along side Gordon Ramsay at Marco’s (Pierre White) before he (Gordon Ramsay) set up Aubergine. Years later (2002) I joined Gordon’s company to head up the Verre and Glasshouse Restaurants at the Hilton Dubai Creek.
It’s been eye opening working for the two English chefs who became the two youngest to be awarded three (Michelin) stars in Europe. For the likes of Marco (Pierre-White) and Gordon (Ramsay) to have had that level of maturity in their cooking at such a young age, to achieve (Michelin) three star status, really takes some doing and is something to be highly respected!
Indeed I have found that whatever Gordon (Ramsay) turned his hand to in the restaurant world: being a head chef; being a TV chef; being your boss; publishing a cookbook; being a restaurateur; he was damn good at it and I think that has been proven.
So when Gordon (Ramsay) asked me to come to London and open Maze in partnership with him it was a dream come true! Maze opened seven years ago and was a great success for a big restaurant. Combining large restaurants with fine-dining had only really been seen before in the States so it was a brave concept and one that worked well – the public enjoyed it and so did the guides with some much appreciated recognition.
After seven years it was time to move on. In terms of objectives – when you’re younger you perhaps chase the dream of accolades but as you get older you find a finer balance – having a full restaurant of happy customers is paramount and anything else that follows is a bonus and I’m delighted that Pollen Street Social has proven (touch wood) a busy restaurant.
In terms of recognition, The Good Food Guide recently made an announcement that Pollen Street Social had been promoted to 9/10 for the 2013 edition. I was bowled over by that! It puts the restaurant in a whole new bracket. We have new young chefs beating down my door to come and work here, to learn and develop. As a result I have a responsibility to train these chefs for the future and it’s an honour and a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
At the same time I’m always motivated to continually improve what the restaurant (Pollen Street Social) has to offer, with each new set of dishes and each new menu, we must be constantly evolving and improving, continuously striving to aim higher in our goals – to please our customers and hopefully recognition from the ‘Guides’ will follow from that strong foundation.
How was the experience of appearing on Great British Menu this year (judging Phil Howard?)
Phil Howard is a great chef, he’s a legend in this industry, he knew I would be the mentor and he was up for the challenge. I had to be honest, if there was something I liked I said so and likewise if I wasn’t so sure. For me, maintaining my integrity was without question the priority. As it turns out I scored him the highest of the week because his food was the best I was judging.
Tell us about your new upcoming show “The Secret Interview”
I’m very choosy about the TV I will do and not do; I made a rule that I wouldn’t do too much reality TV as I wasn’t convinced about the link between what I do for a living and what this kind of TV has to offer. “The Secret Interview” happens to be a reality TV show but what made the concept stand out for me is that its one with a difference: It’s about giving talented and passionate young people a proper opportunity.
Perhaps the younger generation of today don’t realize that you have to bust a gut for 6/7 years to make a sensible start on getting where you want to go. No nice clothes, no holidays, no new cars and so on. I remember living with 13 other chefs in a three bedroom flat with sleep deprivation headaches: I was working in one of the best kitchens in Britain and was happy, loved it in fact – maybe the current generation would struggle with that idea. After all, since Marco (Pierre White) and Gordon (Ramsay) who is coming through?
These young people on “The Secret Interview” thought they were on ‘Future Stars’ so were possibly playing up to the camera a little, in fact their workplace was being streamed through to me. So when they came to interview, for example, I might ask “Do you feel so passionate about being a chef that if someone came into your restaurant at 10.45pm and you close at 11pm would you still feed them?” I might already know the answer having seen them in their working environment.
So on one level the program was highlighting ethics. At the end of the show one of the contestants would be offered a job being trained here (Pollen Street Social) and if they spend a year or two years with me and achieve all the right things then I could open doors for them: The top end of the restaurant world is small – everybody knows everybody and someone who grasps the opportunity being presented has a potential passport to greatness!
What is your philosophy for running a successful restaurant?
It’s about creating an environment that appeals to customers. If you’re a good chef then cooking good food is a given. I was excited about the opportunity to offer complete flexibility – eat one course, two or three – or come in and just have a cocktail, chat to the bar staff and so on. We live through changing times and you have to adapt to the changing needs of your customers or your business can suffer very quickly.
What impact does the TV work have on your business?
Here’s the thing with TV – you either really enjoy it or you really don’t: First point, if you don’t enjoy it then don’t do it! The second is that you have to manage a careful balance, as it can help or hinder what you do in a couple of ways: I feel, for me, its important to keep a focus on what got you on TV in the first place or you run the risk of diluting the credibility that makes you a decent chef. At the same time if your appearances are good, business is good (for a short while), and if you are bad then business can be bad (for a long while). So whilst I enjoy doing TV, I’m wary and wise (hopefully) to the extent and scope of the opportunity it provides.
What impact do the guides (AA, Michelin, GFG, Harden’s, Zagat or even Trip Advisor) have on your business?
They’re all important! Although you have to maintain the right perspective.
The guides will tell you that they are there for their readers and not for chefs but yes they are important to chefs, too. Not just from the point of view that they can affect your level of business – like no other industry chefs put their life and soul into their work and when some recognition comes along it is more than just appreciated! It’s a benchmark for chefs, no two ways about it! When I go abroad do I use guide books, yes I do! It remains very important but like I say, with the right perspective.
What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs of the future?
We live in a world of social media, TV, fame and fortune. Be a chef for the right reasons, that is food: love of food: a passion for food. Its long hours, dark days and tough times but what will get you through is a passion for food.
What are your plans for the future?
Organic growth – there’s no master plan. Natural expansion has led to three restaurants in Asia, for example. I don’t cook anywhere other than Pollen Street Social and that’s where I should be judged on my skill and vision. That will remain the case for some time to come! I plan to continue giving opportunities to others, developing them and playing a part in their careers, too.