Words Kirk Truman
Photography Alistair Guy
Jason Atherton is one of London’s most successful and respected chefs. He started out working alongside leaders in the industry such as Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis and Ferran Adria at el Bulli, before joining Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2001. Nine years later, Jason left to launch his own restaurant company. His flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, launched the following year in Mayfair and earned a Michelin star within just six months of opening. I talked to Jason about his youth and his journey as a restaurateur.
Tell me about your youth.
I was born in Sheffield but when I was three we moved to Skegness, where my Mum set up a B&B. Although Skegness had a bad reputation for food, my Mum could cook and I’d help out with the breakfasts, then go out and do the donkey rides for kids on the beach, and afterwards I’d help with dinner. My mum and stepdad both worked very hard, and without realising it, I was learning hospitality. I was only 16 when I left home for London, my family didn’t want me to leave so young but I knew if I wanted to be a good chef I had to go there. That’s why I left while my mum was on holiday, my sister tried to stop me but I had my mind made up. Once they saw I was working and in a decent youth hostel they were OK. Once I got to London there was no going back for me.
How did your career as a chef begin?
When I arrived in London, I put myself out there and started to get whatever experience I could working in kitchens. I knew I wanted to be creative and was very eager to learn. One of the greatest experiences I had was working with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain. He’s the most creative chef I know – he’s a living legend. I also worked with other great chefs including Pierre Koffmann, Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White. I learnt from the best!
Tell me about the journey.
Following my time with these top chefs I joined the Gordon Ramsay Group in 2001 as the executive chef for Verre in Dubai. Four years later, I opened Maze with Gordon in London, which went on to be the most successful restaurant in the group. After nine years, it was time for me to leave and open my own restaurant. I had always dreamed of having my own restaurant so when Pollen Street Social opened in 2011 and was a complete success, I was ecstatic. However, it gave me even greater determination to continue and open more restaurants under The Social Company banner.
Tell me about your relationship with our capital?
Since I moved to London it has been home for me. I live in Balham with my wife Irha and two children, Jemimah and Keziah. It’s an exciting place to be in our industry; as the dining scene changes daily, there’s always a new trend making an appearance – it’s very competitive. London’s hospitality industry has so much to offer, it’s incredible. We also have access to some of the finest ingredients in Britain, such as meat from the Lake District and fish from Cornwall, meaning the produce on our restaurant menus is always of the highest quality.
Tell me about The Social Company, your London restaurants, and Pollen Street Social.
The Social Company is eight years old, and now has 16 restaurants worldwide, including Shanghai, New York, and Doha, as well as London. Even though the company has grown massively, we are still a family business and we’ll stay that way. All my chef patrons feel like they don’t work for me, they work with us – this relationship has been key to the success and growth of The Social Company. I think The Social Company has made Michelin-starred dining accessible to everyone. Pollen Street Social started this: the whole point was that you can get the very best food and service but the atmosphere is fun, lively and you don’t have to be dressed up. As well as Pollen Street, Social Eating House offers a very informal and social setting with rustic, moody interiors and a vibrant Soho speakeasy bar upstairs, but still serves out-standing Michelin food. The Social Company also focuses on the finest ingredients; all my chef patrons invest time in their cooking and in sourcing some of the finest ingredients from around the UK.
How has your career evolved since you became a restaurateur?
Through becoming a restaurateur, naturally I needed to take more time out of the kitchen to oversee restaurants from concept to opening, and then maintaining the high standard guests expect to receive when they dine with us once the restaurant is open. That’s why none of my restaurants have my name, as I’m not cooking there all the time. I build a strong team and put my trust in them to run the restaurant to my standards. However, when I’m in London, you’ll find me in the kitchen at Pollen Street Social – I’m still a chef as well as a restaurateur. Opening restaurants all over the world has helped me to develop by discovering cultural food trends, visiting competitors and being able to bring elements of my existing restaurants to the new ones, whether it’s a signature dish or a drinks concept.
What are your future aspirations?
To continue running successful restaurants with the team and family I have around me.