Acclaimed Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton talks to Hospitality Ireland about opening restaurants around the world, winning acclaim, and facing challenges head on.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in March of 2022.
Jason Atherton started out working alongside great chefs including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, and Ferran Adrià at El Bulli before joining Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2001 and launching Maze, first in London, and then another five globally.
Atherton left Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2010, to launch his own restaurant company, Jason Atherton Ltd. His flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, opened in April 2011, in Mayfair, and was awarded a Michelin star within just six months. Since then, Jason’s Social Company has grown into a globally renowned restaurant group, with a portfolio of restaurants that includes the Michelin-starred City Social, as well as Social Eating House, Little Social, the Betterment and Berners Tavern.
Alongside his London restaurants, Jason has also opened critically acclaimed eateries in Shanghai, Dubai and St Moritz, and his Michelin-starred restaurant, the Clocktower, in New York. He has written four cookbooks and, together with his wife, Irha, supports numerous charities, including Hospitality Action.
Jason, tell us about your career so far.
I’ve worked and learned from the best chefs, including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adrià – the journey to become a chef has not been without its lows, but it has had plenty of highs. I wasn’t the most talented chef, but I was the most determined, and although I have faced many hurdles through my career, my determination and my hard work helped me to get through all of them. Working with these chefs has been such a great opportunity, an incredible experience, and I am proud to have been part of this.
Where does your interest in food and cooking come from?
I knew I wanted to become a chef when I started my first job, at the County Hotel in Skegness, England. One day, the owner of the hotel said that I was “a natural cook” – that was the moment I realised I had a talent for cooking, and this has been the beginning of an amazing cooking journey for me.
What is the ethos of the Social Company?
My ethos, which I applied across the Social Company, is ‘to do better tomorrow than we did today.’ It’s a mantra that’s really simple to put across to everyone in the group.
How do the individual establishments work together and complement each other?
Each Social Company restaurant and bar has its own identity and characteristics, and has been carefully thought through, understanding the market and dining scene around it, but they all reflect the same values that apply across the group: sociability, authentic food, authentic service, fair and thoughtful business. Wherever we are in the world, we want to provide world-class food and service.
How does it work, to have establishments in other citie s, e.g. Shanghai, Dubai, New York?
Opening and running businesses all around the world is such a great achievement and challenge. It is very important to understand the market and the trends around it, but this is part of the excitement of opening up abroad. The key is also to make sure you get a really strong team in place that you can fully trust. The team need to care about the restaurant and want it to succeed. You need to find the very best people for the job, as they are the ones driving the restaurant, day in and day out.
What is a ‘typical’ day for you?
A ‘typical day’ for me would start by spending some quality time with my wife, Irha, and our kids at home before they go to school, then heading off with Irha to our head office, where I will catch up on emails and attend meetings. I then head next door, to Pollen Street Social, for lunch service. During the day I’ll also check in at Little Social, across the road, and Social Eating House, in Soho. I also try to go to the gym or boxing during the day, as I love to keep active. Then I’m back at Pollen Street Social for dinner service before heading home.
How was the lockdown for you?
The pandemic has impacted practically every industry, and it has been incredibly difficult to close my restaurants and watch as the industry has been devastated. Although the hospitality industry was hit hard by the pandemic, it also gave us the opportunity to evolve, to be creative, and work in a way that we never thought of before – for example, by creating new offers, such as my ‘Jason at Home’ delivery boxes, in collaboration with Lake District Farmers, which is still available online, offering the opportunity to cook and enjoy a special night of impressive food at home, with minimum effort. On a personal aspect, those lockdowns made me realise that I had to dedicate much more time to my family, it’s so important.
What is your assessment of the restaurant industry now?
As mentioned before, the world’s changed with the pandemic, just as the way we work and manage our restaurants. We worked hard and learnt a lot since the start of the pandemic – nothing should be taken for granted, and we must continue to push ourselves. It seems like we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and I remain really hopeful and optimistic about this new year and the future of the hospitality industry.
I’m so grateful to see how people have been so supportive over the last few years. They are falling back in love again with quality and seasonal and local food, and are looking forward to spending quality time with their loved ones over a good meal or drink. I also believe that, despite the challenges, there are a lot of creative and hard-worker chefs out there that will guarantee the future of our industry.
What are the major challenges right now?
Every day has its own challenges. The most recent one that we are currently facing is recruitment. Due to the pandemic and Brexit, it became really hard for the restaurant industry to get staff. We are always looking for passionate and dedicated people to join our team, and there will always be a place in one of our restaurants for a determined and hard-working member.
Do you think Covid has changed the industry permanently?
Again, the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit among all the lockdown measures. We have spent the last two years working to secure our business, and it became very clear that we had to react and adapt our business to the current situation. There will definitely be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ the pandemic in the way we work, manage and build our future businesses. Tell us about your charity work. My wife, Irha, and I support several charities, including Hospitality Action, StreetSmart and Type 1, as well as the international MSY Charitable Foundation, which provides relief aid, education and healthcare for the underprivileged in the Philippines.
How has the restaurant industry changed since you began your career?
The restaurant industry is constantly evolving. So much has happened since I began my career. The industry has seen so many talented chefs, front of house, sommeliers, etc. bringing creativity and innovation in what they are achieving, but there is one thing that remains the same, and this is hard work and determination. Working hard is essential to succeed, to try non-stop, and don’t be afraid to fail, but it is also important to take care of yourself and take some time off!
What has been the most challenging part of your career?
Every aspect of being a chef and running a business has been challenging throughout my career, from the moment I decided to move to London to become a chef, to the day I opened my first restaurant – Pollen Street Social, in London – and from time I expanded my business worldwide. Maintaining and bettering the London restaurants, as well as my restaurants overseas, and taking each opportunity as it comes is challenging, but it is part of the excitement. What strikes me are the challenges and sacrifices you have to make in order to progress and succeed.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Being awarded my first Michelin star within a few months of opening Pollen Street Social in Mayfair, alongside five AA rosettes and being number four in The Good Food Guide’s best UK restaurants, is one of my biggest achievements. Beyond that, looking back and seeing how far I’ve come to get where I am today is really amazing. I’m so proud to see all my restaurants in action, how my business has grown, and how many talented people I’m surrounded by.
How do you switch off – hobbies, etc.?
By spending quality time with my wonderful family, but if I have to be honest, I never really switch off. It’s really hard to when you love your job as much as I do. I also love to exercise. Boxing really helps me escape from work a little.
Any plans for the next six to nine months?
There are a load of things to look forward to this new year. I’m really optimistic for 2022. Maintaining and bettering my restaurants in London and abroad is always part of the plan, but I’m thrilled to be working on a number of really exciting upcoming projects. Stay tuned!