It’s a Thursday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the buzzy surrounds of Pollen Street Social, along with throngs of corporate types enjoying extended lunch breaks. At one table, Jason Atherton is in the middle of a meeting with a group of businessmen, talking shop. With his impressively clean chef’s whites, expensive-looking watch and not a hair out of place, Atherton is every inch the ‘Mr GQ’. He’s well known for his sharp sense of style, even launching a fragrance in 2015, which sold at Harrods for £245 a bottle.
Once he’s wrapped up his meeting, he greets me with a smile and a firm handshake. We’re here to talk about the launch of Pollen Street Social’s first cookbook, but Atherton’s chatty demeanour means that our conversation spans everything from his thoughts on the TV show Big Brother (“it has poisoned society”) to the hysteria surrounding the launch of Filipino fried chicken chain Jollibee in Earls Court (Atherton’s wife Irha is Filipino): “the spaghetti tastes of pure sugar, no wonder my kids loved it”.
Pollen Street Social kick-started a global empire that now spans six countries and includes seven restaurants in London alone. It’s arguably the chef’s most-loved venture and the cookbook is a gift back to the fans, a ‘thank you’ to the diners who continue to pack the place on a daily basis.
“I’ve been cooking for 32 years and only a few years ago did I start to feel comfortable with where I was in life”, Atherton says. “I felt like I didn’t have anything left to prove. I’d never felt compelled to produce a restaurant cookbook before, but Pollen Street Social is still so loved by the general public, I thought ‘let’s do it’”.
The interior at Pollen Street Social
Inspired by food
The chef’s passion for his restaurants is evident in the way that he talks about them – especially Pollen Street Social. “Sometimes, I just look at the wine list and think ‘wow, that’s all ours’ – it’s mad, I feel so blessed to be the owner.” Blessed is a word Atherton uses several times throughout our conversation, and with good reason – he didn’t always seem destined for a life in food.
“There were no restaurants in Skegness, where I grew up,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was about 14 or 15 that I went to a restaurant, and that was a high-street pizza place. My mum had a guesthouse though, and she always used to make really nice home-cooked food for her guests. Sometimes, she’d have 20 or 30 people sitting down for dinner and she did a bloody good job. I always admired that, and thought maybe I’d like to be a chef one day.”
Following a move to London, he spent time in various kitchens before joining the Gordon Ramsay Group in 2001 to help launch Maze. Although he’s no longer in touch with Ramsay, Atherton is full of admiration for his former mentor.
Image credit: Nikki To
“Gordon is an incredible talent and I think he’s one of the best chefs this country has ever produced. He’s had the longest-running three-Michelin-starred restaurant in London, so how could you not respect him? I would never have spent 12 years at the side of someone I didn’t respect.”
Speaking of Michelin, Atherton has previously expressed his desire to gain a second star for Pollen Street Social. Surely, he was disappointed when that didn’t happen at this year’s awards ceremony?
“It’s like when someone says they’re really disappointed they’ve got a son, as they wanted a daughter – it’s an awful thing to say. I’m already blessed to have one Michelin star, which I cherish very much. Of course, we want a second star, but I don’t want to open a little eight-seater restaurant to get it, I want to do it in the traditional sense. If Pollen Street stays at one star for the rest of its life, then so be it.”
That said, Atherton is planning to open a 16-seat restaurant in an intimate space next door to Pollen Street Social, which he currently rents out for fashion and art pop-ups. Although he calls the space “our Araki”, the chef insists that he has no Michelin-starred aspirations for the venture – “it will be what it will be”.
The venue’s working title is H.O.M.E. and Atherton envisages it as a “purely creative outlet”, serving a set menu inspired by his travels around the world. Guests will buy individual tickets, as opposed to hiring the space for a group: “it’s not about a party, it’s about the food and the experience”, he explains.
Jason Atherton cooking. Image credit: Nikki To
Breaking new ground
At the same time, Atherton will also be giving Pollen Street Social what he calls “a pretty extensive” refurbishment. Interestingly, at a time when restaurants are cramming in as many tables as possible, Atherton plans to take some out. “We want to make it a little more luxurious. The kitchen will be bigger, the decor will be updated, the bar set-up will change a little bit, and there will be a redesigned private dining room. We’ll probably spend another million quid on it”, he shrugs, nonchalantly.
Work is also underway to relocate Sosharu (Atherton’s Japanese-themed restaurant), following the closure of its original site in Clerkenwell earlier this year. For now, however, the focus is on international projects, including the launch of King’s Social House at the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz. The restaurant opens in early December and is the first European venture for the Social brand.
“We’re very lucky to have got to the point where the Social Company isn’t just known in Britain but is recognised internationally”, Atherton says. “We’re now seen as a global restaurant brand. I’m very happy that King’s Social House is opening in the number-one ski hotel in Europe – it’s a good fit for what our clientele wants.”
The St Moritz restaurant will serve up comfort food to diners coming off the slopes, with dishes including the likes of roasted lobster accompanied by triple-cooked duck-fat chips. “I love skiing with my family and have been coming to St. Moritz for as long as I can remember. I want King’s Social House to be a place where people can enjoy the food but also feel comfortable and cherish time with the family.”
The restaurant will be open from December to April, while Atherton would like to keep himself busy in the summer months by opening in an equally glitzy location, such as Mykonos. It’s indicative of the chef’s hectic schedule that he considers two restaurant launches in the space of one year as “not much going on”.
Atherton adding the finishing touches to a dish
Brexit and beyond
Atherton is also engaged with politics – and, in particular, Brexit (a topic currently looming over the restaurant industry). His views might not be shared by all (“David Cameron did a bloody damn good job running the country”), but it’s hard to disagree with his sentiments on the Brexit fallout.
Jason’s quick bites
Favourite London restaurant?
Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. I love Alain, I call myself his groupie. I take the family there for any birthday or special occasion.
What do you like to cook at home?
My daughter was recently diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, so we’re trying to eat a little healthier. At the moment, I’m experimenting a lot with vegetables.
Best place for a foodie holiday?
Top three would be Japan, Italy and New York. We have a restaurant in Manhattan, called The Clocktower, and I just cannot help but get inspired when I’m in New York – every restaurant is packed.
Guilty food pleasure?
A ham, cheese and crisp sandwich with HP sauce. Disgusting, but good when you’ve been drinking.
Describe your cooking style in three words?
Peaceful, mature, tasty.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
An architect. Restaurant designers normally hate me as I always get too involved in the design process.
“The public has to stop being divided over Brexit, let’s all get back together and stop the bullshit”, he says. “I did vote to remain in the EU, but even when Sosharu failed I didn’t sit there crying in my milk. My attitude is ‘let’s just get on with it’”.
But Brexit isn’t the only future issue weighing heavily on the chef’s mind. Atherton reckons that he only has 10 years of hard work left in him. “I can’t even believe I’m talking to you about retiring”, he remarks, although he doesn’t really mean full retirement. While he plans to stop cooking in the evening, he is still keen to head up the occasional lunch service.
I ask whether he has anyone in mind to take over from him, when the time comes to hang up his chef’s whites. “I’m not a charity”, is the swift reply. “I’ve got to secure my future. But I also don’t want to be a sell-out. I want to be a restaurant owner who sets an example to his staff.”
The plan is for Atherton to step away from the kitchen and become a full-time restaurateur, selling shares in his business to some of his most trusted employees. This grand strategy will allow him more time with his wife and business partner Irha, who he talks about adoringly. “She has my back 150 per cent. When she’s at the office, I know there’s no nonsense.”
Despite the GQ fashion shoots and the media hype surrounding Atherton’s brand, cooking is still his real passion. “After all these years, I still love food. I’m totally crazy about it.” Atherton might be talking about retirement plans, but it’s clear he’s not done quite yet.
Pollen Street: The Cookbook is out now
Featured image by Mattias Bjorkelund