'Michelin will come to the Gulf' - Jason Atherton
Jason Atherton never stops. With near-constant travel between the 16 restaurants around the world that baring his name, the British chef flew into Dubai - where he used to live in the early 2000s - to oversee the progress of his restaurant Marina Social. Esquire Middle East sat down with the stylish chef, and ordered lunch.
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ESQUIRE: What'll it be, chef?
Jason Atherton: There's plenty to choose from, but you need to try the duck leg agnolotti with duck crumble. It’s one of my favourites.
Are you going to have some?
No, I think I’ll have one of the sourdough pizzas that we do here. The wagyu salami and reblochon is seriously good.
You do pizzas here?
Yeah. Everyone thinks that we’re a fine-dining restaurant, but we’re not. All my ‘Social’ restaurants are flexible. It’s the kind of place where you could come in for a drink and a pizza with your buddy before shooting off to somewhere like Pier 7, but we also cater to people who want to spend the evening going through the whole multi-course menu experience. That’s what Marina Social was always meant to be. The trouble is, as soon as you mention ‘Michelin’, people think that you can only come if you’re celebrating a special occasion, like an anniversary or a graduation. It’s not about that.
Hence the pizzas.
Exactly. I love the pizzas, in fact I took one to my room the other night to watch Game of Thrones.
Nice. I didn’t peg you as a Thrones fan?
I love that show. Jon Snow [Kit Harington] is actually one of our big regulars at Social Eating House in London.
Did you keep sending him free food to see if he would let any spoilers slip?
Haha, no. I reckon they’ve had to sign a cast-iron non-disclosure agreement to keep from spilling the beans.
I imagine you must have quite a list of regular celebrities eating at your restaurants?
I do, and I’ve been lucky to have become good friends with people like Benedict Cumberbatch and [X-Factor UK presenter] Dermot O’Leary, but I’m friends with them because they are good guys, not because they are famous. I actually find success a really weird thing, because it tends to attract things that I’m not always comfortable with. I feel much more at home in my chef whites or on the weekends with my kids than at an Oscars party, networking with people. My best friend is still the same guy it was when I was four. We learnt to pee in the street together in [English seaside town] Skegness!
Are you saying that you wouldn’t pee in the street with Benedict?
Haha! It probably wouldn’t be good for his profile. It probably wouldn’t hurt mine!
So, despite running a 16-restaurant empire in London, New York, Shanghai, Dubai and Sydney, you still see yourself as a chef first?
I always have that problem when I am filling-out forms at immigration — I never know what to put down. Sometimes I put ‘director’, other times I put ‘chef’. But I suppose in my heart, I am, and will always be a chef. I’ve made some horrendous business mistakes in running my companies, because I’m not a natural-born businessman. I cook food, that’s what I do.
So do you have a grand plan for your business?
It’s never been about money for me. If I wanted to be the world’s first billion-dollar chef, I would have opened up a chain. I just want to run good restaurants. I’ve been very lucky to have great partners to work with. Back in 2012, we only had three restaurants (two of which had a Michelin-star) and were approached by [hotelier] Ian Schrager to open an all-day-dining restaurant in his new hotel The London Edition. I turned him down a couple of times, because my restaurants were doing well and we didn’t want to overstretch ourselves. But Ian flew me out to New York and wowed me with a presentation. That was genuinely one of the make-or-break moments of my career. Failing could have sunk our credibility, but thankfully, the opening of Berners Tavern in The Edition was an enormous success and continues to be packed with a who’s who of the business world.
After that, offers came flooding in from everywhere. Moscow, Sydney, Tokyo, you name it. Again, we had to take a step back and reassess what our goals were, going forward. For me, the goal will always be in the white jacket. I love cooking and I’m happy pottering about in my kitchen. I don’t want to be a global superstar chef who hosts TV shows; it’s not what I do.
Speaking of global TV chefs, you famously used to head up Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre here at the Hilton Dubai Creek. How was that?
It was a great experience. That was about 15 years ago, and the city was nothing like it is now. I remember I used to tear my hair out in frustration at not being able to get the best produce, but now it’s so much easier. Now, whatever you get in the UK or Australia, you can get here. It just goes to show the hard work that has gone into developing the infrastructure here in Dubai.
What was your biggest frustration at Verre?
Back then, being a chef in Dubai wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll. No one cared for Dubai as a culinary destination and you weren’t taken seriously, regardless of how good you were. You were just another chef in just another kitchen. After four years here, I made a conscious decision to put my stamp on the cooking world, and to do that I had to go back to London. However, things have moved on so much. Could a young Jason Atherton make a name for himself here today? Absolutely. If a young, talented chef can open a successful restaurant in Dubai now, they will be taken seriously globally, especially as there are rumours that Michelin will be coming to Dubai soon.
Do you believe those rumours?
I do. There are enough restaurants and interesting cuisines here that there is no reason why Michelin would not be interested. You already have restaurants by big-named French chef Yannick Alléno and Pierre Gagnaire [two of the world’s most successful collectors of Michelin stars] and rumours that Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller will be opening places here soon. People are panicking, but I like it. Having Michelin here means that the existing successful restaurants won’t be able to rest on their laurels.
People will have to step-up their game…
Exactly. One of my favourite restaurants here is La Petite Maison. It is consistent and excellent, but new restaurants will push it to be even better, otherwise it will lose its place. There will be nowhere for people to hide when Michelin get here.
Are you a workaholic?
Well, I’ve been away from home for the past two weeks, and spent every one of those days in kitchens without a day off [laughs]. Have I found a work-life balance? No, and I don’t think I ever will! But that is me. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where if I don’t like doing something, then I’ll stop doing it. Life’s too short, man. I don’t really understand people who are constantly worrying about things and trying to search for a meaning to their lives.
You’re an optimist…
I am, and I’m also a big believer in karma. I don’t believe in much, but I do believe that if you’re positive in life then good things will happen. If you deal with people in the right way then there are a lot good spirits out there for you. ‘Kill them with kindness’ is a big motto of mine.
What do you do to unwind?
I read, magazines mostly. I’m a fashion nut.
You’re reading Esquire, I assume.
Absolutely. I don’t do a lot outside of my job, so a couple of years ago I made a conscious decision to take my interest in fashion a bit more seriously. The way I look at it is I have to get dressed every day, so I may as well take pride in it. I started getting more involved in the fashion industry, especially as people like [model] David Gandy and Jonathan Akeroyd [the new CEO of Versace] were regulars at Berners Tavern. Over the years they’ve become close friends.
Dare I ask, how many suits do you own?
So many. It’s ridiculous. I’m also obsessed with shoes. At the moment the space under my bed is jam-packed with them. We are moving house next year and I’m getting a bespoke shoe wardrobe made — that’s my dream.
Do you prefer to keep it casual or more formal?
As a proud adopted Londoner, I am a big fan of Savile Row and a firm supporter of the guys down there. London is the capital of menswear and we have some of the best shoemakers and tailors in the world. I generally try to keep things pretty smart, but unlike here, in the UK you’ll never catch me in a pair of shorts and flip-flops.
Marina Social, InterContinental Dubai Marina. 7pm to midnight. marinasocialdubai.com