It’s hard to believe that it has been more than 15 years since 44-year-old Jason Atherton, from Sheffield, first cooked up a mouth-watering storm in the UAE as Gordon Ramsay’s protége at his first Dubai restaurant. Now, in an exclusive Friday interview, the Michelin-starred chef reveals what he loves about his job, what the stars mean to him, why Dubai is special and how food continues to be an overwhelming passion for him.
When did you fall in love with cooking?
When I was about 13 or 14, I used to help my mum with our guest house in Skegness, Lincolnshire. In fact, my sister and I used to help out a lot – hospitality is in our blood, even though I probably didn’t realise it at the time. I really enjoyed the manual labour side of things and the whole process of foods being brought in raw and then being transformed into something nourishing and satisfying. I also loved the fact that people just seemed to be really happy when around good, hospitable people. From a young age, I wanted to be a chef. At 16, I got a job at the County Hotel in Skegness. Then, at 17, I became a commis chef at Boyd Gilmour’s Covent Garden restaurant. After years of being a sous chef, I moved on, and learnt about kitchen management.
Where do you draw your inspiration and influences from when devising your menus?
My inspiration comes from so many mediums – reading, watching a movie, talking to another chef, or eating in a restaurant. I’m inspired by my travels – I’ve just been hanging out in Sydney for a while and am massively inspired by their whole brunch culture. It is so relaxed out there and everyone walks around in shorts and flip-flops, yet they are food obsessed. Their coffees and pastries are out of this world. I am just very fortunate to have all these avenues of inspiration open to me.
Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Dubai?
I was sent here by Gordon from 2001-04 to run his restaurant, Verre, and I just fell in love with the place. It’s such a fast-moving city, yet at the same time, very relaxed and easy to live in. Also, here I met my wife Irha who was a receptionist at Verre. We married in Jebel Ali, so I have many fond and romantic memories of the place. When I got the chance to open a restaurant in Dubai, there was no question!
How have our tastes evolved over the years?
My grandma was a home cook. There were always at least two courses at every meal, made with ingredients grown by my grandad. But that all changed, she told me, after the Second World War started and rationing began which meant gastronomy fell to the bottom of the country’s priorities.
Food wasn’t about taste anymore and almost got forgotten about. Supermarkets were more than happy to make a fortune out of the situation, with the rise of ready and microwavable meals, which led to lack of nutrition and creativity. It was all about how fast, cheap and convenient we could make food. Where once our dairy and meat industries were the pride of Europe, they were soon massively squeezed. It took the rise of TV chefs such as Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson – both home cooks – to bring food back under the radar. Soon, people wanted to learn about farmers’ markets and where their meat was coming from. Restaurants also became more affordable, and were no longer reserved just for very special occasions.
I believe now, over the past five to 10 years, the UK has developed one of the strongest food scenes in the world.
Just how important is a Michelin star? After all, you’ve got three – for Pollen Street Social, City Social and Social Eating House.
Who doesn’t like a badge, an award or a pat on the back? It’s great in any walk of life to get recognition for what you do on a daily basis. A lot of chefs out there might say they don’t care about Michelin stars, but that’s nonsense – we all want it! They are what Oscars are to movie stars, they put you in the best possible category. Once you get a star, your life changes. You get a lot of respect in the industry for getting one – it’s like being in a brotherhood.
What do you think about celebrity chefs?
What does celebrity actually mean? I’m happy that I’m famous for being good at my job, but I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I’ve just finished filming MasterChef in Australia – one of the country’s biggest TV shows – and it has been great, but it can take up to 16 weeks to complete filming. This just means less time being a chef and being in one of my restaurants, and that’s why I’m not planning on doing another series.
What’s more important to me? Being famous and being recognised and stopped in the street or being really good at cooking? I understand how the celebrity side of things can be very alluring, but if I ever feel that being famous has taken precedence, I’ll feel that I have diverted from my goal.
What was it like working with Gordon at Maze and Marco Pierre White at Harveys?
When I worked for them, it was six-day weeks and 18-hour days – it was a very different ball game then. Both were physically in the kitchen the whole time chasing their third Michelin stars, which was a really good time to be around a chef to learn, as they were hell-bent on being the best in the world. There was nowhere to hide, no corners to be cut – just a team of 15 cooks, working hard in the kitchen towards the same goal.
When you’re away travelling for work, what do you look forward to most when you get home, aside from spending time with family and friends?
My comfort blanket is Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. It might sound weird, but I have had the restaurant for a long time, and it is the flagship. In a career, you experience many ups and downs, but Pollen Street Social just seems to run effortlessly, as it has had so many man-hours put into it over the past six years. It also helps that they are all absolutely terrified of me in the kitchen!
I know when I get back to London and get out of my car, the restaurant will be shining there like a beacon of light. My staff and I are so proud of it.
What do you do to switch off and relax?
I enjoy watching rugby and football on TV, but I love to box, work out and run. I usually do some form of exercise five times a week, sometimes twice a day. You’ve got to remember that I’m tasting food all the time.
It takes a lot of discipline as all the time you’re consuming calories, so it’s very easy for chefs to fall out of shape. Then, you can’t do the hours anymore as you’re so tired and lethargic. In fact, it was Gordon who taught me the importance of staying fit and healthy and looking after yourself.
If you’re carrying an extra 10kg in the kitchen all day, that’s a lot! That’s why I am pleased to be supporting this year’s Zurich Corporate Touch 6’s Tournament for rugby. No matter what line of work you are in, it’s so important keep fit and active.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs reading this interview?
Don’t do it! Seriously! Food has got to be a lifestyle, a passion, something that totally consumes you. It can’t be something that you do from nine to five. It’s like being a professional sportsperson – you analyse everything you do afterwards, you practise all the time.
I’m lucky that my wife is just as passionate about food as I am, so I have someone to talk to about it all the time. All our holidays are based around food – I’m learning all the time. I don’t feel like I have a job, and I feel blessed to be doing something I absolutely love.