Talk at the Townhouse: Jason Atherton

Talk at the Townhouse: Jason Atherton

January 13, 2021
We sit down with an old friend, Michelin-starred chef and restauranteur, Jason Atherton. He talks to us about his passion for precision, why patience is a virtue all cooks need, and why he doesn’t rate “scruffy chefs”

Quite apart from his international restaurant portfolio and Michelin-starred food, we wanted to catch up with Jason Atherton because his connection to our new clubroom, Sol’s, is more personal than you might imagine. Sol’s, for those who don’t know, is named after Luke’s late father-in-law, the hotelier, Sol Kerzner. “I worked with Mr Kerzner in 2009,” Atherton explains. “One & Only Resorts was opening a hotel in Sol’s hometown, Cape Town. Back then, I was Executive Chef at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, Maze, and Gordon sent me out there to open the Cape Town hotel’s new restaurant. I worked very closely with Sol during that time and he taught me a lot about hospitality. I’ll never forget working away in the kitchen, looking up and seeing Sol stood next to me with Nelson Mandela in the middle of a personal tour. That three months was quite something.” Of course, this brief spell in South Africa is just one of many colourful episodes in Atherton’s remarkable career. He left Maze to go his own way and launch his Social restaurant concept in 2010. Since then, he’s opened critically acclaimed restaurants in London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai and St Moritz. He has four Michelin Stars under his belt, four published cookbooks and countless appearances on TV and in the press to boot. All of which begs the question: how does Atherton cope with his workload? Managing close to 20 restaurants, filming TV appearances and cooking in his flagship, Pollen Street Social, surely doesn’t come easy. “Human beings adjust to everything; you open restaurants, you travel lots, things build and being busy becomes a part of daily life,” he says, matter-of-fact. “I take my job seriously and I’m a family man. I don’t like to go out partying. There’s a bevvy of chefs who’ve tried that and it doesn’t work, I’d rather make sure I’m finding time to see my kids.”

Today, Atherton is sitting in Sol’s during the break between lunch and dinner service at Pollen Street Social. He wears a midnight blue cashmere mock neck, slim-cut charcoal flannel trousers and a pair of tan country grain brogues from Crockett & Jones. It’s a simple, put-together look that reflects his composed demeanour. It also hints at one of Atherton’s other passions, men’s style. “I dream of those pictures from the South of France and Paris in the 1950s, with chefs in their immaculate whites, with a cravat or perfectly tied tie, starched shirt and tailored trousers beneath,” he says. “A few years ago it became cool for chefs to be scruffy, but I never saw the appeal. In my kitchens, all my chefs have to wear smart black trousers and clean, pressed whites. Hospitality is all about respect; respect for the food we cook, respect for the customer, and I want my guys to respect themselves too.” So far, so serious. But Atherton does have a droll side too – and no shortage of good stories. “I remember in the early days of Pollen Street Social, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal walked in one night with no warning and no booking,” he says with a grin. “We didn’t have a table free and my maitre’d was about to turn them away.” “Now, I’m a huge fan of both those guys, so I remember cutting in and saying ‘yes, we’ve got a table’ with absolutely no idea where we could sit them. I took a spin around the restaurant and managed to move some regulars off their table and into the bar with the promise of free champagne. I remember saying to my team, ‘get that table relaid pronto’ and we just about managed it.

This leads us to ask the million dollar question; what does it take to build a restaurant portfolio like Atherton’s? Is there a recipe for success, so to speak? “The number one thing I’ve learned is patience,” he says. “When I was a young chef, when I worked with people like Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffmann, there were so many young British chefs in those kitchens who were better than me, but they’re nowhere near where I am in life now. They burned themselves out too soon.” “You need a deep-rooted passion to stick at this game; when life seems to throw every possible barrier in your way,” he says, pulling on his coat to head back to the evening service at Pollen Street. “It takes guts to shake things off and keep moving forward. If you do, good things happen eventually.” Read more about Jason’s work at jasonatherton.co.uk or book a table at Pollen Street Social through pollenstreetsocial.com

“Human beings adjust to everything; you open restaurants, you travel lots, things build and being busy becomes a part of daily life”

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