Jason Atherton: ‘If you don’t stay in the race, you can’t win it’
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Jason Atherton: ‘If you don’t stay in the race, you can’t win it’

C&TH meets the British chef with Michelin starred restaurants all over the world

He’s one of the most esteemed chefs in the UK, yet it’s not often we see Jason Atherton on our screens. This summer, though, he’s fronting a new ITV show called Dubai Dishes, in which he’ll embark on a foodie tour of the Middle Eastern city. It’s a place close to his heart: Atherton worked in the UAE for many years, and recently opened a new restaurant there, City Social, with another launching soon. He’s very much an international chef, with eateries everywhere from Shanghai to Mykonos on his books – though he’s currently living in London, where he runs a number of ventures including Pollen Street Social, The Blind Pig and Social Eating House. Ahead of the launch of the new series, we caught up with a friendly Atherton – who was en route to the gym to squeeze in a session – to hear about the Dubai restaurant scene, current food trends and how the cost of living crisis is affecting the culinary world.

Q&A with Jason Atherton

How’s life at the moment?

All good thanks! I’m busy, the restaurant is busy, we have the new show coming out, I won a nice award last night – I’m happy.

Yes, congratulations on the Catey Award! How important are awards to you?

In life everyone likes validation, social media has proved that to the world. But it’s important not to get wrapped up in it – just trying to win awards is not the sole purpose in life. The sole purpose in what we do is serving our customers and cooking for our customers. And then subsequently we’re making them happy, and then subsequently we’ve won some awards in our time. That’s off the back of working extremely hard to make sure our customers are happy. 

Could you tell us a bit more about your new show, Dubai Dishes?

Of course. We filmed it last October, and it’s really just to give people in the UK a bit more of an authentic look into what Dubai is. Dubai can sometimes get trapped in that mirage of fancy hotels and beaches and Instagram, but there’s so much more to it. Dubai has a fantastic culture, and when you get into the nitty and gritty of some of the local restaurants, whether they’re Iranian, Lebanese, Emirati, you have some of the best food on the planet. If you watch the show you get to see all of it. You’ll get a real local’s guide of where to go and eat and what to eat. 

city social

City Social

What can you tell us about your new restaurant in Dubai?

City Social opened there in February, at the top of Grosvenor House hotel. Then in September we open our fine dining restaurant, this time on the 45th floor – we’re taking our tasting menu restaurant to Dubai. It’s really an exciting time for us.

How would you describe your food philosophy?

I’m 52 this year, I’m no spring chicken anymore – that’s why I do an hour in the gym every day, it’s very important for the bones. I really love to keep things simple: on a plate, my philosophy is keep it simple and super tasty. I try to work with really high quality ingredients and make sure my customers are happy. That’s it! 

What’s your earliest food memory?

When I was about 12 in Skegness, the army used to come and take over a bit of wasteland and set up a recruitment centre – it had a mobile kitchen and chefs cooking. I remember they used to give away free omelettes and I thought: this is kind of a cool job. Then when I was 16 I joined the Army Catering Corps.

Jason Atherton

What’s your favourite food scene in the world?

I’ve always been very impressed by New York, and I’m always going to be biased about Dubai. The pace at which Dubai is moving is phenomenal – not just homegrown talent, but global talent. That’s what’s exciting for me, opening restaurants there – we get to compete at an elite level in a city that’s moving so quickly. 

You recently cut the prices at your restaurant Pollen Street Social. Why did you decide to do this and how has it affected the restaurant?

It’s busier than ever, absolutely packed. We get it, because we got to a point where we got quite expensive and we started to alienate some of our regular customers, and we didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Although we had to take a big hit on how to manage our business, by doing it properly we make it work. It’s good for us, because the customers come flooding back, they’ve really supported us.

Is the cost of living crisis affecting restaurants?

Of course, absolutely. The government has got to get a handle on it – that’s easier said than done, I’m no politician. What I do know is that restaurants are part of the jigsaw, and if we don’t keep an eye on how to run our business properly, we’ll be victim to that. We have to be very mature and sensible, if it means taking a hit for now so we can get back on top then that’s what it is. Our main philosophy in life at the moment is: if you don’t stay in the race, you can’t win it.

What kind of trends are you seeing in the restaurant world?

I think simplicity is a massive thing at the moment, people are working on simplicity in their food, flavours and presentation, and everybody is just trying to find the best ingredients they possibly can, no matter how simple. And we’re no different.

The Blind Pig

The Blind Pig

QUICK FIRE

Food heaven and hell?

My food heaven would be eating with my wife at a chef’s table in Manhattan, somewhere having a tasting menu with wines – that to me is heaven. My food hell would probably be having to eat salad for the rest of my life with no dressing on it, there would be no point in living.

What’s your worst ever kitchen disaster?

Around 20 years ago I put a dish on and it was lamb neck – I’d copied this new technique, but it didn’t work out. Stupidly, rather than testing the dish first, I just believed we would get it right first time and we didn’t. Service started and this became a very popular dish quite quickly and it was selling out really fast, and as I was plating it to send it off it was coming back. I had no replacement and it was an absolute nightmare. It was the worst service in the world, I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. I had 70 very angry guests.

Three ingredients you couldn’t live without?

Salt, butter, and when they’re in season I always have to use wild strawberries.

What is your pet hate in the kitchen?

When chefs don’t concentrate and make too many mistakes, because it’s disrespectful to the food.

Apart from your own restaurants, where do you love to eat in London?

I love Bibendum, Sabor, Brat in Shoreditch, and Kiln in Soho.

How do you live a life in balance?

I go to the gym, I do boxing over at Jab in Mayfair, and every now and again if I’m lucky my wife lets me play a round of golf.

Dubai Dishes is out 15 July 2023 on ITV1