‘Marriage is like a restaurant’
Ahead of his big Australian opening, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton talks about his burgeoning empire and shares some recipes
Keeping track of how many restaurants Jason Atherton, 44, has requires constant vigilance, but the chef doesn’t yet have to stop to think. “Eighteen,” he says promptly when asked where the tally stands. Atherton was Gordon Ramsay’s brightest protege until a parting of the ways five years ago over money. Since the opening of his first restaurant in 2011, Atherton’s empire has expanded so fast he could soon eclipse Ramsay, who has 30 restaurants worldwide.
Where Ramsay is a ball of energy and shouty charisma, Atherton is calm and contained. He is lean and gym-fit, arriving at his company HQ in London with his hair slicked back, a gold watch on his wrist. Even when he is irked by a question, he is exquisitely polite.
Ramsay has 14 London restaurants; Atherton has seven, including Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social, where he still cooks daily when he is not lapping the globe visiting his establishments. Two of his other restaurants in the capital also have Michelin stars. Another, in Ian Schrager’s Edition Hotel, is a magnet for celebrities.
The Atherton empire boasts eight restaurants in the Far East and one in Dubai. This year, with The Clocktower, he has successfully taken Manhattan, a city where Ramsay’s restaurant eventually failed after initial success. This month he opens a Japanese restaurant in London and he has produced a tableware range (with department store John Lewis) and a men’s fragrance.
Also, Atherton is opening a restaurant in Sydney. Buzz surrounds his first Australian venue, located at The Old Clare Hotel development in Chippendale. On Wednesday, Atherton throws open the doors of Kensington Street Social in partnership with Loh Lik Peng, director of global boutique hotel and restaurant group Unlisted Collection. The largest venue within The Old Clare Hotel, Kensington Street Social seats 120 and will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, showcasing a relaxed all-day menu of British-Mediterranean share plates (see breakout).
Is he in danger of spreading himself too thin? That, he says, with a flicker of restrained irritation, is “a very British question”. Richard Caring, who owns a string of restaurants and members’ clubs, including the famed London venues Ivy and Annabel’s, “could own 1000 restaurants and it doesn’t really matter because he’s a restaurateur. The minute a chef does more than one restaurant it ‘starts to dilute the brand’. Who’s more qualified to open a restaurant: myself or Richard Caring? On the financial side, he’s a billionaire; I am not. But on the knowledge side, he can’t even stand in the same park as me. And my passion for this industry is unsurpassable.”
Critics of Ramsay say that the massive expansion of his interests weakened the restaurants because he could no longer monitor everything with his legendary eye for detail. “There is a difference, and this is not knocking Gordon,” says Atherton. The difference is much of Ramsay’s time is consumed by TV. Forbes estimates Ramsay earns $US60 million ($84m) a year, mostly from TV shows in the US. “You can’t make that money from restaurants, I don’t care how successful you are.” Atherton has tried television, but has no plans to do more. “I would not be able to operate the restaurants I operate at this level and devote my time to TV,” he says.
He draws an analogy with the role of Alex Ferguson when he was manager of the Manchester United soccer team. “He wasn’t kicking the ball in the net, but the influence he had on that team was second to none. I know right now at 9.40am what is going on at Pollen Street. I can walk in and know whether it’s behind or on top of its game.”
He believes he has “pretty much” the right balance in his working life. “But other things suffer. I have a lot of great friends I don’t see any more. My family, I barely ever see them. It’s a difficult one. Who has the perfect work-life balance?”
It was during a spell working in Dubai that he met his wife, Irha, who is from The Philippines. She runs the head office and they have two daughters. “Marriage is like a restaurant,” says Atherton. “You have got to look happy, you have got to change the menu, got to talk about stuff, work together on stuff. There will be times when it is not great and times when it is amazing. So many people throw in the towel at the first hurdle.”
Atherton was born in Sheffield, grew up in Skegness and left school with almost no qualifications, but became “obsessed” with food and headed to London. He worked for some famous chefs, including Marco Pierre White, and toiled for free in Ferran Adria’s kitchen at El Bulli to gain experience. Then he met Ramsay, who gave him his own restaurant to run and a share in it. He always speaks generously of his old boss, and points out that Ramsay still oversees a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Chelsea. “He’s fantastic at what he does.”
Atherton has a policy of setting up his best chefs with restaurants and a share in the business. He says a lot of chefs have been “stitched up” by “cowboys”, restaurateurs who exploit their drive and ambition to make money and then cash in, leaving them high and dry.
Just 25 per cent of his staff are British. Do young British people have his appetite for hard work? “The new generation of people coming through want to work less, earn more money and have more leisure time, which I am all for because back in my day it was a bit too intense. But it was what you did. You did six days a week, 18 hours a day.”
Atherton has ambitions to add to his three Michelin stars and has been looking at a possible restaurant site in Miami. He says he has “more drive than ever”. But he also has a fantasy about cooking “when I’m old and grey. Irha and I are building a house in The Philippines. We joke that when we get old we’ll open up a restaurant there with just one table. We’ll put on the internet, ‘Tonight we’re going to be open and what we cook is what you eat.’ I need to cook.”
Jason Atherton at work in Sydney’s Chippendale