‘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

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - DAMIAN WHIT­WORTH

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

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