Jason Atherton, Pollen Street Social, London

The  Staff Canteen
As a member of the Gordon Ramsay Group for nine years, Jason Atherton spent time working as executive chef at both Verre in Dubai and Maze, in the heart of London. Having developed under the expert tutelage of top chefs including Pierre Koffman, Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, Jason keenly rose to the challenge of parting with the Gordon Ramsay Group in 2010 to open his own restaurant. Pollen Street Social, Mayfair, Jason’s first solo venture, has gone on to achieve a great deal of critical success. The Good Food Guide named the establishment Best New UK Restaurant, while TimeOut named it Best New Fine-Dining Restaurant in London. Perhaps the biggest accolade the new restaurant has earned, though, was the Michelin star that came only months after the restaurant’s opening. The enormous personal investment of both Jason and his wife seems to have paid off, with customers flocking to enjoy a taste of his impressive menu.

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All photographs by kind permission of John Carey

First and foremost thank you, I know you're massively busy, it's a privilege to come here to Pollen Street . Congratulations it looks stunning. When I met you two or three months ago I just thought, "˜I can't see what he's seeing in this building site,' and here it is today, it's beautiful Jason. Congratulations. Thank you. You must be so proud. Yeah we've very happy it's exactly what we wanted it to be an informal restaurant but at the same time very stylish and chic, so yes I'm over the moon. I'm over the moon with it. Jason you strike me as someone who is meticulous about attention to detail. We've got cobbles in the corridors solid wood floors guest give away items with room keys box behind reception where diners from lunch get little afternoon tea packages, and dinner diners get breakfast gifts. How important is all that to the client and the success of Pollen Street? It's very important because the guests see everything and I think it's important that we as a team make sure that every part of the guest experience, even when they're in the back rooms is really, really important. For me it was always about the detail, always about the detail in what we do, and what we offer. Do you think that's because there are so many good restaurants in London that to stand out, it's about offering that little bit extra to the guest? Absolutely if you don't have those attention to details there's just too many good restaurants out there, and you won't survive, and the most important thing is my wife, me, and my investor, Mrs Oei, chucked the kitchen sink literally at creating Pollen Street Social, and we want to be a stand out London restaurant, it's simple that's what we want, that's our aim, and hopefully we can achieve that. You've mentioned your wife twice today so how important is it, that you've got the support of your family and your wife behind you on something so big as Pollen Street, and carrying so much investment. It's very important, when we were on holiday last year, my wife and I decided to do our own business, it had to be a family decision because it's her money as well as mine, and we've risked everything on Pollen Street, even to the point of last month we had to borrow my daughter's school fees for her to go to school, from my dad, so that's how skint we are. So we've literally thrown everything we have at Pollen Street, so I can't do that without the support of my family at all. I've been really privileged to speak to a lot of the guys in your peer group, and we've seen you all on the TV and we see you in the press, and I think to a degree there's a perception is it's rock and roll as Chef, what I think people don't understand is many of you have put your mortgages on the line, you put so much on the line driving your businesses forward and I think it's trying to get people to understand it's not taking a risk but it's not rock and roll it's bloody hard work to get where you guys are. Yes of course I mean all the media stuff is just the icing on the cake of a very long road, unfortunately in this day and age there's a lot of young chefs, who don't understand that it takes 20 years to get to the top, of their profession, and they should enjoy those 20 years, and not rush it all. They should work in good restaurants, get your training done properly, learn about business, understand the whole shebang, and only then start risking your mortgages, and life savings and don't just rush into it, because once it starts to work it's a lifetime journey. I've got another 15/20 years cooking in me and then I'll probably open"¦if I'm successful I'll open some consultancy business and then that'll be me done. So why risk five years, by doing it five years earlier, to make a mess of it when you can just take your time, and I'm so glad it happened to me at the age of 39 rather than at the age of 30 where sometimes you're just not ready at that age. As, Jason Atherton, you're already hugely successful, you've only got to Google your name and pages of information awards, will come up, you had a great career with Gordon, why was there a necessity to go and do it on your own? Why take the risk? I just wanted to see if I could do it for myself and make the financial decision myself and not be told why"¦ And it's your name above the door also? People certainly know that it's my restaurant, even though I haven't put my name above the door in words, it was very important to me that the restaurant had a standalone name called Pollen Street Social, not Restaurant Jason Atherton and it"¦ Really why? I think the recession's taught us all, that ostentatious stuff is rubbish and everything's about it is shit, and Pollen Street is not at all its informal and homely So it was a conscious decision not to call it Jason Atherton at Pollen Street? Absolutely yes definitely. Because you could have traded on the success of your name couldn't you? Of course yes, I think it's enough that people know it's my restaurant and unfortunately when you do consultancies and projects abroad or open restaurants overseas, like Table No 1 in Shanghai China. , it's by Jason Atherton There's more of a demand to put your name to it? Yes because of the owners the market place, whereas really I'd be quite happy with just the name Table No 1. I've got a great head chef out there in China, Scott Melvin who does an amazing job for me and it's his restaurant really. I just guide it with him, he runs it every day, and does an amazing job, he's a great chef. He's the one that's made it successful, not so much me, but unfortunately it's my name being a Michelin star chef that creates the opportunities and that's how it is. Scott is a business partner in Table No 1. He owns 50% and he gets 50/50 of the profits and it's his business also. Fantastic. Let's talk about the food style and food content here what can we expect from a dining experience at Pollen Street Social? I think the most important thing is its flexibility and it's a good point. People always say you can eat more interesting tasting menus outside London than you can inside London and I absolutely agree with them and the reason why I agree with them is because if I went on the M1 today and went to eat at Restaurant Sat Bains I'd want to have a tasting menu. If I drove all the way to L'Enclume I want to have a tasting menu. If I go all the way to Nathan Outlaw's in Rock I want to have a tasting menu because why would I drive three, four, five, six hours to sit there have a quick main course and drive back again? I can see your point it makes sense. Now what we have to do at Pollen Street is to appeal to a mass market because I'm in central London. I have to have a big brigade because I have to because that's how it is. I have to"¦I can't"¦London restaurants won't survive doing 20 for lunch and 20 for dinner because the rents and bills are too high and my business rates here are £157 grand and then my rent on top of that is £330 grand"¦so logic tells you I can't cap the covers at 20 and 30 it has to be more. Wow that's nearly half a million quid to stand still. But that's okay we can do that and we've looked at the figures"¦ And of course you've got the experience you know the numbers and have been instrumental in many opening Yes it helps of course. But I also understand that on a Monday night I can't expect 80 people to walk in and have our tasting menu but what I can expect them to come and say, "I know let's go to Pollen Street Social and have just a couple of dishes tonight because I had the tasting menu two weeks ago," so I have to give them that flexibility that range of options. So I have to mould the content into something where people want to experience this quality of food but in whatever format they choose and not what I choose that's important. Can we expect Jason Atherton-esque style of food and sort of tapas style of food? Yes. I guess it's a grazing, certainly focused on a sharing style of food? Yeah there's that and also you can have big plates if you like. It's entirely up to you. Jason talk us through your dessert bar that's obviously going to be quite an interesting concept. Yes dessert bar I've tried to give the pastry chef a bit of a leg up, because pastry chefs in this day and age don't get the recognition they deserve in this country where as they do in the United States, Canada and places like that so we've really tried to focus and to give the Pastry team a real show case for them and their skills. We can credit this beautiful pastry bar where people can just come and sit and watch the pastry chefs working and of course interact with them and it's working really well.... It's the Ultimate Chefs Table I guess? Yes and people are really taking to it. I mean there was a queue last night to get in, and again it's something different. Jason can we expect to see a Pollen Street Social restaurant concept opening in New York, Melbourne perhaps other cites etc around the world? Is this restaurant a footprint for the future and a brand? No Pollen Street is where I cook, I'm here six days a week, we close on Sunday, shut the doors and I spend the time with my family, there will be only this site as a Pollen Street Social, I may well look to open other restaurant in the future, but they'll be different than this concept Jason thank you very much, we got there finally I wish, you and the team, here at Pollen Street every success for the future. Thank you!
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd May 2011

Jason Atherton, Pollen Street Social, London