Jason Atherton, Pollen Street Social, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th March 2013

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          With restaurants in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mayfair and a new sister restaurant, Social Eating House, opening this month, Jason Atherton oversees an incredible range of menus, produce and concepts. Louise Thomas meets Jason to find out more about his concept at Pollen Street Social and how his food style has evolved over the years. How do you feel your food style has evolved since opening here and how do you balance staying true to the original, recognisable concept and moving forward in your cooking? Cooking is about maturity. When you’re young, you’re a little bit more bold; you’re a little more extravagant; you’re a little bit more outward going. As you get older, you understand the importance of simplicity, flavour. Each year I grow up, my food grows with me – it’s a simple as that. My food becomes more humble, more enjoyable. I still try to play with flavour and textures but I do it in a more simplistic way. My food just grows up – that’s all. We're now coming to the close of winter, which can be a difficult time of year, with regards to produce and availability. How are you making the most of what produce is at it's best now and how do you try to prepare your kitchen in case a product becomes unavailable due to the weather conditions? Any chef who understands seasons properly just goes with that anyway. For instance: when I was in the car, I get my sous chef, Alex, on speakerphone and see if there are any problems with the produce; we were struggling to get turbot today. Ok, so what’s available? We can get some gigha halibut or we can get some wild brill; so we’ll have a couple of brill and one halibut. You just work with the seasons. You just adapt; it’s what we do. Any chef worth his salt is good at that. You have restaurants in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong: do the flavours and ingredients of these destinations have an impact on your cooking in London and do the flavours and ingredients of London have an impact on your cooking abroad? As far as London going there – it has a big impact. I cook on a day-to-day basis in London and the techniques I use here are very prominent on the menus there. I always cook food I enjoy to eat: if I don’t enjoy eating it how can I put any passion into cooking it? As far as coming back from East to West: do I take inspiration from there? It’s impossible not to. You’ll hear me talk about yakitori, Japanese tea, soy sauce. I use it in my cooking: I marinade my pork in soy sauce; I use yuzu here quite a bit. I love the flavours – I think they’re very clean; they bring a very natural umami taste to the food, which people love. You are opening in Soho later this year: will the concept and food offering there be the same as Pollen St? Why have you decided to open your second restaurant in Soho and so close to Pollen St? Do you have ambitions to open elsewhere? No, Pollen Street will never be copied. Pollen Street is my baby and it will always be my number one. She’s looked after – not that my other restaurants aren’t – but this is my baby. Paul [Hood] will be my chef de cuisine at Poland Street and it’s down to him to make sure that the kitchen functions properly. As a restaurateur, I make sure it’s backed and funded properly; I make sure the design is what I want it to be; I make sure the kitchen is properly equipped so they can do their job properly. Paul and I will work very closely on the menu together to make sure the food offering is right. It’s a different kind of set up to Pollen Street. Once you have an entrepreneurial mindset, you can’t just change that – it’s just in you. If you’ve got the get up and go, the spunk to open your own business then you’re obviously entrepreneurial. If Chris and Jeremy – who I admire so much – can open restaurants and no one will criticise them, then why does a chef have to be told he belongs in the kitchen? It’s a load of nonsense. A good chef, a successful chef, will be more equipped to know what a customer wants than anyone else. We cook the food; we’re in the kitchen 18-19 hours a day to make sure it’s perfect: why can’t we be restaurateurs too? You are notably the first British chef to complete a stage at El Bulli. How relevant do you feel molecular gastronomy is to the restaurant scene in the UK today and how do you see it evolving in the future? I don’t think it was ever ‘molecular’. I think chefs are really starting to understand how their base product has developed. Chefs now have a better understanding of what it takes to produce cuisine, so we can be more exact when we’re poaching an egg or when we’re cooking beef. It’s relevant today and it will still be relevant in 20 years. Ferran, and people like him, have opened the gateways to a whole new way of thinking. Even if I opened a bistro, I would use those techniques in bistro cooking as they enable me to become more exact. Customers become more demanding as the years go by, so we have to up our game. The concept of Pollen St Social is social eating. Can fine dining really stay true to the concept of sharing or is it restricted by the formalities of Michelin dining? My philosophy in life is this: There is good food and there is bad food. I’ve eaten all over the world and I’ve had bad meals, so I’ve eaten bad food. It’s just bad food; it doesn’t matter what it’s dressed up as. I’ve been to a beautiful steak restaurant in Italy by Dario Cecchini. All this guy does is crudités as a starter – the vegetables are grown in the garden. He washes them, puts them in a basket with garlic mayonnaise and that’s it. You break them and you eat them, while he’s cooking this Florentine steak from his own cattle. He serves with it tempura ceps and artichokes. That’s it. It’s just delicious. So that’s great food. It doesn’t matter if it’s three star, one star or no stars; if it’s good food, it’s good food. I remember Michelin telling me a long time ago, ‘The more you serve us, the more we will judge you on. Keep it simple.’ And they’re right, so we keep it simple. You celebrate the skill of the pastry chef with the dessert bar at Pollen St Social. Why do you feel pastry chefs are so undervalued in the UK? All my pastry chefs play a prominent part. I’m looking for a site in Asia at the moment for my executive pastry chef, Andres Lara. He is singularly, the most talented pastry chef I have ever worked with in my entire life. This guy is so goddamn cool; I love him to death. He’s ex-noma, ex-El Bulli, ex-Alinea, which all speaks for itself. He does all the pastry menus in the group, but his dream is to open his own pastry venue and I will help him realise his dream. You can never, ever undervalue the pastry chef. The last bite of the main course can be sublime, but if the desserts are no good then it’s worth nothing. Your standard has to run all the way through the menu. Pastry chefs are absolutely paramount. What trends do you predict with regards to flavours and cooking techniques for this year and will any of those influence what you are doing at Pollen St Social? I don’t like to predict the future; I’m not Mystic Meg – I just cook my food. I let my food naturally evolve; if I see something new and exciting I will have a look, but it won’t influence my food. It’s really important that your food stays true to its original roots. But, I’m always looking for something new to see where our food can change. At the same time, we don’t bastardise our food. I have to look at it from a restaurateur’s point of view. My favourite tailor is Spencer Hart. I know his suits are clean cut: it is very Mad Men, very slim lapel and I love that look. If I go in and he’s changed it to flared trousers, a wide lapel then I’d be like ‘what’s going on?’ I don’t want that; I’ve come to spend my money on your suit and now your dressing me like a 70s rock star. It’s the same with food: you have to build trust with your customer. I don’t go off on tangents about influence from this or I went to eat there, but it is important to pay attention and keep your food up with the times though not in a crazy way. What is your favourite menu season and why? Spring. It’s a beautiful time of the year and it’s very inspirational. Some beautiful ingredients come back into the kitchen: asparagus, wild garlic, spring lamb and the little sardines start showing their faces. See Jason's recipe for mackerel tartare here See Jason's recipe for vanilla cheesecake, rhubarb and ginger here 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th March 2013

Jason Atherton, Pollen Street Social, London