Jason Atherton gets ready for solo opening

by Amanda Afiya, Thursday 26th August 2010 00:01

In March Jason Atherton resigned from Gordon Ramsay Holdings in order to open up his first solo venture. As he prepares for its opening in January, he talks to Amanda Afiya about the inspiration behind Pollen Street Social Jason Atherton

As executive chef of Maze, Jason Atherton had a phenomenally high-profile role. Not only was he the proud owner of numerous accolades at the flagship Mayfair restaurant, but he also had the responsibility for rolling out a global brand under the Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) banner.

When Atherton announced his decision to leave GRH in March some thought he was mad to give up such a respected, varied and, frankly, well-paid job to launch a restaurant in an industry that was just inching out of recession.

But Atherton couldn't be more keyed-up about becoming his own boss for the first time in his life. "Am I nervous? Of course I am. I live on nerves," says Atherton, who has spent the past nine years working for GRH, initially in Dubai and latterly in London. "My whole life is built around taking chances - it's what I've always done."

He gives his reason for leaving the security blanket of GRH as "natural progression". "I was paid a salary that justified building Maze into a brand for GRH - but life is not just about money; it never was. The money is great, of course. It's fantastic. And some people might think I'm crazy for leaving, but this is about the passion that comes from my heart, and you should never put that fire out, ever."

That passion will, of course, manifest itself in Pollen Street Social Jason Atherton, which will - builders permitting - in January.

Atherton's first solo venture has been a long time coming. The fact is, he's wanted to open his own restaurant since he was in his 20s. But instead of rushing into it, he has carefully spent the past 18 years developing his culinary skills, maturing socially and sharpening his business acumen. "I really feel this is my time. I'm 38 - it's now or never. I've got a young family, their support, and the energy to put into a restaurant and hopefully be successful."

The name Pollen Street Social Jason Atherton, which has only now been confirmed, has been debated across the Twittersphere for several months. "The reason why I chose that name is because it's on Pollen Street; and 'social', for me, well it's two things: I spend quite a lot of time in New York, and places like Stanton Social are popping up; and it's based around people being able to use a fine-dining restaurant for anything they want, not just for the food, but for the atmosphere, for the Champagne, for the private areas, for the bar. So it's a social place. Unfortunately, when you attach your name - if I just called it Restaurant Jason Atherton - it conjures up that it's going to be expensive, it's going to be for special occasions. I didn't want that to be the case.

"So Pollen Street because of where it is; Social because it's a social place and also a little nod to my northern roots; and then my name, in small letters underneath, because whether I like it or not I do a little bit of media work and people know who I am."

Pollen Street Social is in a prime location. Just off Regent Street, it's in between Maddox Street and Hanover Street - a stone's throw from Claude Bosi's Hibiscus and Will Smith and Anthony Demetre's Wild Honey. "Vogue House is round the corner, we're right near Liberty's, so right in the shopping district, right near the theatres."

The restaurant, on the site of a former Pitcher & Piano, has been funded by 20 years of savings, says Atherton, who claims to be quite frugal with his money. "I've had some fantastic jobs and done some shrewd property deals. I've put a lot of my own money into it and I've also had backing from two family friends, one private investor who owns 25%, my accountant Fenton Higgins of Mayfair chartered accountants Higgins Fairbairn & Co who owns 5%, and I own the rest."

Vital statistics

The restaurant will have a main dining room area of 48 seats plus a banquette area off the main dining room for 16. There will also be 10 seats at the bar; a chef's table for six; a private room downstairs for 12 - where some of the wine will be stocked, giving guests a wine experience; two kitchens, one downstairs for mise en place, one upstairs, encased in glass, for service; and then London's first dessert bar, which has six seats. The idea is that once diners have had their main course and it's clear that they are really into their food, they will be invited to have their dessert at the dessert bar so they can watch their desserts being made in front of them. "It's going to be a very exciting concept," says Atherton.

Radical design

The design has been led by a couple of prominent Shanghai designers who haven't worked on a restaurant in Britain before. Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, who own Neri&Hu, are known for their radical designs in New York, Shanghai and throughout Asia. The designers aim to create a dynamic restaurant environment, cleverly linking the various spaces so that it all flows seamlessly. "I wanted something radical," says Atherton, "I wanted to turn a fine-dining restaurant on its head. For me it's about a gastronomic journey. For me it's about a culinary playground. It's not about 'This is your table. You sit here, we serve your food, you pay your bill.'

"For me it's just a small part of the whole experience - how the sommelier is going to interact, how does the concierge at the reception desk interact with the guest, the bar man, the waiters, the chefs, the dessert bar. I want people to walk out of Pollen Street Social and think, 'I just can't wait to go back, and not because of the food but because of the whole experience.'"

Atherton's food is going to change a bit, he says, from the small courses and tapas-style dining he's known for at Maze. But in the same style as Maze, he wants people to visit the restaurant and eat as much or as little as they want wherever they are dining in the restaurant. The menu will be split into two starter areas - one for cold, one for hot - fish and shellfish, meat and game, and desserts.

While Atherton's style at Maze was French/Asian-led, the food at Pollen Street Social is going to have a more modern British feel. He will be using more British ingredients than he was previously known for, and he will be basing everything around the seasons. Portion sizes will be slightly larger than those served at Maze by Atherton. "Dishes will be a little bit more creative with the garnish, so not so much protein on the plate like I've been doing - a lot more flourishes and garnishes. It will be cooler, neater."

While Pollen Street Social will be his priority, Atherton has recently taken on a couple of consultancies to help him with his budding business. In May he worked on the rebranding of a concept for the Waterhouse at South Bund hotel in Shanghai, later called Table No 1 by Jason Atherton, which received a score of five out of five in Time Out, and last month he signed a deal to work alongside Compass's fine-dining arm Restaurant Associates (RA).

Pursuing projects

"The RA deal is really exciting for me. I'm really looking forward to working alongside Jason Leek, Sue Thompson, Jeremy Ford and Nick Potter. We explored a few avenues together, the gloves fitted, and we are actively pursuing projects together.

"There won't be any big announcements as far as restaurants are concerned - contrary to reports - because the only thing that matters to me at the moment is Pollen Street. Until the doors open I'm completely concentrating on the restaurant to ensure that diners have the best experience possible when we open."

Of course, the question on everyone's lips is how amicable was Atherton's split from GRH? "It was never going to be amicable, because Gordon didn't want to lose me and in a little way I didn't want to leave Gordon, because we had many great years together. But something's come up which is really enticing.e_SDRq

Would he change the last decade? No, not for a minute, because I learnt how to be a restaurateur. It's different from being a chef, and you can learn it under the umbrella of someone else or you can learn it at your own expense.

"For me, I really knew that I was ready and equipped - and socially equipped, because there's much more to our business than being a chef. Can you talk to the media? Can you talk to guests? How important is it that when guests come to your restaurant that you converse with them, you're not some retiring chef who can't face talking to guests? Guests want to be acknowledged by you. Don't cheat yourself: if you feel you're not ready, keep learning."

When Atherton went to work for Gordon Ramsay in 2001, Ramsay was, he says, without doubt, the best chef in the country. "His food was just magical, and when I got the chance to go and work with his expanding group I thought, why not? I was working for Claudio Pulze at the time. My restaurant was a great restaurant, it was getting national recognition, but I thought I could move so much quicker alongside someone like Gordon.

"What did I learn from that? I learnt not only how to be a great chef and leader, I learnt how to run a business. Chris Hutcheson has produced a brand - as in brand Ramsay - which is so powerful, so for me to be in the background and learn from that was amazing. I say to anybody out there doing business: you can't pay for that schooling.e_SDRq

But would he ever want an empire as big as Ramsay's? "I don't want to be the next Gordon Ramsay. I want to be Jason Atherton. Gordon is the king of TV. The last three series of Great British Menu have been great; and doing Saturday Kitchen with James Martin is a lot of fun, but my real talent lies in running restaurants. I aspire to be the best I can be. Who knows over the next 20 years where that is going to take me?

"I certainly don't want to build a big head office, because that's not what I'm about. I want to run a different kind of ship, and I really want to be in touch with my cooking, because I still have a lot to prove. I am by no means near where I want to be with my food. Nowhere near."


One to watch

Jason Atherton has long been "one to watch". He was just 24 when he took on his first head chef's position at Oliver Peyton's Mash & Air restaurant in Manchester. Two years later, when few chefs in Britain had even heard of Ferran Adrià, he took himself off to El Bulli for a stage.

He returned to London to work alongside long-time friend Stephen Terry at Claudio Pulze's Frith Street, worked briefly as executive chef for Cantina Vinopolis and then launched, with Pulze, L'Anis in Kensington before joining Gordon Ramsay's empire in 2001 as executive chef of the Verre and Glasshouse restaurants at the Hilton Dubai Creek hotel.

He remained in Dubai for three years, returning to London to open the ground-breaking Maze restaurant at the Marriott Grosvenor Square hotel for Ramsay. The restaurant won a Michelin star and three AA rosettes within a year.

The concept quickly spread during 2007, with branches opening at the London NYC hotel in New York and the Hilton Prague Old Town hotel. The brand went on to open in Cape Town, Doha and Melbourne, although the Prague and Cape Town outposts have since closed. In April 2008 Atherton and GRH boosted the Maze branding by launching Maze Grill at the Marriott.


Advice on opening and managing a successful restaurant

Location is key
Many failures are due to the wrong location.

Research your target market
Spending time thoroughly understanding who your customers are likely to be and then shaping your style, service, price and menu to suit the market may not seem to play to your creativity and visionary talents - but getting it wrong is a recipe for certain failure.

Research the competition
This calls for detailed analysis and sampling at different times of the day, not simply a list compiled from Yellow Pages.

Develop the style of your restaurant
With the initial research completed you can now get those creative skills into action to develop an outline of the style and type of restaurant offering that your research tells you your customers will require. It's fine to be fun and quirky, but just remember: it makes it easier if your customers know what to expect, so don't try and be all things to all people. Clear niche positioning appears to work best, from my experience.

Write a robust business plan
One of the key reasons that keeps the old maxim "one in three new restaurant businesses fail in the first two years" alive is a tendency to focus on the creative elements, assuming that the profits will be there in the end because demand will be overwhelming.

It may seem a daunting prospect if you have not written one before, and the best ones are often short and to the point, but you will need one if you need to raise funding. The best plans are kept alive and regularly reviewed, not kept in a drawer.

A typical business plan would cover the first 12 months in detail and perhaps a further 2-3 years in outline. Many new restaurant failures are due to an underfunded business plan.

What can possibly go wrong?
The bottom line is that setting up a new restaurant is a risk. All new business starts are a risk, but a disproportionately large number of restaurants go out of business in their first year. To be successful requires the mastery of a great number of different skills. It is unusual to find one person who possesses all these skills equally. Recognising your own skills and strengths and understanding where you might need to seek help is probably as important as being creative in the kitchen.

Go and do it if you must...
... but be ready to take advantage of opportunities; be persistent; stay calm and positive; and remember: there is no magic wand. Opening and running a restaurant successfully requires an awful lot of hard work, probably a greater knowledge of business management than kitchen management and, above all, a passion for food, wine and serving your customers. A little bit of luck helps as well.

Source: Stephen Broome, hotels director, PricewaterhouseCoopers

● See next week's issue for more guidance from Stephen Broome on opening a new restaurant


What you need to be your own boss

Vision You wouldn't go on a journey without a destination and route map in mind, so do your homework and make sure you have a good business plan - you can refine the route but there needs to be an unshakeable commitment to the goals.

Belief You need to feel very confident that what you're doing is right. Listen to all the advice, though if you want to build something amazing, there's every chance that you'll be challenging a few conventions along the way.

Tenacity Having your own business is generally a series of highs and lows, so make sure you are feeling strong and are prepared to do what it takes to make your dream a reality.

Power Take charge, so that you run the business and it's not running you. You'll need all your resolve and reserves to control "the beast".

Decisiveness Learn to make sound decisions quickly. If you find this difficult, find a mentor - preferably someone who has their own successful business - to help.

Change Become a master at dealing with the unexpected, and understand that you can't control what goes on around you. You can control your responses, though; so keep calm, use your head and learn to enjoy the ride.

Business skills Relying on technical ability alone rarely makes for a successful business. You'll need to become an inspirational leader, marketeer, salesperson, people manager and, critically, financial manager. Understanding and controlling the numbers and cash-flow is vital (Jason Atherton is brilliant at this). Take every opportunity to improve your skills.

Responsibility Having your own business presents new accountabilities, not only to yourself and your loved ones but also to your employees, suppliers, customers and others. Make sure you're prepared for a very big "buck" stopping with you.

Thinking Having your own business is full-on, and it's essential to be able to step out and see the big picture, to think about your product or service offer, about your people (now and future), and to keep refining your strategic plans.

Self-reliance Running your own business can be lonely, so find ways to let off steam outside the business so you can present a "constant state of excellence" while you're there. Find a trusted person to confide in. Keep healthy because, like any winning athlete, you'll need to be in peak condition to win.

Source: Jane Sunley, chief executive officer, Learnpurple


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