As the wildly popular Marina Social turns two, British chef Jason Atherton
tell us of his dream to receive Dubai’s first Michelin star
I’m the luckiest man in the world,” declares chef Jason Atherton, as he proudly looks out over the dining room of Marina Social. “The fact that I get to cook every day, I absolutely adore what I do. I’m mental about restaurants.”
And with 17 around the world – three Michelin-starred – that final statement couldn’t be clearer.
Since his flagship restaurant Pollen Street Social launched in London’s Mayfair in 2011 (casually gaining a Michelin star within six months of opening), he’s set up restaurants in Sydney, the Philippines, Hong Kong, New York and, of course, right here in Dubai.
And with projects in the pipeline for one on mainland Europe and another in Shanghai (both of which he’s currently keeping firmly under wraps), Atherton looks set to be racking up even more air miles in the near future.
The Yorkshireman is in town for Marina Social’s second anniversary when he catches up with Time Out Dubai. And he’s on hand to oversee every detail for the party – from the décor (London phone boxes and street signs) to the signature canapés (burrata-stuffed mini tomatoes and lamb sourdough pizza slices).
“I love Dubai,” he says, settling back into the restaurant’s comfy Union Flag sofa. “I always wanted a restaurant here, ahead of New York, Hong Kong or anywhere really.”
The Sheffield-born chef even married his wife, Irha, in the city. “We’re always here on holiday here,” he smiles. “Dubai has everything we want in a destination: shopping, beaches, restaurants.”
He does, however, recognise Dubai’s challenges, and the fact that Marina Social is still so strong after two years is a testament to this.
“Dubai is a hard market,” he says firmly. “People come here, thinking the streets are paved with gold and you can turn tens of millions of dollars. It’s ‘The Zuma Effect’ – they think they will do that, too. But it’s tough. It’s hard to gauge what diners want here, as they’re going to go to a new place regardless.
“A new opening will be packed for the first three months then it’ll go quiet. The same happened with us. But because people could rely on the quality, they kept coming back. And two years later, here we are.”
There’s many a reason why Marina Social picked up Time Out Dubai’s gong for Best European Restaurant, 2017, but one of the major ones is that it’s consistently good. “You can’t rely on just having two-for-one offers, it’s unsustainable,” he says, highlighting the growing trend for deals. “Sure, it’s great for customers, but once they’re in, you must give them a reason to come back. We live and die by our regular diners.”
Alongside writing his first fine-dining (read, incredibly complex) cookbook with recipes from Pollen Street Social, Michelin stars are what drives Atherton every day.
“That second Michelin star at Pollen Street is my focus,” he says in his cool, calm manner that belies his fervour. “It consumes my life at the moment. The more stars the better, and they’re sure to arrive here soon enough. I could have opened another five restaurants in Dubai off the back of Marina Social, but it’s never been about that. I want Marina Social to be Michelin starred, I’m not interested in second best. Not because I’m egotistical, but because we work hard every day to be at the top.”
And by “we” Atherton’s referring to his team of chefs around the world, whom he’ll be bringing over to Dubai in November to overhaul 35 dishes on the menu, alongside Marina Social’s head chef Craig Best. “We’ll be doing it mob-handed and it’ll be the biggest revamp yet,” he says animatedly. So in an ever-transient and rapidly growing city, what are the major changes he’s seen on the foodie scene over the past two years?
Mainly the trend towards excellent Middle Eastern cuisine (he name checks Zahira, Nusr-Et and Rüya), the growth of healthy eating (“I wouldn’t rule out getting involved in a fitness café in the future”) and, most importantly, increased access to quality produce, as ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to – top ingredients and top tastes. “We’re a quality-driven product, and you can only achieve that with the best ingredients,” he says. “If it’s not delicious, why are you going for dinner?”
And it’s that passion for creating “really delicious food” that is what it’s all about.
It’s clear he’s not the kind of chef to switch his whites for a suit or be sat behind a desk. Wherever he is, you’ll find him in service.
“The kitchen is where I’m most effective, it’s where I’m most comfortable and it’s where I built my empire from. Being a chef is what I was born to do,” he says firmly glancing towards the kitchen and his busy team.
“We’re not saving someone’s life, we’re not putting a man on a moon. We’re cooking people dinner. But if you can do that better than others and be smart about it, you can be successful.” Enough said. Open Sat-Thu 7pm-midnight. Fri 12.30pm-4.30pm, 7pm-midnight. InterContinental Dubai Marina (04 446 6664).