It’s unlikely you haven’t heard of Jason Atherton. Despite him being one of Britain’s best-known, contemporary, Michelin-starred chefs, he comes from such a powerhouse pedigree that he is sure to spark sighs of impressed recognition. Having worked under Marco Pierre White and subsequently Gordon Ramsay, a pair that Atherton dubs ‘probably the two most famous British cooks we have ever produced’, it was Atherton who originally opened Gordon Ramsay’s Verre in Dubai, which regularly won at Time Out Dubai’s Restaurant Awards in the days when it was still operational, and which is now home to Dubai-born concept Table 9. Returning to the emirate some 15 years later, Atherton is set to open his first restaurant in the city, Marina Social, which is scheduled to launch at the InterContinental Dubai Marina in September this year. In the meantime, this month Atherton is giving Dubai a taste of what to expect at his new venture by participating in Dubai Food Festival. You can catch his pop-up restaurant at Beach Canteen on Kite Beach from Thursday February 26 to Saturday 28.
‘For us, the whole point of getting involved in Dubai Food Festival is to give people a bit of a snapshot of what we’ll be doing at Marina Social,’ Atherton begins. ‘I’ll be doing a couple of cooking demonstrations, question and answer sessions, book signings and, hopefully, I’ll have a bit of fun and interaction with the public. [At Beach Canteen pop-up] we’ll show off some dishes from the menu, such as scallop ceviche with wasabi ice cream and a Thai dessert with coconut cream, mango and black olive caramel.’
A British chef, yes, but as this pop-up menu suggests, Atherton doesn’t exactly consider himself a chef of British cuisine. ‘I’m almost the complete opposite of a British chef. My principles are based on British traditions like roasting and braising, but I completely turn this on its head. Our menu is a very modern interpretation of what British cuisine is. Expect a few twists and turns. I borrow a lot of accents from different cuisines from around the world. I’m not scared to use ingredients from Japan, China, the Middle East. Someone like Gary Rhodes, for example, will do fantastic British food through and through. What I do is take the principles of what British cuisine is, turn it on its head and come up with a much more modern look at the way British cuisine is put together.’
Atherton’s work as a chef and restaurateur is also couched in the lessons learnt in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White, and later Gordon Ramsay. ‘I spent a long time in my early years with Marco Pierre White. At that time, Marco was the best British chef ever produced, and he heavily influenced my food. I spent ten years with Gordon Ramsay. Again, a massive influence on my career. Not just in culinary terms, but also as a restaurateur. I learnt everything about restaurants from Gordon. It has been an honour to spend time with the pair of them, really.’
With Pollen Street Social in London’s Mayfair (arguably Atherton’s flagship), The Commune Social in Shanghai and Aberdeen Street Social in Hong Kong, Marina Social in Dubai is one in a growing line of ‘Social’ branded restaurants by the chef. ‘When I was growing up, we had the social club in my local town [Worksop, just outside Sheffield in the UK]. Everyone went there. That was where everyone played pool or darts, went to after funerals and celebrated weddings. It was where the working class hung out because they couldn’t afford to go to posh places. When I opened my first restaurant in Mayfair, which is obviously one of the poshest places in Europe, I just thought it would be cool to use the word social because Mayfair would never house a working men’s social club. For me to come from a working class background and put my own little social club in the area was kind of fun, and the brand grew from that.’
This brand identity, Atherton explains, is important to him for two reasons. One, he says, is that it’s about the restaurant, not Atherton: ‘Every single restaurant has its own life form. That is why I don’t allow a restaurant to carry my name. I’m not one of those executive chefs who have to have his name in lights everywhere. I’m very happy for the restaurant to be more famous than I am.’ Two, there is the consistency of a global ‘Social’ experience: ‘We open in New York later this year, too. You can eat in a Social restaurant in New York, Dubai, Shanghai or London, and even though they are all very different, you get a feel for what they are all about.’
While Atherton comments that each Social restaurant develops its own character, he is quick to counter any suggestion that this is because the concept is tailored to the city. ‘It’s not about ever tailoring anything,’ he says. ‘It’s about just cooking really great food. If hospitality doesn’t spill out of your veins, then you shouldn’t be a chef, and you shouldn’t be running restaurants. When people start thinking, “people in Dubai are really rich, so let’s put loads of caviar on top of everything and sell expensive grape”, that’s absolute rubbish. You run a restaurant for passion. Even if I’m making mashed potatoes, it’s got to be the best mashed potatoes. I’m not interested in a “we’ll get it right tomorrow” chef. People come to us for that passion.’
Heading up the InterContinental Dubai Marina team will be executive chef Tristin Farmer (formerly executive chef of Pollen Street Social) and David Vindis (general manager at Atherton’s Michelin-awarded Social Eating House in London). While Atherton is fairly tight-lipped on the specifics of his menu at Marina Social, he does tell us he is planning a restaurant that is very easy on the eye, beautiful, well thought out, with really cool music and cool staff. ‘It’s going to be a little pocket of London in Dubai Marina.’ He also reveals that the 85-seat restaurant will have a dedicated mixed drinks bar. He says it will be ‘really good value for money and a fun place to hang out.’ Of course, Atherton is no stranger to Dubai. He moved here in 2000 to open Gordon Ramsay’s Verre (two-time winner of Time Out Dubai’s Restaurant of the Year award) at Hilton Dubai Creek. ‘It was one of the great chapters of my life. I didn’t really know what I was walking into, I just embraced it. I had a great time and a nice social life. I got to cook with some great chefs from all over the world. It was just something completely new to me.’
Returning to the UK in 2004, Atherton has continued to visit Dubai once or twice a year. Over this time, he has observed the city as it has grown. ‘What’s happened in Dubai in 15 years is incredible,’ he says. As the city has expanded, the restaurant scene in Dubai has also grown. Reflecting on his early days in Dubai, Atherton says: ‘Obviously Dubai had great Lebanese cuisine, and still does today. Even just getting a kebab was amazing stuff. But on the international spectrum there were one or two decent Italian restaurants, not really any Japanese cuisine and a few little local Filipino venues. So Gordon was a bit of
a trailblazer coming in and opening up a restaurant.
‘It has changed a lot for Dubai. Today, it is one of the hotspots around the world for restaurants. There are so many great chefs – Yannick Alléno, Wolfgang Puck, Greg Malouf and Silvena Rowe – doing really cool things with Middle Eastern cuisine.’ Are these chefs Atherton admires? ‘I admire anyone who dons a chef’s jacket because it is a tough industry. It doesn’t matter if they are famous, or not,’ he says.
Atherton has never been to Verre’s successor Table 9, despite knowing its chef at the helm, Darren Velvick, personally. ‘I have a very simple holiday mantra that when we get off the plane, we play with our children, we sit by the beach, and The Creek remains far away,’ he says.
But he has always dreamt of coming back to Dubai. ‘We didn’t go out looking for it, though. Someone had to have a desire to bring us to the city. Eventually we got approached by InterContinental. I jumped at the chance. It’s an honour. I love the city, I love the people. I love how entrepreneurial everyone is.’
Closer to the launch of Marina Social, Atherton will be moving to Dubai for a few months to oversee the opening period. For a chef of his standing, this level of time commitment is quite rare, even (or, in fact, especially) in a city filled with restaurants with famous names above the door. ‘I don’t see myself as a celebrity or as famous. I see myself as a serious chef and restaurateur,’ he says. ‘I had a TV show and I stopped doing it, and a lot of my other media commitments get squashed because I’m a chef and restaurateur first and foremost. Some chefs are really good at it. Gordon Ramsay is a fantastic TV chef and Jamie Oliver, who is a dear friend of mine, is amazing on TV. Jamie has a restaurant, but he doesn’t have to be in it. I love being in a restaurant and I love cooking. You have to make a conscious decision of what excites you and what you want to be. If you want to be on TV just to be famous, then cooking is not the way to go.’
Perhaps, we argue, for chefs like Atherton’s mentors Ramsay and White, a media career acts as their autumn years retirement after years of hard work in kitchens. ‘Marco is a massive inspiration of mine. When he was in the kitchen, he was one of the best chefs on the planet. He deserves to have a better life now, for sure.’
So, is he tempted to choose TV life over restaurants later in life? ‘No,’ he responds quickly and firmly. ‘I think I’ll play golf.’
Jason Atherton’s Marina Social is due to open September 2015, InterContinental Dubai Marina. Catch the Michelin-starred chef’s pop-up restaurant as part of Dubai Food Festival, February 26-28, Beach Canteen, Kite Beach.