Chef interview: Jason Atherton

The chef is returning with Marina Social in Dubai

Chef Jason Atherton
Chef Jason Atherton

In an exclusive interview with Caterer Middle East, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton discusses what guests will get with his second innings in the region and how he implements the word ‘social’ in everything he does

It seems to be the season of celebrity chefs and well-known international brands either opening or announcing new ventures in the Middle East. With the F&B market growing in leaps and bounds, the market is proving to be attractive for chef-restaurateurs keen to make their mark on a global scale.

And now Jason Atherton, who is well-versed with the Dubai scene, is returning. In 2001, Gordon Ramsay (who has not confirmed he is looking to return just yet!) opened his first restaurant in the Middle East — Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek. In 2002, Jason Atherton took over the venue when Angela Hartnett left to open her restaurant back in the UK.

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Ramsay’s protégé left Dubai in 2005, and in 2010 left Gordon Ramsay Holdings to launch the Jason Atherton Restaurant Group. He opened his flagship Pollen Street Social in April 2011 in Mayfair, which won a Michelin star within six months of opening. Since then Atherton has won many accolades, not to mention further Michelin stars for his work.

Rumours were flying that Atherton was considering a new venture in the UAE, and in August 2013 Caterer Middle East confirmed his return. In March 2014, the InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) made the official announcement that Atherton would open his restaurant, Marina Social, at the InterContinental Dubai Marina.

I met Atherton and the InterContinental Dubai Marina general manager Michael Martin in August 2014 on one of Atherton’s reconnaissance visits to the city. The chef is soft-spoken but the passion shines through his voice when we start talking about all things food.

Even though he lived in Dubai when the F&B industry was still taking baby steps, the Emirates definitely won him over. He says: “I remember Gordon Ramsay saying to me, ‘do you want to go and run our new restaurant out in Dubai?’, and at the time, I asked, ‘where’s Dubai?’ He said, ‘let’s go out there for the weekend’.

“I had never been to the Middle East at that point in my life. I came and I was so taken aback, even back then, at how cool the city was. I said yes straightaway. I moved out here and just had the best time of my life. I loved it, those four years were very special to me.”

He adds with a smile: “It was always an ambition when I left that I would, one day, hopefully, open a restaurant here of my own. And that’s now being realised.”

Martin reveals IHG and Atherton have a “consultancy type of arrangement” where both parties are working in partnership. He says: “We are supporting, Jason is the lead, he brings the concept, he brings the ideas, he brings his key members and we operate it around that. So we are absolutely in partnership. There will be key people from Jason’s team, leading the team, then the staff we recruit. It’s probably [best described] as a joint venture.”

Martin continues with saying that the restaurant is the “perfect fit” with the ethos of the hotel. He says: “We wanted to be a lifestyle destination, and Jason’s restaurant is just the jewel in the crown of what we have to offer in the Marina. It’s just so vibrant, and we’re right in the middle of it. What’s really important to us is that we engage with our customers.”

Social is a word on everyone’s minds [see box out on page 30] and nearly half of Atherton’s restaurants around the world have the word ‘social’ in their name. It’s not a coincidence.

Atherton says: “My whole company is built around the word ‘social’. The reason why that exists is because going out 15-20 years ago to a high level restaurant meant not really talking, and that’s not what we’re about.

“We play really funky music, we have cool uniforms, we have informal dining, but still at Michelin quality. And that’s what has captured people’s imagination around the world. We still deliver that very high quality cuisine but in a very informal setting.”

He continues: “In the past you would only go to one of these restaurants when it was someone’s birthday, someone’s anniversary… whereas with our restaurants you can come in, have a beer, chat with the bartender and go again. Never before were you able to do that in a Michelin quality restaurant, never. The whole informality has really made our restaurant group stand out from the rest.”

That is exactly what Atherton will bring to his new Dubai venue. He says Marina Social is “so much more than just a restaurant”.

He continues: “I don’t want people to think, ‘oh Jason Atherton, he’s a Michelin star chef, so we’re going to go there, it’s going to be a tasting menu’. It’s not. It’s not what I do as a chef. I win Michelin stars for doing really great food, not just for doing tasting menus.”

And it’s not just the food but the bar that both Atherton and Martin highlight. Atherton explains: “We have four of the world’s best bartenders working for our restaurant group. The main one is here right now having meetings with suppliers and he will front the bar programme here. We’ve put our necks on the line and we want to have some of the best cocktails in Dubai on the menu, and we want to have a crowd coming just for that, never mind the food.”

Martin adds: “That bar part of it is equally as important to us. It is a social area that we want people to come into. There is going to be a great selection of whiskies and cocktails, and as you can see, Jason’s passion.”

Atherton continues: “We’re very lucky that the hotel’s given us a very beautiful terrace space and we want to work on the sundowner, we want to have some great cocktails, some great bar snacks. It’s so social. That’s the whole thing. Every time we think about anything, it’s ‘does it fit into the word ‘social’?’”

He provides an example of training that shows his attention to detail when it comes to keeping the restaurant experience as interactive as possible. “When we’re training the receptionists, we never allow them to walk in front of the guests. They always walk on the side of the guests.

You cannot walk in front of them because when you do that, you’re losing that 30-second interaction with the guest, from when you take their name, walk them to their table where you can find out ‘is it their birthday? Is it a special occasion? Are they in a bad mood?’ All these little tidbits of information that you can pass on to the maitre’d to make their night that much more special, because we are super passionate about what we do,” he says.

Passion aside, his group’s success is proof that chefs can’t just enter the F&B business as a restaurateur without careful thought and hard work.

Atherton smiles, and says: “I have this joke… We really opened our restaurant group four-and-a-half years ago and we’ve got 14-15 restaurants globally. I say it’s a 27-year overnight success story. I’ve been cooking for 27 years in three-star Michelin restaurants all over the globe.

So it’s not a case of there’s this new kid on the block and in four years he built his empire. It just doesn’t work like that. In restaurants, in hospitality in general, you’ve got to live, eat, breathe, and sleep service. If you don’t then you shouldn’t be in it because you will never be successful.”

Atherton says he presented a talk at Westminster College in the UK a few months ago and when it came to questions, four out of 10 questions were about the attendees wanting to know how to get on TV, and how to get a book deal.

Success, he thinks, is not measured in TV appearances and publishing books. Atherton says he responded to the students immediately. “I said, ‘Look, you’re all chefs here. If you’re not passionate about food, you should not be wearing a white jacket. When asparagus comes into season, if you don’t actually wake up excited about asparagus, you should not be wearing a white jacket.’

“And I know that sounds over-dramatic but I still get excited about food and that’s what it’s about. Even when I’m sending a plate off to pass, I look at it before it goes to the customer. I’m just so passionate about it, and if you can’t get excited about food like that, this industry will eat you alive because it’s really long hours, it’s tough, it’s really hard to make it to the top, and you’ve got to have that dedication.

“And if you do, all the rest of that stuff, if you want to do that, will follow. But it’s also a distraction so you’ve got to be careful. All that fancy stuff should really only be the icing on the cake.

I’ve seen a lot of talented chefs in Britain who have had the talent to go all the way, throw it all away because they’ve chased TV, they’ve chased glamour, celebrity parties and all that stuff. You very rarely see me do all that. I have a lot of celebrity friends but ... you know, we got invited to go to the Oscars last year. We have no time to go to the Oscars, we’re busy!”

But being a ‘celebrity chef’ is the mantle Atherton has to bear. But he is very matter-of-fact that no matter what the title, he is extremely involved with his ventures right from the beginning. “I hate that phrase ‘celebrity chef’. It is what it is, I understand why it exists and I shouldn’t knock it because it gives us the stature we have today. But I’m not a chef who just goes into a region and that’s it. I’ll be here a lot.”

Being present a lot in the restaurants he opens is because he has adopted the strategy of launching in cities which he likes and wants to be in.

He says: “I love Dubai. I’m really excited about opening a restaurant here and I’ll be spending a lot of time here. The same for Singapore, Hong Kong and London. I’ll only open up a restaurant in a city I’m really passionate about so I can give it my all to make sure that restaurant is a big success. I’m not filming loads of TV shows, I don’t have lots of outside activities, my main focus are my restaurants and I’m hell bent on making sure our restaurants are some of the best in the world.”

Atherton thinks the InterContinental Dubai Marina is located in an “exciting part of town”. He comments that compared to the time he lived here a decade ago, the emirate has separated itself into well-defined communities not unlike those in London.

“When I lived here you had Jumeirah strip, a lot of desert, Emirates Golf Club, Bur Dubai, which is where I lived, and Karama, and that was pretty much it really. Whereas now you have Dubai Marina which is a city within itself.”

“And I feel — and I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot when I say this — I feel there’s a real scope to be the best restaurant in Dubai Marina because there’s not a lot of restaurants here at the moment, it’s under-exposed.”

He says that while one of the best dining areas around town is DIFC, he believes it is at saturation point because there are a lot of great restaurants to choose from.

It’s been a decade since Atherton had a presence here, and he says Dubai is one of the fastest growing restaurant markets in the world. He states enthusiastically: “You’ve got some of the best chefs of the world working here from Nobu to Giorgio Locatelli to Wolfgang Puck. Gosh they’re all here — Zuma, La Petite Maison. It’s a real powerful market.

But I relish that. I don’t want to be obnoxious but I like the challenge of it being a tough market to come into and get to the top because that makes me more determined.

Because the standard here is so great. I think what is really important is not whether Michelin-starred chefs come to the Middle East or not, what is really important is the quality of the dining experience they bring.

Do you feel comfortable in there? Is it a great looking restaurant? Are the staff well-trained? Is the food what you expected and, more importantly than anything, is it value for money? If you can deliver on all those accounts, you will be successful.”

In such a lucrative market, does Atherton see his footprint expanding? Atherton gently shoots that down, saying he doesn’t actively look for opportunities.

“Would I open more restaurants in the Middle East? No, not at the moment, but never say never. If this is a massive success story, and if InterContinental say, look we’re going to do a new hotel, do you want to look at it? If it excites us, of course we’re going to look at it, if not then we don’t. You just don’t know what’s around the corner.”

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