Jason Atherton in Asia
As Jason Atherton announces a new restaurant opening in the Philippines (his wife’s homeland) and steps away from his restaurants in Singapore, Choptix looks back to meeting the chef and restaurateur in his early days in Asia:
Jason Atherton has been clocking up the air miles between the UK and Asia in just this last week alone. The former Gordon Ramsay protégé and head chef at Maze in London, now with his own Michelin starred restaurant Pollen Street Social, has made three round trips in seven days.
Having flown to the Far East to open his new restaurant in Singapore, he flew back to London for 24 hours in order to pick up the Chef of the Year at the prestigious Cateys – Catering and Hotelkeeper magazine’s awards.
After a celebratory but resolutely abstemious evening, it was straight on the plane back East to oversee the kitchen at Pollen based – appropriately – within the newly opened Gardens by the Bay development.
Pollen marks the third Jason Atherton venture in Asia, following Table No 1 in Shanghai and the tapas bar, Esquina, that opened in Singapore last December. Atherton is also the consultant chef for Hong Kong Airlines’ business class only flight between Hong Kong and London which launched in March this year.
Prior to being approached by the airline he hadn’t visited Hong Kong before. “They came to me, I never go looking for business – I’m not one of those chefs who has a very strategic idea of growth,” says Atherton when I catch up with him Singapore. “They said they’d done some market research and my name came up top.”
Since taking on the project, Atherton has now visited the SAR twice. “I think it’s a super cool city. It’s so different to how I imagined. You see pictures of the skyline but you don’t know about all the islands and all the greenery.”
Atherton admits to being in talks with a Hong Kong company to open a restaurant here but quickly adds, “It’s just talks at the moment. I would like to open in Hong Kong and I think it will happen but I’m not saying it will open next year.” [Atherton has since opened 22 Ships, Ham & Sherry and Aberdeen Street Social.]
“It won’t be a fancy place though. There’s enough of that already in Hong Kong. If I open a restaurant it will have to be cool.” He mentions the city’s thriving private kitchen concept as a possible direction.
His enthusiasm for Hong Kong is a further indication that opening an eatery here will come to fruition: “I turn a lot of projects down, I only want to open restaurants in cities I love so I’ll be passionate about them,” he says.
With the profusion of famous French and American chefs in Asian cities, the British are conspicuous by their absence. Atherton is the first to make the move. “I don’t see myself as a celebrity chef. I don’t go around imagining Jason Atherton restaurants everywhere,” he says. “I don’t know why the British chefs haven’t come out here – I’m sure Gordon would love to.” [Gordon Ramsay has opened Bread Street Kitchen and London House in Hong Kong.]
Whenever you interview one of the (former) Gordon Ramsay family, Ramsay looms large. Atherton doesn’t shy away from the subject. “I loved that place but it didn’t feel like a family anymore. It’s no secret that when I left, Chris [Hutcheson, Ramsay’s former business partner and father in law] tried to sue me and that was a horrible time for me and my family. But I think Gordon is one of the finest chefs Britain has ever produced. The guy’s amazing. He’s good at everything he turns his hand to – running the kitchen, TV shows, books – and he could charm the birds out of the trees. If Gordon walked in here now, I’d sit down and have a coffee with him.”
Atherton left in 2010 and was about to sign a deal with London restaurant group D&D to back his own restaurant when Singaporean business woman Mavis Oei offered him another option. Oei’s sons were regulars at Maze from the start and introduced their mother who became friends with Atherton and his wife, Irha. Oei has a 25 per cent stake in Atherton’s business and undoubtedly her presence has made the Asian expansion possible.
He’ll travel to Singapore every four to five weeks for the first few months but has enlisted former Zuma chef Colin Clague to head up the kitchen at Pollen [Clague has since left]. The menu is similar to that in Pollen Street Social but with some sharing plates (a concept he had to abandon in the London restaurant but believes the Asian market is more attuned to) and lighter ingredients including more Asian produce. The restaurant will also serve afternoon tea – ever popular in Asia – which it does not offer in London. “It won’t be on a cake stand. We’ve had some lovely boxes with drawers made which says “salt” and “sweet”’.
A second business will open in Shanghai in November, another tapas bar “but not called Esquina because it’s not on a corner.” Atherton will send another of his chefs from London to head up Table No 1 as that restaurant’s chef, Scott Melvin, will move over to the tapas bar.
The formula has proved a hit in Singapore but why the interest in tapas? “I love it. I lived in Spain for a year [he was the first British chef to complete a stage at El Bulli] and I wanted to do a proper tapas bar in Asia, not a sit down restaurant.”
With expansion afoot, would he move here? “Asia’s been good to me. I will settle here at some point. My wife’s Filipino and I have two kids who are half Asian so the plan is to come out here when I retire,” says the 40 year old.
“What I’d really like to do when I reduce the number of hours I work is to do the summer in London and the winters in Asia. But I’ve got a few more years before that.”
[This piece was originally posted in July 2012]
UPDATE: Atherton’s Philippines adventure has come sooner than thought, Atherton and his wife Irha are set to open The Pig & Palm – serving “tapas with a Filipino twist” – in Cebu. Atherton is no longer involved with Esquina, Pollen or The Study Singapore.