Meet Jason Atherton as he returns to Dubai with his own restaurant
He came, he saw, he conquered. And he left. But he’s back in Dubai now. The Sheffield-born chef Jason Atherton, who turns 44 next week, first arrived in Dubai in 2001 with Angela Hartnett to open Gordon Ramsay’s Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek, the first celebrity chef to launch a restaurant on our shores [Disclosure; I looked after the restaurant’s PR at the time].
He departed in 2005 but having met his wife here (a receptionist at Verre, who now works at his head office), his ties to Dubai remained, often returning on holiday. A decade after leaving, he is back, prepping to open his first restaurant here, Marina Social & The Social Room at the new Intercontinental Dubai Marina, this coming Friday, 4th September. That’s a helluva birthday present.
The Dubai opening marks his 17th restaurant globally spanning east to west; Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore to London and New York. Plus his first restaurant in Sydney opens shortly. In the five, short years it’s taken to build his global empire, three of his London restaurants have collected one Michelin star each (Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House and City Social). What’s interesting is that Jason has appointed Tristin Farmer as executive chef in Dubai who took over from him at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in London (more on how Maze has influenced the Marina Social concept later).
Left: a peek into Marina Social & The Social Room; and right: a foie gras ‘hot dog’ from the tapas menu
So voila, here’s FooDiva’s hour-long interview with a well media-trained, yet endearing Jason Atherton, as he defends his sharing-style concept in a 110-cover restaurant, bar and terrace that will, thankfully, only operate one seating a night. So you won’t get kicked off your table like with La Petite Maison and Coya. Good news for sure, but the question remains with a saturated restaurant market, will they fill the space? Oh and before you ask, there’s no pork licence.
- Why open your first restaurant in Dubai now and why at the InterContinental Dubai Marina? We had lots of phone calls from various hotel managers and owners about doing a restaurant in Dubai. A lot of the offers were on places like the Palm, which is an amazing project, but the Social concept is very urban, and to place it in a big resort hotel, it just wouldn’t really work. In this location you can be living in the marina, or working; you can pop in here, valet park, have a glass of wine, a couple of dishes, and then go home. And that’s what the Social brand is. I hate that word ‘brand’ though. It sounds like we’re Gucci or something. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but it’s a little more personable than ‘brand’; each restaurant has its own heartbeat. It means you can literally come and use our restaurant for whatever you want to use it for; you can just pop in and have a cup of tea. Or come in and have a tasting menu with friends; in all of our restaurants we have four people dining, and then four more friends will come by. Some restaurants panic when that happens; we just grab four more chairs and ram them round the table, put another bottle of wine on the table, four more desserts, and let them have a party. That’s what we set our restaurants up for.
- So have we now moved away from fine dining to social dining? Absolutely. When me and my wife set up the company five years ago we risked everything. Yes, we had a wealthy partner who had a small stake in the business, but we had to remortgage the house and use up our life savings. We were thinking if we were going out tonight, where would we go? And every restaurant we named had an atmosphere. Because even though I’m about fine dining, I always wanted to go out with my wife because I get very limited time off, so in that time I want to have fun, and have great food. So it was always those top two or three restaurants. This was around the time that Zuma was just getting started in London. It was restaurants like Giorgio Locatelli’s Locanda with 90-100 covers, with really beautiful Italian food, great music, great atmosphere, celebrities everywhere. So we said to ourselves, if we were to open a fine dining restaurant to achieve Michelin greatness, we’re going to limit ourselves with that straight away, that’s what my wife said, and I said ‘hang on a minute’, I have to have that on a plate, because that’s what I do. But how can we mix those two worlds together? And that’s how we came up with the brand Social. It was trying to mix together the DNA of Michelin, because it is still the most consistent guidebook globally. You might not like the ambiance or the music, or the décor or the tablecloths, but you know you’re going to have a really good meal because they get it right every time. What we wanted to do was take that, get rid of all the things people don’t actually like, like going in and whispering like a mouse, being scared to drop a knife on the floor. So we’re trying to get all of those elements together about having a fun time and package them together with eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant. That’s what we did, and touch wood it’s been a big success story. We never dreamed it would spiral into this. To think that I spend half a year flying around, visiting amazing cities, from Sydney to New York to Dubai to Hong Kong to London…sometimes you just pinch yourself. I’m very humbled that this has happened to me.
- You place a lot of emphasis on atmosphere, which is so often lacking in Dubai restaurants. What else can you bring to Dubai’s dining scene? I think we will add to the evolution of Dubai dining. I’m not aiming to be another celebrity chef who gets his name up on the wall and then goes home once he’s had his photograph taken – that’s not what I do. I work extremely hard to make sure we get our concepts right. It’s very easy to set up restaurants and fly around the world and pick up a cheque once you get a reputation – and that’s absolutely not what I’m about. I don’t need the money for doing this; it’s about coming to Dubai and doing a really good job, and to leave a legacy here. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that ‘we’re going to do this or that because no one does this in Dubai’. You have a lot of great restaurants here. La Petite Maison is one of my favourites. That’s got everything. It’s got atmosphere, beautiful food, great service, a great price point, beautiful people. I prefer the one in Dubai to the one in London. We have a few tricks up our sleeve. The way we do things at the table is a little more interactive. The chicken for two comes in three different ways. Dining is about fun. On the way from the US are some vintage plates with the queen’s skull, wearing the queen’s crown. With Dubai’s laws it’s difficult to get unusual wines in, so we’ve worked with MMI and A&E to source wines that a lot of people don’t have. It’s really just trying to make a difference; everything is made in-house, bread included. As the restaurant gets older, it will get better. Most restaurants, especially when they have a name attached tend to start great and then plateau out. For me, absolutely not – in a year’s time we need to be better, slicker and push staff to offer better service.
- I stopped doing TV about a year and a half ago…it took so much time. You have to make a personal choice. Do I want to be a full-time celebrity who every now and again wears a chef’s jacket, or do I want to be a full-blown restaurateur who wants to really get into the guts of his restaurants and make them great? I have a long way to go as a chef, and I want to focus on being a restaurateur; I want our restaurant group to be one of the best restaurant and hospitality groups in the world. That’s my ambition. It’s a big one, but if you don’t dream big, you don’t achieve.
- I’ve only eaten at City Social, which was an excellent but an unexpectedly formal experience. How is Dubai similar or different to your other Social concepts? It has the same DNA going through it, but each restaurant is different. I would never put a DJ booth in my Social in London, because it’s just not what we do. But here in Dubai because people have to drive so far, they’re not going to go all that way for a party when we can bring the party to you here. It was creating a restaurant where people could have a complete night, and we won’t replicate this ever again anywhere else in the world. This will be Dubai’s Social.
- Explain what you mean by a British-Mediterranean menu. It’s really simple. I’m a British chef; I follow the British seasons, but we still buy a lot of things from Europe. A little bit of game is coming through soon. And the Mediterranean bit is a bit misconstrued. When we wrote the menu here, we wanted to adapt the Mediterranean diet because of the heat and we wanted people to come often. So rather than a rich, heavy sauce, think of maybe a salsa, or a vinaigrette, or a juice thickened up with a little olive oil, rather than making it like in Britain where we really have to start making things heavy coming into winter. So it was always about having that polar opposite effect to London, but staying true to my roots.
- I gather dishes will be served sharing style. Is that not an excuse for a lazy kitchen? No. Maze was such a massive success story in London. When I invented that for Gordon Ramsay at the time, I didn’t realise how pioneering it was going to be. And it was ‘oh, we’re not ready for this’, and the media attention – I was like a rabbit in the headlights. People were saying ‘this restaurant is the best thing ever’ and I was so busy staying on top of the restaurant. It’s not until all these years later that people stop me in the street and say ‘Maze was such an amazing restaurant. I loved it. I was so upset when you left’. And so Tristin took over from me and did a very good job of maintaining the standards there and maintaining the Michelin star. And remember that Maze was one of the first restaurants in Britain to gain a Michelin star doing that many covers. I had a meeting with an ex-Michelin inspector who does a bit of secret shopping for me, and he said to me ‘you know Jason, we were seriously looking at giving your restaurant two stars while you were there’. And I was like ‘really?’ I was just there trying to get the food out – it never seemed seamless. It was always a fight to get through the day.
- So when we started thinking about this restaurant, we were thinking that Maze was such an amazing restaurant. Middle Eastern culture is a bit like Asian culture; they like to share food. In Britain we’re a bit more like ‘well that’s my dish; I don’t want you touching my dish’. But even though Maze broke that down, I’ve always wanted to do something similar to Maze. In London I’ve always stayed away from that though, because my name is so heavily associated with that. If I could recreate it anywhere it would be here. After all, I invented it. And it’s not going to be a carbon copy at all. It’s our Social version of Maze.
- If you had to pick a starter, a main course and a dessert as signature dishes, what would you choose?I’ll pick four for you right now. A British nod to ‘tea and toast’, on the snacks menu [I won’t elaborate more to keep an element of surprise]. My favourite starter would be the tomato and burrata. Everybody assumes it’s going to be chopped tomatoes and burrata, but it’s not and I don’t want to spoil it for you, you’re just going to have to come and eat it. My favourite dish on the mains would probably be the chicken for two. If I was going for stuff from a tasting menu, I really like the veal cheeks. And then for dessert [Marina Social will feature Jason’s signature dessert bar], I would probably choose the chocolate bar with banana ice cream. It looks so simple, but it’s a two-day preparation. At the end, we do a candy cart, with old vintage tins that we’ve collected over the years. I have a team that goes online and just buys them from individuals on e-bay. And we make tiny little sweets and serve them at the table.
- What proportion of your produce will be sourced locally? As we get more and more confident with the restaurant, we need to make sure we can get the best produce we possibly can, and we can start looking at the local organic farms. Whether we do it as an individual menu, or whether they have enough produce to integrate it into the main menu, it’s foolish not to. We absolutely want to get involved in the farmers’ markets. If someone is doing beekeeping; all that is something we want to do. Marina Social over the next three to nine months has to integrate itself into Dubai society. That’s just a given. It’s not just a flashy sign where you can eat posh food.
- How many times will you visit Dubai? The great thing about this for me is Emirates Airline. Dubai is taking over from Singapore and Hong Kong as the transit point for going east. So I get to use Dubai as a hub, and avoid jetlag. So when I go to Sydney at the end of the year, I can stop off here for four days on the way there and on the way back I’m going to be here for another four days. And then I go out to Hong Kong after Christmas, and I’m going to be here for another four days, and two days on the way back. So every couple of months I’ll be here for at least six days. Which again, for a chef with this many restaurants is unheard of, and I can do it because Emirates has so many great connections. In contrast, I only go to New York four times a year because I have to go there for work and then go home.
- Dubai is very close to your heart given your time at Verre and the fact that you met your wife here. You rate La Petite Maison highly and I would agree. Who else has perfected the dining experience here in your opinion? I don’t think anyone ever perfects the dining experience. I think people create environments where people can relax and enjoy themselves. The day you stand back and think you’ve perfected the dining experience is the day you fall down round your ears. What that group has, with Zuma, and Coya, and La Petite Maison is a stable of restaurants that appeal to the right crowd, which then appeal to the next tier. He’s created a formula there, which captures people’s imaginations. We’ve done that in our own way with the Social brand in the UK. It’s actually really hard.
- I was interviewed recently and they said ‘everyone rates you as our most consistent home-grown chef/restaurateur’, and I found that hard to accept. All my chef friends are like ‘just enjoy it’, but I find that a very difficult accolade to accept, because there’s so much to get done. You go into your own restaurants and see so many things that aren’t right. I go to other people’s restaurants that are great, and I think ‘we’re not as good as that’. And that’s what makes you great, I think – you’re always questioning, you’re always pushing for more. For example, they found these really beautiful teapots from Singapore for here in Dubai, and they’re better than the ones I have at Pollen Street. As soon as I saw them, I thought ‘my God, that’s really beautiful; straight away, get those to Pollen Street.’
- What’s missing on Dubai’s dining scene? It would be nice to see Michelin come here.
- Do you think Michelin will rate Dubai eventually? I hear that’s Dubai Tourism’s goal by 2020. I think the realistic thing that would happen would be to group the major cities of the Middle East and Africa – like they do with a part of Europe. To come and do one book for Dubai would be very difficult as there wouldn’t be enough to fill it.
- Do you not think for Michelin to take note, we need to see more homegrown modern Middle Eastern restaurants like Q’bara? Absolutely. Dubai is still a relatively new city, and what’s happened in the last five to ten years is so many great restaurants have opened. If you come into Dubai now you can’t be lazy, or have half-hearted concepts, or send a second-rate crew in while you concentrate on London. But now if you’re not good from day one, you’re in trouble in Dubai. People in Dubai are smart – they travel and they know what good quality dining is. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes just because you’re in Dubai and everyone thinks the streets are paved with gold – they’re not. You have to work hard for your buck here. And I like that, because it means that Dubai is now getting to a point where only the fittest survive. And I’m quietly confident that we can work hard to be part of that crew. I’m not saying we’re going to be the best, but we’re going to work hard to try and be the best. You’ve got to be driving that business; looking at every detail; what people are enjoying; how we can make that better; what are they not liking; and how we can change that.
- What would be nice is maybe more independent restaurateurs. But people have to face facts. If you open up an independent restaurant, 40% of your revenue comes from alcohol. That’s just fact. And if you don’t have an alcohol licence, you’re not going to make it. That’s sad, but that’s how it is. Social makes nothing out of its food; I make all of my money out of the alcohol because the food is so expensive to prepare. I don’t make a tonne of money, but I make enough to do OK. DIFC was a good move, so independents can go in there. But it would be nice to see a couple of chefs going into the 30-40 cover bracket; maybe some local chefs doing that, really trying to elevate Emirati cuisine.
- Earlier this year in The Telegraph you said La Madia in Sicily was one of the world’s best restaurants. I had dinner there last month and would probably agree. What makes a restaurant qualify for best? When you eat someone’s food like chef Pino’s, you feel the passion in the plate. Great chefs, that’s what they do. You have that charcoal beef…that was amazing. Every chef can make good food look beautiful – that’s the easy part. It’s hard to accept it at first, because you think everyone can cook. I worked with a lot of chefs at Marco’s, at Nico’s, at Pierre Koffman’s, who were just as good as me, if not better than me at actually doing the day-to-day work. And I look back now, and they’ve all gone. The only thing I can put that down to is that they didn’t have that last bit, where you put that food on the plate, and you put it in your mouth, and you think ‘do the acidity levels need to go up?’ To know it’s wow, you have to eat it and think ‘that’s it, we have it.’ And then your customers go home and when they’re asked if they had a great dinner, they say ‘yes, that was fantastic’.
So who remembers Jason from his Verre days? Have you eaten at any of his restaurants around the world? Would love to hear your memories.
I will have a taste of Marina Social at a preview dinner on Tuesday – more on my social media channels. Time will tell if he can conquer Dubai.