In person, Jason Atherton comes across as one of those rare breeds, namely a genuine superstar chef totally lacking in ego. It’s most refreshing and he makes for great company at a small table media lunch at Aberdeen Street Social.
Candid and humorous in equal measure, he talks at length about his the rapid growth of his restaurant portfolio, how he is still a hands-on chef and names his favourite restaurant in the Philippines. (His wife Irha is Pinay – it’s called Laguna Café, in Cebu. )
He also oversees service of a sensational lunch menu. First up are scallops marinated in yuzu, served with artichoke dashi and the wonderfully-named sea lettuce. Such perfect balance of seemingly contradictory flavours and textures, so clean and vibrant:
Next, a stroke of genuine genius. Eel is cooked for four hours before being delicately decorated with sesame seeds, nori, burnt orange citrus and…..frozen foie gras. That’s the pile of glorious pink shards below. Who thought this could ever be a good combination? Well they were absolutely right. There are very few places in Hong Kong offering this level of hugely-accomplished cooking, not to mention off-the-wall innovation. Wagyu cheek is rubbed in burnt celeriac ash, as you do. An onion is charcoaled, if that’s a verb, brilliantly-green Swiss chard is added before one of the greatest potato creations going, namely because it is cooked in wagyu fat, that golden cylinder of joy below:
To finish, dark chocolate pavé, olive oil conserve and a chocolate ice cream to make you weak at the knees.
Now Atherton isn’t there day in and day out and a previous dinner there when they first opened was, by comparison, not up to my expectations giving what I’d experienced in London at Berners Tavern, Social Eating House and elsewhere. But if this is the standard they’re now regularly setting even when the boss isn’t in town, then get yourself down there soon. You can’t go wrong.
Here are Jason’s answers to my regular chef questionnaire, 3 Minutes, Chef:
Which one utensil do you use most in the kitchen? Definitely my kitchen knife – I use a Japanese Kyoto knife.
What’s your guilty food pleasure? Beans on toast.
Which cookery writers do you like to read? 3 of my top go to cook books are 1. The French Laundry by Thomas Keller 2. Eleven Madison by Will Guidara and Daniel Humm 3. Chez Panisse by Alice Waters. I also give my staff a copy of Danny Meyer’s ‘Setting the Table’ which I think is a really worthwhile read for anyone working in the hospitality industry.
Who would you dine with at your last supper – and what would be on the menu? My family and my chef idols – Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller without their belief in me I would not be where I am today. My menu would be seasonal and fresh, some fresh fish for mains, washed down with some top wines and finished off with tarte tatin – a favorite dessert of mine (recipe here
What’s your favourite vegetable to cook with? It all depends on the season but at the moment I’m loving onion squash.
Any especially memorable kitchen disaster? I remember when lamb necks became really trendy about 15 years ago maybe I was head chef of a restaurant in Manchester and I’d never learned how to cook them correctly. I ordered all these lamb necks and put them on the menu without trying them. It was a Saturday night service and we were packed. Everyone was ordering the lamb neck dish and I started sending all these lamb necks out and medium rare. The guests then starting sending all their dishes back complaining they were chewy, I must have had about 40 returned! It was a disaster – I was close to tears that night ! It wasn’t until weeks later when I researched them properly that I learned that the best way to cook them was to braise them so that all the fat and sinew is broken down. It was the most disastrous night of service in my entire life but it was a lesson for me and I picked myself up and most importantly I learned from it.
What did you have for dinner last night? I was on service at my flagship restaurant Pollen Street Social and had the staff dinner of fish pie.
Have you ever felt intimidated cooking for someone? Yes. One particular event was a Ferran Adria inspired dinner last year where I had to design an El Bulli inspired menu with the man himself dining in the restaurant and tasting all the dishes. That was nerve wracking – but thankfully both he and all the guest loved it!
What’s your kitchen management style? In most of my restaurants I have a Chef Patron who I trust completely and is in control of managing his kitchen team. We touch base weekly to ensure I am up to date with any menu changes, operational issues etc… All of my Chef Patrons have worked with me, usually for many years, they know my standards and I can trust them to maintain these and deliver a great restaurant.
Other than your own, what’s your London restaurant of choice? At the moment I’m loving Park Chinois.