Be determined – never give up. It’s the most important thing Jason Atherton has learned from his mentors.
“Every job has its positives and negatives!”, he shares. “My time working for old-school chefs like Marco Pierre White was tough at points because of the demanding kitchen environments, but at the same time I learnt a huge amount. My favourite job has to be the one I’m in today; running a group of restaurants that I’m very proud of, alongside my wife Irha, whilst still cooking at my flagship restaurant Pollen Street Social day to day.”
Here’s how the Michelin-starred chef started his career, why he prioritises his guests, and what’s next for his restaurant group, The Social Company.
You’ve worked with great chefs throughout your career. Where did it all start?
When I left school I joined the Army Catering Corps, which wasn’t for me – I left after a couple of weeks and moved back to my hometown of Skegness, where I joined a local hotel as a chef. I took to it like a duck to water and when I turned 16 I ran away to London, where I continued my training – in London and also abroad in France and Spain (I was lucky enough to work with Ferran Adrià at elBulli).
There’s 15 restaurants within The Social Company. How do you define your philosophy across all of them?
All of my restaurants are very different in concept but they all share certain “Social” values. I like the idea of de-formalised dining – everyone is welcome, there’s no dress code, and the menus are flexible. You can come in and share a couple of dishes at lunch or linger over an 8-course tasting menu with paired wines. It’s up to you.
How do you deliver these “Social” values through hospitality?
To create and deliver hospitality you need to listen to your guests and ensure they are a priority. Stay humble – you can’t always get it right. At the same time, it’s also about making sure your staff are looked after properly so they can in turn enjoy their job of delivering a great experience to each and every guest.
We’re curious. Where do you find inspiration? How do you stay creative?
Travel plays a huge part in inspiring me – when I visit my restaurants abroad my wife Irha and I always take the time to go out for dinner and wander around a city. I love trying restaurants and you need to feed that appetite for the new – the industry doesn’t stay still for a moment.
What industry trends/developments are you especially excited about?
I’m excited to see tasting menus going out of fashion – they have their place in certain restaurants, but it’s great to see the return of proper, simple cooking and satisfying plates of food being served.
What industry challenges keep you up at night?
Like most chefs nowadays, staffing in our restaurants is a challenge day to day – there aren’t enough new recruits coming through the doors to keep up with the demand. In general, the economy; it’s a turbulent time for the UK at the moment.
You started training at the age of 16 and now own a restaurant group. What is your best advice for aspiring restaurateurs?
Make sure you do your business plan properly before opening a restaurant – ensure that the restaurant could still operate at around 40% below predicted turnover, in case you do need to weather any downturns in trade. Also, do your research in the local area and shape your concept to fit the neighbourhood, rather than just repeating the same business model everywhere.
What’s next for you and your restaurant business?
Next up I’m launching a little tapas restaurant in The Philippines, in my wife Irha’s hometown of Cebu, called The Pig & Palm. It’s been a dream of ours for a while – you could say it’s my love letter to her. After that, we will be working on an Italian restaurant in London’s Victoria, a new concept for us which I’m very excited about.
Photos courtesy of The Social Company