New York Watch Out: Chef Jason Atherton Is Coming to Town

Jason Atherton is a chef in a hurry.

He’s planning to open three more restaurants this year, including making his New York debut in May.

He’s in the middle of a photo shoot for Vertu phones when I arrive for an interview at his flagship Pollen Street Social. From there, it’s a speedy walk to his new company headquarters, in Soho, and a meeting with the designer Russell Sage.

Then we squeeze into a cab with group operations director Scott Ashby, group head sommelier Laure Patry, and Atherton’s wife Irha, a director of Jason Atherton Restaurant Group. Our destination is Social Wine and Tapas.

Guests will be able to purchase wine and dine in store when Atherton’s latest venue opens on April 8. The food will be served on small plates for sharing, an approach that has been a feature of his restaurants since he created Maze for his former mentor, Gordon Ramsay, in 2005.

Weeks after the opening, Atherton makes his debut in New York on May 1. Social on Madison is a joint project with restaurateur Stephen Starr, who owns Morimoto and Buddakan, in Ian Schrager’s new Edition hotel on Madison Avenue.

Big Challenge

New York is a big challenge for a British chef. Ramsay entered the city with a splash in 2007, saying he hoped to win three Michelin stars. It didn’t turn out well. The restaurant lost both its stars last year and has now closed. How important to Atherton is New York? Does he fear what awaits him?

“I’m a very different animal to Gordon,” he says. “Gordon was a three-star chef: He was a big chef to pull down when he went over there. I’m a one-star chef who loves his job and loves to cook. We’re going to go in there very humbly. We’re not going to try to win three Michelin stars or to be the best restaurant in the world. We’re just going over there to do a really good restaurant where people can eat well in a beautiful hotel. I’m sure if we get it right, it will be a big success.

‘‘Opening up in New York is a big deal, you know. It’s like, every pop star, every sportsman, everybody going into America, it’s a big deal. And it’s exactly the same for chefs.”

The restaurant will be like an old English social club, with a billiard room and a vintage bar. He says Social on Madison, designed by David Rockwell, will be a slice of old England in a modern New York hotel.

Humble Background

Atherton is from a humble background. He was born in provincial Worksop and raised in the working-class seaside resort of Skegness, where his parents ran a small hotel.

He trained under chefs such as Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, and Ferran Adria before joining the Gordon Ramsay Group in 2001.

I first tasted his food at Maze in 2005. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life: a succession of small plates, each distinct in flavor and presentation, with a Japanese aesthetic.

We got to know each other before he quit Maze in 2010 to open Pollen Street Social. It’s been interesting witnessing his personal transformation: He was always a culinary talent, full of ideas. But now he’s also an international executive, constantly traveling yet well groomed, with fashionable and well-cut clothes, as well as an expensive-looking haircut.

Global Ambitions

In addition to six restaurants in London, he owns three in Singapore, three in Hong Kong and two in Shanghai. In July, he plans to open a Japanese venue in the Turnmills development in Clerkenwell.

Sosharu will be headed by chef Alex Craciun, one of Atherton’s proteges, who has been living and studying in Japan for more than a year, including stints at leading restaurants such as Kikunoi, Ryo Gin, and Narisawa, Atherton said.

The ground-floor dining room with an open kitchen will seat 80, serving dishes inspired by Japanese cuisine, using British ingredients. Downstairs, there will be a secret entrance to a 17-seat omakase restaurant.

Tired yet? I haven’t mentioned that Atherton plans to open restaurants in Dubai and Sydney next year.

’It’s About Success’

Doesn’t he ever fancy a day off?

“No, I love it,” he says. “I go to the gym every day. I keep myself in good check. My wife and I run a great company with the guys, and it’s great to see that. I’m the oldest guy in the company by eight years, I think, and I’m only 43 and it’s a bunch of young kids who are all sharing in the proceeds.

‘‘It’s not about money. It’s about success. When it’s all finished, I want people to say that Jason’s company made a difference to the way we dine out in London today and its influence is seen all over. That’s what’s important for me.”

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)