Jason Atherton brings social dining to Dubai!
Jason Atherton is no stranger to Dubai. He was here back in 2001 to set up Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre, where he was the Executive Chef. It was here that he met his wife, Irha. In 2004, he headed back to England, but his love affair with Dubai continued, as it has been a frequent holiday destination for him and his family over the years. Six years after his return to London, Chef Atherton left the Gordon Ramsay banner to start his own business, The Social Company. In early 2011, he opened his flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, which was awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening.
I had the opportunity to interview Chef Atherton at Marina Social the other day, which is set to open to the public this Friday 4th September. We discussed his thoughts on Dubai and vegetarianism, and I learnt a little bit more about the ‘social’ concept that’s so integral to many of his restaurants.
Sumati: Do you think that British cuisine has evolved to become more veggie-friendly over the years?
Chef Atherton: Well, back in the 80’s and early 90s, British food was all about lean protein. Everyone wanted to work with pigeon, foie gras, etc. It’s only really in the last 5-10 years that chefs have started embracing vegetables with passion and zeal. If anything, they are starting to push the meat to one side, so that it’s almost like an afterthought to the actual vegetables.
I think it’s great, because if you go out for dinner at great restaurants on a regular basis, you tend to put on weight. You can’t really do it more than 3-4 times a year if you’re going to be eating meat-heavy meals. Chefs have sort of lightened things up over the last decade.
Sumati: So you do think there is a trend for people to move a little bit more towards vegetarian food?
Chef Atherton: Well, I’d like to think that the fad has finished but chefs have continued to do it because it just makes sense. I personally like to dine out 4-5 times a month. It’s like a hobby for me, and I don’t always want to eat really rich food. For example, if I have a 5-course tasting menu, I’m very happy for 3 of them to be vegetarian. I want to feel light and not have a food coma at the end of the meal.
Sumati: What was your experience with Gordon Ramsay like? Is he a veggie-friendly chef?
Chef Atherton: I worked with him for 10-11 years in total. He’s one of the main reasons why I am here today. He sent me to Dubai to stand on my own 2 feet and manage the kitchen of a 5-star hotel with 3 restaurants – since I was diving in at the deep end, the lessons I learnt from it were huge. Not just how to be a great chef, but also how to be a successful restaurateur by looking at the details and how they all work together. The lighting, the music, the seating arrangements, etc. For example, we are not entirely happy with the bar here at Marina Social, and we’re working on some changes over the next few days before our opening. Over time, you just start to get a feel for things, you know?
Gordon always mocks vegetarians and has fun with them, but you have to understand his character. He’s a fun guy and he’ll always say that vegetarian people are his best friends with a big smile on his face, but he absolutely understands the business mechanics and that the menu has to be vegetarian friendly.
Sumati: In your experience, what would you say is the recipe for a successful new restaurant venture here in Dubai?
Chef Atherton: I think it’s really tricky to say because until you run a restaurant yourself, it’s very hard to understand why a restaurant works or doesn’t work. Dubai was a lot smaller when Verre first opened, so it started of well. But then DIFC was built, and that became the main destination, leading to a greater variety of restaurants.
You’ve got to look at what trends are, and try manipulating them to the marketplace. Other than that, you cross your fingers, cross your toes and hope for the best.
Sumati: All of your restaurants seem to be quite veggie-friendly. Do you get a lot of vegetarian diners?
Chef Atherton: In England, it’s about 15-20%, but it’s hard to say who is vegetarian and who is just choosing to eat vegetarian food because it’s their 3rd business lunch that week.
Sumati: Dubai has a sizeable vegetarian population, and it’s a very veggie-friendly city. Did you take that into consideration when designing the menu for Dubai?
Chef Atherton: Absolutely, I realized that when I lived here last. We expect about 30-35% of the diners here to order the vegetarian food and we have a vegetarian menu. In fact, we just had a long meeting here 2 nights ago about whether we have enough vegetarian food options on our menu.
Sumati: What are your thoughts on local agriculture? Will you be looking into locally sourced vegetables for Marina Social?
Chef Atherton: I came here a year ago to start researching ingredients and the one thing that really impressed and surprised me was all these organic farms that have popped up around the UAE. Back when I was at Verre, absolutely everything was imported.
For Marina Social, we are committed over the next 12 months to getting 25% of all our produce from in and around the UAE. We believe that it’s more ethical and we’ll be putting our carbon footprint down. We have to communicate with the growers to help them improve rather than just throwing the vegetables back and saying they are rubbish. That’s the relationship we’d like to have with our purveyors, just like we do back home.
Sumati: The word ‘social’ comes up a lot in the names of your restaurants. Marina Social, Pollen Street Social, City Social, etc. How does that define your restaurant’s philosophy?
Chef Atherton: When I started out on my own, I had to differentiate myself. Gordon Ramsay is this huge personality. To get out of that shadow, I had to do something completely unique. So when I put my mortgage on the line and opened my first independent restaurant, I de-formalized fine dining to make it more accessible.
When the food at a restaurant is super challenging, that sort of spoils the social element of the night out. When you come to a restaurant that’s the complete package, you of course expect the food to be good, but you also want seamless wine service, where the sommelier always gets your wine choice right. And the price should be right as well, without ripping you off. The music should be at the right volume, so that you can still have a conversation.
I want Marina Social to be really flexible for people that work in and around the Marina area. So if you’ve had dinner at La Petite Maison and you fancy a dessert or a drink on the way home, you can just pop by our dessert bar or grab a cocktail. It was really important to me that the restaurant delivered that social lifestyle option. That’s sort of been the secret to our success as a brand, even though I don’t really like using the word brand.
Sumati: I visited Pollen Street Social at the end of 2012, and I absolutely loved the dessert bar concept. Do you have this at any of your other restaurants around the world and will you have it in Dubai?
Chef Atherton: Yes we will, actually! The other one is in Singapore and there’s the one at Pollen Street. That’s about it. It has to suit the restaurant, you know? Marina Social is quite a glamorous restaurant, so it fits here.
Sumati: You’ve set up restaurants all around the world, in a span of just 5 years! How will you manage your time in Dubai?
Chef Atherton: Yes, this will be our 18th. But honestly, I try not to think about that too much (chuckles). I just sort of get on with what I have to do, and take things one day at a time. Dubai has become a real hub for me. Over the past few years, I have been known to pop by for a 1-night stay to break up that horrible 14-hour journey to Hong Kong. Even if I hadn’t opened this restaurant I’d still be using it as a hub, so I expect to be here a minimum of 5-6 times a year. Also I’ve been here for a month and a half for our opening, which is unheard of for a named chef.
Sumati: You mentioned that eating out was one of your hobbies. Where in London would you suggest I go as a vegetarian for a great night out with great food, aside from one of your restaurants?
Chef: Hmm, Hibiscus does a fantastic vegetarian menu. There is also a new restaurant by Skye Gingell called Spring, and that has a beautiful vegetarian selection too. And have you been to the Clove Club? Isaac [McHale] works with vegetables a lot, with interesting techniques that don’t involve just boiling and seasoning them. The Ledbury is great for fine dining vegetarian cuisine. On the more casual side, there’s a Spanish tapas place called Barafina. They have 2 ice boxes – one with shell fish, and the other with local seasonal vegetables, and you can have them any way you choose. I find it really interesting that a tapas bar would take that approach, because most of them tend to focus on lean protein.
Sumati: What is your favourite vegetarian dish at Marina Social?
Chef: Probably the salt baked main course. We take a selection of vegetables and put them in a salt crust and then we slow cook them for about 4 hours. They naturally season themselves, so we don’t need to add much else.
Sumati: Are any of your signature dishes vegetarian?
Chef: Yes there is one that I invented back in 2005. To be honest, I didn’t invent it with vegetarianism in mind; I just thought the flavors worked. It’s beetroot cooked in 3 different ways. One is roasted and caramelized in beet juice, one is pickled, and one is salt baked. It’s served with a beetroot caramel sauce, toasted pine nuts, and ricotta cheese piped between the layers of beetroot, stacked up as 3 towers.
Sumati: Wow, I’m really looking forward to trying this one at the preview on Tuesday night.
Chef: Well, we’re looking forward to having you and your vegetarian menu will be ready and waiting!
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