September 27, 2013 7:18 pm

Chef Talk: Jason Atherton

The workaholic cook on how he creates a ‘restaurant of its time’ and the value of entrepreneurship
Jason Atherton©Rosie Hallam

Jason Atherton, by way of growing up in his mother’s hotel in Skegness, deciding to be a chef, cooking under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, being Gordon Ramsay’s chef-lieutenant for years, and then setting up on his own, has the muscle of experience.

“Just work really hard,” is his motto, and he sticks to it. At 9am he has been in the kitchen of his Mayfair restaurant for two hours, covering for three no-show chefs. “I think I’ve been sick once in 27 years. I can’t get my head around people who are lazy,” he says, prepping a cut of expensive Scottish beef. “I was taught at a very young age that you only get out of life what you put in. If you want to be smart, read a f***ing book. Anything you want to do you can if you’re dedicated and focused.”

Atherton opened his first London restaurant, Pollen Street Social, in 2011; turnover is now £6m a year – “not bad for a cook who left school with no education”. He opened its smart bistro sibling Little Social across the street this year, swiftly followed by a casual dining room, Social Eating House, in Soho, which has just won its first Michelin star, and Berner’s Tavern at Ian Schrager’s new hotel this month. He has restaurants and bars in Singapore and Asia, and City Social, in Tower 42, will open in 2014.

“I had it in my head that I’d always run this twee little fine dining restaurant with waiters everywhere, and then as I grew up and matured, I realised you create a restaurant of its time,” he says. And so Atherton’s “social” network turns out food that follows the seasons carefully, is responsibly sourced, and has had Adrià-esque thought applied to elevate it above the ordinary.

If his expansion looks ambitious, Atherton the workaholic sees primarily the work he has created for others: 180 jobs in Asia, 300 in the UK. “Since the government have flogged everything, the only thing we have left is entrepreneurship. I keep everything tight, try not to borrow money form the bank. I just get on and do my thing.”

Pollen Street Social, www.pollenstreetsocial.com

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Sea bream with fennel salad and orange dressing

Serves 4 as a main course

4 sea bream fillets (about 160g each), skin on

Sea salt and black pepper

100ml olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

3 oranges (blood oranges when in season)

1 fennel bulb, trimmed, leafy top reserved (or use dill sprigs if the fennel is ready-trimmed)

½ red onion

3tbsp white wine vinegar, plus an extra splash

75g stoned marinated black olives, quartered lengthways

3tbsp vegetable oil

1. Rinse the fish fillets, pat dry with kitchen paper and check for small bones, removing any with kitchen tweezers. Score 4 or 5 shallow cuts on the skin side of each. Season and drizzle with olive oil. Cover and refrigerate.

2. Segment 1 orange by slicing off the peel and pith and cutting between the membranes to release the segments; do this over a small pan to catch the juice. Put the segments into a small boilable plastic bag and seal. Squeeze the juice from the pithy membrane into the pan.

3. Grate the zest from the other 2 oranges into a bowl. Squeeze the juice and add to the pan. Let bubble over a medium heat to reduce by two-thirds. Pour over the zest, cool and chill.

4. Chop a few of the fennel tops (or dill), saving the rest for garnish. Slice the fennel bulb and onion finely into ribbons, using a mandolin if possible. Immediately plunge into a bowl of iced water. Leave for 10 minutes until crisp.

5. To make the sauce, immerse the bag of orange segments in a small pan of boiling water to the count of 10. Place the bag on your worktop and gently press apart the segments with your fingers, making orange pearls. Add these to the reduced juice and zest with the wine vinegar, 100ml olive oil and half the chopped fennel tops (or dill). Mix gently.

6. Drain the fennel and onion slices, pat dry and place in a bowl. Set aside 12 olive pieces for garnish. Add the rest of the olives to the bowl with the remaining chopped fennel tops (or dill), a generous drizzle of olive oil, a splash of wine vinegar and a generous pinch of salt. Toss together.

7. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Pan-fry the fish fillets, skin side down first, for 1-2 minutes on each side until the edges are golden. Remove to a warm plate and season with salt.

To plate:

Drizzle orange sauce around each warm plate and place a bream fillet, skin side up, in the centre. Drizzle a little sauce over the fish. Pile the fennel salad on top and finish with the feathery fennel or dill. Scatter the reserved olive pieces around the plate and serve, with extra sauce on the side.

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Roasted squid with minty broad beans

Serves 4

400g squid, cleaned

1tbsp sweet paprika

1tbsp ground cumin

7tbsp olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper

320g shelled broad beans

6 plum tomatoes, deseeded and diced

2 parsley sprigs, leaves picked and roughly chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

1tbsp finely chopped shallots

juice of 1 lemon

1 mint sprig, leaves picked and finely shredded, plus extra leaves to garnish

1tbsp sherry vinegar

1. Cut the squid pouches into 2cm thick rings and place in a large bowl with the tentacles, paprika, cumin and 4tbsp olive oil. Toss to mix, cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for about 2 hours.

2. Bring a pan of salted water to boil. Add the broad beans and cook for about 3 minutes until tender. Drain, refresh in iced water, then drain and remove the tough outer skins. Put the broad beans into a large bowl and mix with the diced tomatoes.

3. Place a large drying pan over a high heat and add the remaining 3tbsp olive oil. Cook the squid in batches for about 2 minutes until tender and lightly golden. Return all of the squid to the pan and reduce the heat to medium. Mix in the chopped parsley, garlic and shallots. Add the lemon juice and sauté for another 2 minutes.

4. Take the pan off the heat and toss in the broad beans and tomatoes. Add the shredded mint and sherry vinegar, toss well and season with salt and pepper to taste.

To plate:

Divide the warm salad between warm plates, arranging the squid decoratively on top of the tomatoes and beans. Garnish with mint leaves.

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