The Social restaurant concept comes to Dubai
“We are not going to Dubai to be just another celebrity- chef restaurant,” says Jason Atherton. “We’re going there hoping, if people don’t mind me saying it, to be one of the best restaurants in Dubai.” It’s no modest aim for the Marina Social, which is due to open early next year, but you get the impression that the British Michelin-starred chef likes to think big.
It doesn’t quite ring true, for example, when he sits in the smart boardroom of his central London headquarters and asserts that he “never imagined” that his Social restaurant concept – which began with Pollen Street Social in London three years ago – would span four continents (Atherton currently has 14 restaurants, in London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, with plans to open next year in New York, Sydney and, of course, Dubai). For the very fibre of this brand is to change the way people perceive high-end restaurants.
“The Social is an ideal, really, an idea I had in my mind,” he says. “It’s grown into this colossal brand, but it was never about that; it was always about asking people to buy into my dream that Social is a lifestyle choice. You can come to our restaurants and say hi to a friend and just have a cup of coffee. You can have a tasting menu, you can have three or four starters to share and go off to the theatre; you can come back from the theatre and just have a dessert.”
The concept has proved hugely successful in London, where Atherton was already well known. Arriving from his home in the north of England at the age of 16 with “barely £5 in my pocket”, he worked his way up to a position with Pierre Koffmann, before joining Marco Pierre White and then the Gordon Ramsay Group, where he won a Michelin star at London’s Maze.
In 2010, at the age of 39, Atherton set out on his own, opening Table No 1 in Shanghai, and then Pollen Street Social in London. The latter’s dessert bar, which you can pop into even if you’ve eaten dinner somewhere else, sparked something of a craze for going out for pudding. One critic described the restaurant as “simply brilliant … noisy, casual and customer-oriented”, and the Michelin judges awarded it (and its hastily opened sibling restaurants Social Eating House and City Social) a star apiece.
But having opened a restaurant in Dubai before – he was the executive chef of Gordon Ramsay’s ill-fated Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek when it launched in 2001 – Atherton is keen to adapt his concept for the InterContinental Dubai Marina.
“We don’t just want to bring London to Dubai, we want to slot into the Dubai lifestyle. That means light lunches, late dinners, party at the weekends, sundowners,” he says. “So, for the first time, we’ve put a DJ booth in one of our bars, because we understand that people there not only go to restaurants to eat, but they also want to party a little bit, so we want to play beautiful sundown music.” Outside, there is a terrace for guests to enjoy the music, sip a drink and watch the boats as the sun goes down.
Food-wise, diners can expect to see some of Atherton’s playful signature dishes, such as the back-to-front squid risotto, a dish in which the “risotto” is made of squid, while the rice is cooked in squid ink and dehydrated. There will be no more than a nod to local cuisine – “I’m not going to the Middle East to try to teach Middle Eastern people what their food should be, when they’ve been eating it for thousands of years” – but an emphasis on lightness acknowledges the desert heat.
Atherton freely admits that when Ramsay first asked him to come to Dubai as the executive chef at Verre, he couldn’t have pointed to the emirate on a map. But it is clear that he grew to love the place in the four years he spent at Verre, and visits as often as he can, citing Zuma and La Petite Maison as among his favourite restaurants in the world. “I had the time of my life when I lived there,” he says. “I can’t thank Gordon enough for the chance he gave me to open Verre in Dubai. And it made me hungry to go back there and open my own restaurant.”
But he has learnt his lesson from his famous mentor’s experience – Verre closed in 2011 at the end of its 10-year lease. “I think, in Dubai, you’ve got to be very careful with your location,” says Atherton. “You’ve got to give Gordon credit. As an innovator, he was one of the first big-name chefs to go to the UAE. But the city grew very quickly. Now it’s a lot easier to pick the right location. Dubai Marina is about to boom, I think, because most of the roads are now finished, and because of the new [tram] station that will open there soon. And we’re in a good position to take advantage of that.”
Well situated he may be, but Atherton’s obsessive attention to detail is apparent when he begins talking about the design aspect of the project. “I’ve been very hands-on; it was very important to me that we had control over every doorknob, every light switch, every toilet seat. Because design is very important to people today,” he says. “I want people to walk out of that restaurant and go ‘wow’.”
The InterContinental Hotel Group certainly has high expectations of what he can achieve there. “Jason Atherton’s international experience and knowledge of this region is a perfect synergy,” says Michael Martin, the general manager of the Dubai Marina hotel, and the regional general manager for the UAE. “The partnership between Jason Atherton and InterContinental Dubai Marina will bring a new level of world-class dining and nightlife experiences to Dubai.”
Day-to-day cooking will be left largely to the executive chef Tristan Farmer, another former Ramsay protégé (he succeeded Atherton at Ramsay’s Michelin-starred Maze restaurant in London and has been training under him at Pollen Street Social for the past year), but Atherton will be a regular visitor, and woe betide any employee who falls short of his standards. “My background is, I’ve worked in six three-starred Michelin restaurants throughout my career, so standards are really important to me. If there are lights missing, I go off. People go, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re doing it tomorrow,’ but for me that’s not good enough. It should have been done now.”
And when he’s here, he’ll be cooking. While some chefs with a global empire are more typically found in meetings than on the pass, Atherton insists that food is what gets him out of bed in the morning. “Even when I’m 55 or 60, and that’s a long way away yet, I still see myself with grey hair, faffing around the kitchen getting involved, because I love it. It’s my life.”
As he goes into details, however, you wonder whether cooking is simply something into which Atherton can channel his obsessive tendencies. “If you look at Little Social’s burger, it’s the best burger in London,” he says. “We don’t specialise in burgers, but if we’re doing a burger, damn right we’d better trial it until I’m happy. So we homemake the buns and we do the pickles ourselves. It’s got to be that way. Even when we did the breakfast at Berners Tavern, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to do breakfast. Where is the best breakfast in London?’ Before we opened up, it was the Wolseley, the Delaunay, the Ritz. So me and my head chefs are eating in these places every day, saying, ‘why are they doing it so well? What’s so good about it?’”
This rigid, perfectionist approach to restaurants is probably what has enabled Atherton to open so many of them, so quickly, with such a vast geographical reach, and still wow diners and critics. But it causes him some stress in his day-to-day life, he admits, focusing with a frown on the unevenly stacked bookshelves in his boardroom that, he says, are “doing my head in”.
Can he see opening more restaurants in Dubai – or perhaps an expansion into Abu Dhabi – on the horizon? “Some chefs maybe map out where they wanna be, but I don’t,” he says.
“I always wanted to come back to Dubai but I never took an agent on; we get lots of offers all the time and we just assess them. We got asked to go to Moscow, but I’ve got no desire to open a restaurant there. I don’t want to travel there. And I don’t mean that detrimentally but it’s just not on my radar. Whereas I love Dubai; travelling to Dubai to me is like heaven. I get excited like a little schoolboy when I get on a plane. I speak to the guests, I cook new dishes, I feel alive. If you open a restaurant in a city and you’re doing it for the money, how can you create a restaurant where people will walk out and go ‘wow’? It’s impossible.”
With which he gets up to rearrange those slightly uneven books, and moves on to the next meeting to plan his global gourmet empire.