Jason Atherton: "Any chef that says they feel confident over the next five years is a liar"

By Sophie Witts

- Last updated on GMT

Jason Atherton on Brexit, staffing and the future of Social Company

Related tags Pollen street Restaurant Chef

Chef Jason Atherton heads up the 17-strong Social Company restaurant group with his wife and business partner Irha. He spoke at Restaurant magazine’s Restaurant Congress about empowering staff, Brexit, and what’s next for the business.

Social Company is a family business. How do you keep that ethos as you grow worldwide?

I was very lucky to work alongside Gordon Ramsay when he really took London by storm. I saw how he empowered people, and I decided to take it a little bit further in my own direction. The company is seven years old, with 17 restaurants, and I’ve probably lost one chef patron in that time and it was a mutual decision. The rest have stayed, not because we give them loads of money, but because they feel like they’ve got a future.

Even though we have 17 restaurants and we’re nearly at the £100m turnover point, we are a family business, and we’ll stay that way. All my guys at the very top feel like they don’t work for me, they work with us. We don’t call them ‘staff’, I hate that word. I’ve worked in places in the past where kitchen porters are not treated as well as they should be and that was always a big problem for me.

How do you create synergy between the head office and restaurant teams?

Irha came up with the idea of making our head office look like a restaurant - it is designed by the same team that does our restaurants. Anyone who joins head office goes and eats in all our [UK] restaurants. They have to share the same passion.

Everybody has to get along with everyone else. At Pollen Street Social we employ 74 people, and if you’ve got 74 people all walking in the same direction it’s quite a powerful march. If you’ve got 34 guys in the kitchen and 40 in front of house walking in different directions it takes a lot of strength to try and bring them back together again.

What does Brexit mean for the future of your business?

Any chef or restaurateur that tells you they feel confident over the next five years is a liar. Nothing is certain at the moment; the general election (8 June) was a complete disaster, we’ve got no leadership at the moment and no idea where we’re going.

We wanted to do two or three more concepts over the next five years but we’re going to not do those until we find out what Brexit means. We’ve decided to wait as we don’t want to make a mess and tread on a banana skin. The quicker this government gets it sorted the better so we can move forward and start investing in our country again.

Atherton opened Hai Cenato in Victoria earlier this year

Will it affect your workforce?

We all know that most of [the restaurant industry’s] workforce in London are immigrants, and we’re making them feel unwelcome. London was built on immigration, you can’t turn the tap off and say we’re all going to go back to the 1950s.

Soft Brexit is the best thing for our industry. We need the single market and for the flow of immigration to continue. Does it need to be controlled? Yes of course. But there’s ways of doing that.

London is one of the top three cities in the world for dining. It would be a shame if Brexit makes a mess of all that.

Are you trying to recruit more British staff?

The London restaurant scene has boomed, but fewer people are coming in to our industry. We’ve got ourselves to blame a little. Chefs all talk about how we used to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Imagine hearing that as an 18 year-old kid about to go to university? It’s crazy stuff.

If we want to make our industry more attractive we need to change from the inside. It’s about increasing wages and trying to keep hours down to a minimum. But on the flip side we’re facing rising food costs and landlords who just get greedier every time there’s a rent review. London has got itself in a bit of a mess at the moment.

What’s next for Pollen Street Social?

We’re now looking at what the future holds for it. I can’t cook there forever, I’m getting old. It’s very important to me that it has a succession plan and it goes on forever. We’re doing a big refurb there this year, which will set it up for the next 10-15 years. Our head chef Dale Bainbridge is a big part of those plans. We want to go further with our food there, so it’s about investing in Dale and asking him to redesign the kitchen and restaurant alongside me and the general manager.

What’s next for you?

I don’t really look at what will be my ‘next thing’. If I can leave this industry a better place than when I started in it, and the people we’ve helped empower can also help make our restaurants part of a much better scene, then we’ve done an ok job. Then me and Irha will go retire in the Philippines and cook some lovely Phillipino food in our little house and enjoy life a bit. That’s our legacy.

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