“If you want to know what bar food is, go to the NoMad. It’s genius and perfect in every way,” says Jason Atherton, rhapsodizing about the restaurant’s swank interior and seafood towers during a phone call from London. For the past several months the prolific British chef has been entrenched in New York’s dining scene, eating out as often as possible when not manning the kitchen of the Clocktower, his first stateside venture in collaboration with hotel and restaurant hit-makers Ian Schrager and Stephen Starr at the New York EDITION.
For someone as ambitious and driven as Atherton, it’s a wonder he finds the time to eat out at all, let alone hop on the phone. The 43-year-old dynamo, who shot to fame with the opening of the Mayfair bistro Pollen Street Social in 2011, now has 16 restaurants in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, with three more planned to open in Dubai, Sydney, and London by the end of the year.
A dining room tucked away inside a New York hotel is a challenge for even the most accomplished chef, but Atherton’s vision for Clocktower—a combination of fashionable and familiar—seems to appeal to the city’s enduring taste for refined comfort food. His modern, globally inspired riffs on British cuisine translate to dishes such as king crab and brioche Thermidor sandwiches for lunch, and family-style herb roasted chicken with charred leeks for dinner.
“New Yorkers are discerning and there’s no room for ego here. You have to just put your head down and work hard,” he explains.
Ferran Adriá opened my eyes to great creativity. If there were 45 cooks working, that meant 45 minds with interesting ideas, and he wanted to hear all of them.
Atherton may be a newcomer to New York, but he’s been through his paces. Before spawning his ambitious restaurant group, The Social Company, he trained with acclaimed chefs Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, and Ferran Adrià. He also survived a decade working with the hotheaded Gordon Ramsay, launching the Asian-accented Maze concept. Although that relationship ended very publicly on a turbulent note, Atherton is quick to cite Ramsay as one of the most important influences on his career. “He was a powerhouse in the kitchen. He would walk into a restaurant and know immediately when the music was off or a waiter wasn’t doing his job properly,” he remembers.
If Ramsay instilled in him an unparalleled work ethic, it was Adrià who first encouraged him to let his imagination run wild at elBulli.
“I had always been to told what to do and could never question anything before [my time with] Ferran,” says Atherton. “He didn’t mock you or make you feel like you were silly. He opened my eyes to great creativity because he truly wanted to make the best dishes. If there were 45 cooks working, that meant 45 minds with interesting ideas, and he wanted to hear all of them. When you’re running a kitchen and embrace those ideas instead of alienate them, it makes you so much stronger.”
From exemplary Hong Kong duck to baked beans straight out of a supermarket can, Atherton recounts 10 of the dishes that keep him centered as he juggles an expansive, international restaurant empire.
Sardines on toast
My stepfather was not the best cook. When my sister and I were little, sardines—heated up straight out of the tin—on plain, white, buttered toast was the only thing he knew how to make for us. Once I became a bit more of a skilled chef I decided to make my own version, marinating the sardines in tomatoes with lemon, olive, sherry vinegar, and onions, then chargrilling them and stacking them on homemade sourdough bread as an homage to my stepfather’s bad cooking. (Photo: Flickr/T. Tseng)
I’ve tried to replicate the Sunday roast into an art form. Just like the hot dog—whether it’s a good or bad one—is part of American culture, classic Sunday beef is part of England’s. Every family has its own version. My mother made hers with roasted potatoes and I always knew that every week there was this tasty, nourishing dish to look forward to. I often cook it for my family and when I see it at a restaurant I tend to order it because it’s like a blanket wrapped around you. (Photo: Flickr/Steve Johnson)
Pierre Koffmann’s Pistachio Souffle
A lot of people put soufflés on their dessert menus, but that doesn’t mean they are great. I must have been 18 or 19 when I was working in London at La Tante Claire with Pierre Koffmann, and he makes a pistachio soufflé with grated chocolate that is super high and fluffy. I just love it. It’s perfection. (Photo: Pierrekoffman.co.uk)
Back to Front Squid at Pollen Street Social
I created this dish five or six years ago and I keep it on the menu because it’s purity in itself. Its simplicity shows the way Pollen Street Social has evolved. We cut the squid into rice-size grains so it’s like risotto, and add in cauliflower puree, fish stock, and a little bit of mascarpone and parmesan. The risotto is placed on parsnip discs and drizzled with consommé, then a little puffed-up crispy rice goes on top. It has texture and it’s super clean. (Photo: Pollen Street Social)
Oysters and Pearls at Per Se
I was just at Per Se last Saturday to treat my wife for supporting me through these last three hectic months in New York. I only had one request: the Oysters and Pearls. They were just to die for. I’m not a massive fan of luxe ingredients, but that decadent combination of oysters, tapioca, and caviar is worth every single penny. The texture can’t be replicated. (Photo: Yelp/Duy N.)
Game Torte at Flocons de Sel
Once a year I take my children skiing to the French Alps where my dear friend Emmanuel Renaut runs the magnificent Flocons de Sel in Megève. He’s a wonderful cook and the restaurant isn’t ostentatious or stuffy, just proper. During the back end of the winter season he makes a game torte stuffed with foie gras, a bit of pigeon, and all these other game birds. This beautiful pie meant for two comes to the table and they carve it right there and add these wonderful lashings of black truffles. I believe black truffles were invented just for that dish. (Photo: Vimeo/Wombat Enna)
My wife is from Cebu and when we go visit her family in the Philippines once a year we like to go to the good local neighborhood restaurants for lechón, the baby suckling pig found all over during Fiesta. It’s stuffed with lemongrass and ginger, then slowly roasted and finished with lemon. We normally order it with papaya salad with a little bit of sugar and chiles. It’s just casually laid on the table and you help yourself to rice and pork. This is street food. (Photo: Flickr/dbgg1979)
Duck at Duddell’s
Every time I go to Hong Kong to visit my restaurants, I always go to Duddell’s for their crispy duck. On my last trip to Asia we were gone 14 days and I think one of our sous chefs went through 26 ducks because he was so addicted. They take the skin off first and serve that with a little bit of sugar, and then they take all the meat off and serve it with pancakes and chile daikon. They also completely grind the meat down into noodles and make a stock with the rest of it. Duddell’s duck is an art form. I even keep a video of it on my phone. (Photo: Facebook/Duddell’s)
Beans on toast
I had a really busy night at the restaurant and was exhausted from Soul Cycle so last night I ate the ultimate comfort food: baked beans out of a can cooked in a really sweet tomato sauce made by Heinz. You don’t do anything other than heat the beans in the microwave and put them between two slices of toast with HP Sauce. So I had that while catching up on my Wimbledon with a cup of tea. It tastes so damn good. (Photo: Flickr/Beck)
I didn’t work in pastry too much but there’s an amazing recipe for a dessert that was passed down from Michel Roux to Marco to Gordon that’s nothing more than sugar, puff pastry, butter, and apples. A great tarte tatin takes time and patience. When the butter is perfect and you make it just right, all you need is vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. (Photo: Flickr/larsjuh)