Born in Sheffield, British chef Jason Atherton ran away from home at 16 to pursue a life in food. Early in his career, he trained with chefs such as Pierre Koffmann and Marco Pierre White. In 2001, he joined the Gordon Ramsay group and opened Ramsay’s restaurant Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek. He returned to the UK in 2005 to open another Ramsay restaurant, but by 2010, he left to follow his own restaurant dreams. He opened Pollen Street Social, in London in 2011. It won a Michelin star that same year. Atherton now has 19 restaurants in places such as New York, Hong Kong, Dubai, Shanghai, Australia and the Philippines. He visits Dubai a few times a year to work with his chefs at Marina Social, in the InterContinental Dubai Marina. He loves the city, in part, because he met his wife, Irha, while working at Verre, but also because of how the emirate has changed since his first visit nearly two decades ago. “I’ve enjoyed seeing a city rise out of the dust and fulfil its potential of what they said it was going to be. ” Atherton and his wife live in London with their daughters, Keziah, 11, and Jemimah, 5.
How often do you travel?
I’m normally on a plane about every two weeks. My wife Irha looks after both of our diaries. She’ll make sure the travel is spaced out and that family life fits in.
When you travel for business, do you always make time for leisure?
I’m either going to look at new restaurant locations or working in one of my restaurants. People always ask me if I wasn’t a chef, what would I be. I say: “Lonely. And bored.” I’m so lucky to have a job where I get to create beautiful food for people to eat and enjoy. I get to fulfil my creative side, I get paid for it and I get to travel.
How many countries have you visited?
I’ve been to Japan, China, all of South East Asia, Australia, all over. The only places I’ve never been and I’m desperate to go are Canada and South America. I’ve also never been to India.
When on holiday with the family, do you prefer the beach, city or mountains?
They’re all different. I look forward to them all very much. In the summer, we always go to Italy. We start off at Hotel Splendido in Portofino. It’s this hotel that time forgot. It’s one of the most beautiful hotels. It’s very expensive, so we normally only stay for two or three days. Then we’ll hire a car and go to Milan, drive down the Amalfi Coast, hang out in Positano or Capri. It’s just the best couple of weeks ever. When the kids leave home, we want to have given them as many memories as possible.
What’s the most challenging part about travelling with young children?
I’m a neat freak. If you go to my hotel room when I travel solo, everything is in order. Even my toiletries face the same way. When I go with the kids, it’s a whole different ballgame. I end up being more like mother hen. Trying to keep them on the straight and narrow is the hardest part.
Do you have a favourite travel gadget?
I love Star Wars. My wife bought me a limited-edition Star Wars Montblanc that has a floating emblem in it. It’s made of titanium. I always carry that with me, along with my moleskin sketching pad. I’m constantly sketching food and new ideas. I’ll be thinking about next season’s lamb dish because it’s just popped in my head, and if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget about it. I’ve just started writing Pollen Street: The Cookbook, for chefs. Some of those sketches will be in there. It will be next Easter by the time it comes out.
What’s your favourite food city?
New York. You can eat fine-dining food as good as anywhere in the world, but food critics can get as easily excited about a burger. Same for pizza. A pizza chef there is just as revered as a three-Michelin-starred chef. I love that.
How much can you learn from a city through its food?
Everything. Food is so powerful. It’s nourishing for your body; it’s a powerful tool for expression; we’ve all got to eat on a daily basis; food employs people, and it connects people. With food, there are no brick walls.
What’s the best part of travel?
For me, it’s the food. For chefs, when we travel, it’s heaven.
What’s the worst part about travel?
Missing my family; missing my kids because they’ve got to be at school. That stops me from opening more restaurants, if I’m honest. I’m 45 now. I don’t want to get to 65 where I’ve spent all that time doing everything for me, which is a bit selfish. I know the kids are getting a good life out of it, but did they really get valuable time with me? It’s really crucial to me. It’s like a restaurant. If you work really hard at a restaurant and you’re really good at what you do, how can that restaurant not be doing good stuff? You’re tending to it. It’s the same for your marriage and the same for your children. I’m very conscious to make sure I’m there for them, and that they see me as a real father and we do things together.
What’s on your travel bucket list?
I think my ultimate trip is to go, with a couple of chefs, for two weeks around Japan and just completely immerse myself in the food culture. We’ve been to Japan many times. But just to go and purely concentrate on food, for 12 or 14 hours a day, I think you’d learn so much. Their culture is so intense. That would be my dream trip. Their respect for food is like no other country. Every country has their traditions and food culture, but Japan is different. Everything stops for food there.