Interview: Jason Atherton
He trained under Ferran Adria, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White and he’s opening his first restaurant in Hong Kong. We sit down with Jason Atherton to find out more about his new venture, 22 Ships.
HKTD: So, tell us all about your new restaurant in Hong Kong!
Jason Atherton: It’s on 22 Ship Street in Wan Chai and it’s a tapas bar. It’s got 35 seats, no reservations and no service charge. What’s really important for me is that it becomes a restaurant that people feel belongs to a community, not owned by some international brand or celebrity chef. People can go there and get good value for money food, a great bar list with great Spanish beers. The food won’t be just Spanish: my cooking encompasses soy sauce, yuzu, coriander, ginger so there will be a few curveballs in there. At the same time, it’s not fusion cuisine, it’s still got its roots in Europe.
HKTD: You’ve opened two restaurants in Singapore (one of them, Pollen, is pictured below), one in Shanghai and now your first one in Hong Kong. What draws you to Asia?
JA: I met a lady a long time ago called Mavis Oei from the Khoo family in Singapore. (Ed: She is the daughter of tycoon Khoo Teck Puat.) She became a good friend and when it was time for me to spread my wings, she asked if I wanted to do a project together. I eventually agreed and it was a huge success. And then I met Peng and Geoff (Geoffrey Eu and Loh Lik Peng, both shareholders in Pollen in Singapore) and then Yenn (Ed: Yenn Wong, the Singaporean entrepreneur behind JIA hotel in Hong Kong, who is also one of the partners behind 22 Ship Street) and all these other people and before I knew it, I was doing the food for Hong Kong Airlines and I’ve got Singapore, Shanghai and now Hong Kong. Asia’s just been very kind to me.
HKTD: Was there any reason you picked Hong Kong as opposed to Beijing or any other major city in southeast Asia?
JA: Maybe I’m a sucker for punishment but if you can make it in Hong Kong, you can make it anywhere. It’s the New York of Asia. Hong Kong is a tough city to make a restaurant work.
HKTD: Do you feel that you’ve picked up lessons in Singapore and Shanghai that would be useful here?
JA: You just have to remember that you’re working in a different environment and you have to be courteous and respectful, be respectful of other chefs and restaurateurs working in town. It makes my blood curdle to see other chefs who fly around the world and do these horrible interviews where they knock the local cuisine.
HKTD: Speaking of courtesy and respect, what were the biggest lessons you learned from Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White?
JA: Perfection is something you have to strive for. Everything in life has a flaw but it’s trying to keep those flaws down to a minimum and that’s what I learned from Gordon, Marco, Ferran and all the top chefs. When things don’t go your way, dig deep even harder to make it work.
HKTD: You mentioned Ferran Adria: how did you come to work at El Bulli?
JA: I was 25 and I was made head chef. I felt I wasn’t ready, I had heard about Ferran Adria and decided go work for him. I wrote him letters, he wouldn’t answer them. It was 1998 so there was no email, he wouldn’t pick up my phone calls. I packed my bags and went to Spain. Got there, knocked on Ferran’s door, showed him the letter I had sent to him four times. He told me there were no jobs but I begged. I said I’d sweep the floor, wash the pans for free, just to be able to stand and watch the service. Within two weeks I was on the service line, picking up Spanish. He’s been a big supporter of my career ever since.
HKTD: What was your most memorable moment at El Bulli?
JA: Walking in for the first time. I had never seen chefs work like that. He was doing things with food I’d never seen before. And if you’d worked at three-star restaurants, you’ve seen quite a bit. But this guy was doing avocado ice cream, back in ’98! I thought he was pretty cool.
HKTD: What was the last meal you were really inspired by?
JA: Eleven Madison in New York a few weeks ago. I run a lot and I try not to eat too many tasting menus because I don’t like to put weight on but Daniel [Humm] came out and said, “You’ve come all the way to New York, you’re having fifteen courses.” It was just amazing, I have so many pictures on my phone.
HKTD: And what have you tried so far in Hong Kong that has made a strong impression?
JA: The dim sum. I went to One Dim Sum in Prince Edward, as well as Lei Garden in Mong Kok, they were great.
HKTD: So what are the three dishes that our readers should definitely try at 22 Ships when it opens in mid-October?
JA: The Iberico pork burgers; the scallops ceviche, and the peanut ice cream.