IS THERE SUCH a thing as too cool? 22 Ships is situated in the trendy gentrified area of Wanchai (check), serves up Spanish tapas (check) with a no-reservations stance (check) and tip-as-you-please policy (check), and features communal seating (check) around an open kitchen-bar (check). The clincher, of course, in this playground of excessive coolness, is the name attached to the restaurant: Jason Atherton (check, check, check).
The science of cool should be incalculable, but as breezy as Atherton seems in person, he is nothing if not deliberate. The first non-Spanish cook to intern under Ferran Adrià was already an accomplished chef when he landed at elBulli, but what he took from his mentor was a great big question mark: the building block of culinary creativity. “Don't just learn to do it, but ask why you are doing it,” he explains, whether it's peeling a potato or conceptualising a new restaurant.
This technique served him well, through the better part of a decade as part of Gordon Ramsay's dining empire, opening Maze in London in 2005 as well as outposts in New York, Melbourne, Cape Town and Qatar. He came to be seen as the jewel in Ramsay's crown – and his eventual departure to begin his own adventure was wittily dubbed a “kitchen nightmare” for the famously hard-to-please British celebrity chef.
Atherton's resignation came shortly before he hit the big 4-0. Despite rumours of financial disagreements, he explains simply, “I had to see if I could do it.”
Do it he did, taking a short break to return in May 2010 with Table No. 1 in Shanghai's The Waterhouse at South Bund, a 1930s warehouse and army base turned 19-room boutique hotel. The property brought together the paradoxal extremes of industrial rust and modern minimalist finery, in the same way that Atherton juxtaposed highquality cuisine with a genial shared-dining experience. It was a gamble, but it paid off.
Less than a year later came Pollen Street Social, back on British home turf, a more traditionally fancy restaurant of the white tablecloth and leather booths ilk, albeit sans the stuffiness. It won critical and popular approval alike, as well as a Michelin star. And while Atherton is building a more strapping presence in London (mid-price bistro Social Eating House opens on the 18th of this month and he's just put down cash on a gone-bust Italian across from Pollen Street Social that will become younger sister Little Social), Asia has been his focus for more widespread domination. Singapore was the second Far Eastern city to be anointed, with the aptly named Pollen at the Gardens by the Bay, tapas bar Esquina and British snack hangout Keong Saik Snacks, all of them wildly thriving. Then came Hong Kong's 22 Ships, a collaboration with Yenn Wong that opened at the tail of 2012, which is to be followed by a local branch of Social Eating House, pending the results of a bid placed on a Hollywood Road space.
While much of Atherton's strategy is carefully preconceived, the choice of Asia as a base is more emotionally motivated. “I only open restaurants where I enjoy being. I love Hong Kong, so having a restaurant here is great, because then I get to come here. Life's about experiences, enjoyment.”
It's also about transferring that enjoyment, a task he accomplishes ably and somewhat instinctually, partially through hip concepts, but also thanks to food that's as inventive as it is marketable.
A smattering of peas and broad beans punctuated by piped swirls of goat curd and draped Iberico ham. A simple dish, the genius of it in its conception, rather than its execution. An egg, poached sous vide, enveloped in potato purée and dressed with tomato sauce, garnished with paperthin chorizo and cubes of potato. It's called a Spanish Breakfast and takes a modern, liberal interpretation of classic elements. What Atherton does is not what you'd call revolutionary, but it is exactly what the doctor called for, a mix of pretentious ingredient combinations and techniques devolved into palatable bites.
“You don't get ‘lucky' in this business, you just don't. If it's good, they'll come,” he says. “The world moves on. People's lives are so different today that these types of restaurants appeal to everybody. It deformalises the whole thing of, ‘Oh my God, I'm going out for dinner tonight. Better go home, gotta get my hair done.' I mean, dinner is just dinner, it's just food.”
His modus operandi, of demystifying food for the masses, reaches its culmination in a new BBC show he'll begin filming next month. He's also written a cookbook on how to prepare gourmet meals “for a fiver” and appeared on shows such as Saturday Kitchen to bring his recipes to a broader audience. But at the end of the day, Atherton isn't really a show-and-tell kind of guy: “The media, the shows are great, but if you can't back it up in the kitchen, it means nothing,” he says. The tentatively titled City Harvest is based on a New York initiative that collects raw waste from restaurants to distribute to the underprivileged. What Atherton and his team will do is “bring in unemployed chefs and get them off the dole, put them back to work producing food for the disadvantaged. It's free food, but we need to turn it into that, into good, wholesome food.
“It feeds people, stops the landfills and it creates jobs. That's got to be a good thing, right?”