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Chef Jason Atherton

May 24, 2019

My name is Jason Atherton. I’m the chef and owner of The Social Company. We have 16 restaurants around the world. In Shanghai, we have The Commune Social, and three restaurants at The Shanghai Edition: Shanghai Tavern, Canton Disco and Hiya.

My first restaurant after leaving Gordon Ramsay was Table No.1 at The Waterhouse Hotel in Shanghai. A friend of one of my investors at the time said to me, hey, I’m building this hotel in Shanghai — if you ever come across any good young chefs who want to go into partnership with us, we’re looking for a chef for the restaurant. But in the meantime, can you help me design the kitchen? So I said, yeah, I’ll help you out. I started designing the kitchen for him, as a mate, and I was like, you know what, Shanghai’s a cool city, I could do this. So I called him up and said, I really want to come in with you, I’ll do it, it will be my first foreign project, I think my star’s rising, and off the back of me leaving Gordon we’ll hopefully get some half-decent press.

I’ve always been a believer in taking opportunity. When a door opens up, do you go through it? Too many people sit there and think, well, if I do this, then that will happen, then this will happen, and then the train rolls out of the station. “Oh, nevermind, another one will come along.” But then it never does.

Shanghai"

I’m a believer that if you get a good inclination about something then you just do it, you know? After telling The Waterhouse that, I went to work the next day, and Scott Melvin (now chef of the Edition Hotel), was my chef at Maze Grill at the time, and Scott said, I’ll get on board. When I finished at Maze, I was literally escorted out of the building. Literally 24 hours later, Scott and I were here in Shanghai.

I knew I had to make my next move quick. I knew that once you left the Ramsey fold, there was no going back. There’s no “Oh Gordon, I made a mistake.” It’s like the mafia: once you’re out, you’re out. We’re not friends. I’m ok with that. Gordon was never my friend, he was my boss, and I was very aware of that. Gordon was the boss. Once you leave, you’re dead.

So I was in Shanghai 24 hours later, for 24 hours. Scott and I checked the city out, went to some Shanghainese restaurant near The Portman that’s still there. We had no idea what we were walking into, we just went for it. I’d never been here before. First time, I loved it.

If someone said to you, write on a sheet the top ten cities in the world, even if they’ve not been here, they would put Shanghai, right? Everyone knows it's incredible, it’s the glamour city of mainland China. I love to travel, I love discovering new cities, I love culture. I think because I was raised in a tiny little town, it was bursting out of me, and cooking gives you the ability to travel really well. Once I started traveling the world for Gordon opening restaurants, I was addicted.

Shanghai"

The next step was The Edition. Once I did Berner’s Tavern in London, I knew Shanghai was in the pipeline. I said to the hotel guys, look, I really want to do Shanghai with you. I’ve got a feel for the city a little bit, I love coming here, and I spend a lot of time here anyway; it’s perfect for us to partner up. They said yeah.

Shanghai was important for me. I probably have 10 years in me left, cooking at a top level, and I didn’t want to leave Shanghai without giving it my best shot. Commune Social is a cool little restaurant but that’s what it is: a cool little restaurant. When you go to Hiya or Canton Disco or Shanghai Tavern, it’s like, proper. And after these, we’re done in Shanghai.

We opened three massive restaurants all at the same time, so they’re not all going to fly right off the bat. Hiya is off the charts, smashing budget, Canton Disco is now starting to get there, Shanghai Tavern is slowly… it’s like a juggernaut, we’re just now starting to get it in third gear, and it needs to be in fifth gear. We’ve got a great product, I believe in what we’ve done here, and it will just get better with age.

Shanghai"

When you’ve got a starred name attached to a restaurant, people think, "Oh yeah, we’ll just go there for my birthday." It’s natural for people to think that. So it’s going to take a while for Tavern to shake that mystery about it, that you can just come here for a slice of cake and a cup of tea and it costs you five quid. Some nights we do 100 people, some nights we do 20, whereas Hiya is anywhere from 100 to 160 people, every day — bang bang — it’s great.

I’ve got an American chef in the Japanese restaurant, a Polish chef in the Chinese restaurant, a Chinese head chef in Shanghai Tavern, and a Scotsman overseeing it all. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Yeah, good! Going great! It’s great. I’m very proud of what they’ve done.

I’ve never ever opened a restaurant purely to win a Michelin star. The day you do that, you’ve lost all sight of what cooking’s about, do you know what I mean? Cooking is not about that. Cooking is about feeding people. Creating spaces. Telling a story through a space and some food. It’s not for some guy in a suit to come tell you whether your cooking is worth a star or not. I mean, it’s great, it’s fantastic, but ultimately if that’s all it’s about.. it’s ridiculous, right?

I think a lot of the big three-star chefs came here and failed, I believe, because they just thought you could come to Shanghai and open a good restaurant and that’d be it. It’s not. It’s really hard to get right for a western chef. Brutal. It’s probably one of the trickiest markets I work in.

Shanghai"

I think Shanghai is very particular. People are very discerning. They know what they want, and they’re prepared to stick to their guns, and say, well fuck you, I don’t care if you’re a three-star chef, your food is rubbish as far as I’m concerned. I’m not eating it, it’s fucking dogshit as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care how famous you are, do you know what I mean? And I kinda quite like that.

Look at JG — he adapts. We adapt. I think it’s helped us be more accepting. Also, there’s a lot of rich people here but also they’re price sensitive. They’re not prepared to just go and waste money because that person is famous.

I didn’t come here to open a three-Michelin star restaurant. I came to open a couple cool concepts and add some good food, hopefully, to the city. That’s all.


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[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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