Chef Jason Atherton: Dedicating your life to food or anything else it worth celebrating
Ella Walker meets fine dining chef Jason Atherton as his first cookbook is published. Be assured, he says, if it doesn't taste great, it isn't in the book
SIT down for a chat with chef Jason Atherton and he will remind you, several times if needs be, that we are "only on this Earth for a short period of time, right?"
His urgency – this is a man who has opened 17 restaurants in seven years – is simultaneously breathless, terrifying and infectious.
So it might be a surprise that the Sheffield-born 47-year-old is only now releasing his first bound recipe collection, Pollen Street The Cookbook. It features recipes that regularly appear on the menu of his flagship restaurant Pollen Street; seasonal, elegant dishes that Atherton feels he and his team have "100 per cent nailed to the floor".
"Number one is flavour, number two is presentation," he says of his culinary priorities. "A lot of restaurants, it's the other way round. For me, it's got to taste great, or there's absolutely zero point to have it on the menu," – or in the book, for that matter.
Arguably the book is more coffee table tome than a practical guide for everyday use in your kitchen, but Atherton is sanguine about that fact. "I'm big into fashion, but could I make a suit the same as someone on Savile Row? No, of course I can't, they've been making it for 30-40 years. I've been cooking for 32 years – can you make an omelette as nice as mine? No. Course you can't – I wouldn't expect you to."
Instead, he explains, the book's about "if you can cook, to a half decent level, a lot of it is achievable, yes, but did I make this book thinking, 'Could people do this at home?' No, but I would hope that people would buy it to try to do a little bit of what we do, to try to unlock a little bit of the magic of Pollen Street; that's the key."
A regular on Saturday Kitchen, and formerly an executive chef at Gordon Ramsay's Maze restaurant, Atherton considers food his life – he still does his own grocery shopping – "Of course, you get the odd weirdo following you around looking at what's in your basket."
"Some people dedicate themselves to food, like me, some people dedicate themselves to politics, to art, to you name it, and anyone willing to dedicate their life to anything, I think it's worth celebrating," he explains.
It's an ethos he applies to the produce he plates up. "Great designers only want to work with the best fabrics, I only want to work with the best product. So if I can buy an amazing suckling pig from Norfolk, because I feel it tastes the best, because it's got the right feed and the right upbringing and the right provenance, then I want to use it. Could I buy cheaper pork? Yes. Will it taste as good? No."
All the produce – featured on his menu and championed in the book – "is from here" notes Atherton. "I get to travel all over the world, and I will absolutely stake my claim to say that Britain has some of the best produce on the planet, hands down."
"I don't give a s*** what anyone says, that's absolute fact," he adds. "Britain has never been in such a good place for food and chefs."
Atherton is not afraid to wade into debate, whether it's the rightful place of Britain on the culinary map, or what he calls "all this crap" and the "nonsense" of giving out of female-only cheffing awards. "What's that all about? I don't get it," he says, exasperated.
"It's great that women have someone as good as Clare [Smyth, the Northern Ireland chef and owner of two-michelin star restaurant Core, named best female chef at the World's 50 Best Restaurants gala, 2018] to look up to," he says earnestly. "Yes, we should be encouraging more women into our industry, I agree with that 100 per cent, but giving awards out is not the way forward."
While Atherton notes that "everyone gets treated equally" in his kitchens, he's adamant that "what we should be doing is looking at the fundamental reasons why we don't have women in our kitchens, and then addressing those points."
It's an important issue, particularly considering Atherton is raising two daughters with his wife and business partner, Irha. Keziah, 12, and Jemimah, six, both love to bake he says, and Keziah helps out at Pollen Street during school holidays.
"They eat in some of the best restaurants in the world because of their dad," he says, a mixture of pride and defensiveness in his voice. "I want them to be whatever they want to be, and if they do want to follow their dad, I will 1,000 per cent support them, but they won't get the easy route, that's for sure."
Most importantly Atherton, who ran away from home aged 16 to become a chef, wants them to appreciate good food, follow the seasons, eat well, and be able to cook for themselves, and their friends – "because they'll almost be expected to, right?
"I don't want them to know nothing," he adds, "so I teach them."
:: Pollen Street The Cookbook by Jason Atherton is published by Absolute Press, priced £50. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
FISH AND CHIPS WITH TARAMASALATA AND SALT & VINEGAR POWDER
(Makes 20 chips)
For the confit potato 'chips':
1kg clarified butter
4 large chipping potatoes (such as Desiree, King Edward or Maris Piper)
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Maldon sea salt and black pepper
For the taramasalata:
4 slices of white bread
225g smoked cod's roe
1/2 garlic clove
600ml whole milk
500ml vegetable oil
A squeeze of lemon juice
For the salt and vinegar powder:
100g malt vinegar powder
20g fine sea salt
Bronze fennel fronds
Heat the clarified butter in a wide, heavy-based pan to 160C. Meanwhile, peel and grate the potatoes, working quickly or they will start to oxidise and discolour. Season the grated potatoes, then add them to the hot butter. Fry for five to eight minutes or until almost tender, stirring and moving around the pan to prevent sticking.
Tip the potatoes into a colander or sieve over a large bowl. Leave to drain for about 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper to taste (discard the butter drained into the bowl). Spread out the potatoes in a thick layer on a baking tray lined with baking parchment – you want a 2cm thick layer once the potatoes have been pressed. Place another sheet of baking parchment on top, then weigh down with another heavy baking tray. Chill for at least an hour until firmly pressed.
When ready to serve, heat oil for deep-frying to 180C. Slice the chilled pressed potato into 'chips' 5cm long, 2cm wide and 2cm thick. Deep-fry for a few minutes until golden and crisp. Drain on a tray lined with kitchen paper, then dust with a little salt and vinegar powder. To make the powder, mix the two ingredients together.
To make the taramasalata, tear the bread slices into smaller pieces into a food processor. Add the cod's roe, peeled garlic and milk. Blitz, gradually trickling in the oil. Once the mixture has emulsified, add lemon juice. Spoon into a piping bag with a plain round nozzle and keep in the fridge until needed.
Pipe three dots of taramasalata on each fried 'chip' and garnish each dot with a frond of bronze fennel. Serve immediately.
CHERRY 'BAKEWELL' TART WITH ALMOND CAKE AND CHERRY JAM
For the almond cake:
110g unsalted butter
250g ground almonds
375g caster sugar
45g T45 or plain flour, sifted
310g egg whites (from about 8 large eggs)
Flaked almonds, for sprinkling
For the cherry jam:
250g Morello cherry puree
5g agar-agar powder
To make the almond cake, first brown the butter. Put it into a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. When the butter has melted, continue to heat, swirling every so often, until it has browned and smells nutty. Strain the brown butter through a fine sieve to remove the solids, then leave to cool to about 40C.
Preheat the oven to 170C/150C fan/Gas Mark 3. Mix together the ground almonds, sugar and flour in a large bowl. Put the egg whites into a Thermomix set at 40C and whisk/blitz until warmed. Fold the egg whites into the dry mixture in two stages, then gently fold through the warm brown butter until just combined.
Pipe or spoon the cake mixture into 16 greased non-stick 7cm tartlet tins set on baking trays. Arrange flaked almonds on top of each 'tartlet' in a neat ring. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the baking tray after about 10 minutes to ensure even cooking, or until golden brown and the cakes feel slightly springy when lightly pressed in the centre. Leave to cool.
Make the cherry jam. Put the cherry puree and agar agar into a heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring. Let the puree boil for two minutes or until the agar agar has completely dissolved. Pour into a shallow container and cool, then chill for about an hour or until set. Scrape the mixture into a blender and blitz until smooth. Pass the jam through a fine sieve, then transfer to a squeezy bottle.
Set a tartlet on each serving plate and dust with icing sugar. Pipe a little mound of cherry jam on top and serve immediately.