Jason Atherton: From caravan park to celebrity chef

Jason Atherton Image copyright Jason Atherton

With 15 upmarket restaurants in the UK and Asia, celebrity chef Jason Atherton has gone a long way for a boy who had to spend part of his childhood living in a caravan.

Brought up in the deprived Lincolnshire seaside town of Skegness, Mr Atherton today runs a restaurant empire which turns over almost £70m a year.

Whereas he once spent his summer holidays looking after the donkeys on Skegness' main beach, he is now a well-known personality on UK cookery TV shows, flies regularly in business class to check on his outlets in Singapore and China, and has a swanky headquarters in Soho, central London.

Mr Atherton, 43, puts his success down to two factors - "hard work and common sense".

And he is keen to stress that when in London he still makes time every day to be head chef at his first and main restaurant, Pollen Street Social, which holds a Michelin star.

"Becoming a chef transformed my life," he says.

'Northern mentality'

Born in Sheffield, after his parents separated when he was four, Mr Atherton and his mother moved to Skegness.

As money was tight, they spent their first three years there living on a caravan park.

His mother eventually found a new partner and together they opened a guest house.

Yet Mr Atherton only got a bedroom in the off season, as all summer he was again relegated to a caravan in the back garden so that all the rooms could be rented out.

As soon as he turned 11, his mother and stepfather insisted he got a job so he could contribute to the household income.

"Some people say this was mean, but it taught me an important lesson in life - nothing is free. Perhaps it is a northern mentality, but it put me in good stead," he says.

And so, the young Mr Atherton spent his summer holidays getting up every day at 5am to feed, water and clean the town's donkeys. And then lead young tourists up and down the sand.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption A caravan park was home to Mr Atherton and his mother when they first moved to Skegness

"Yes, I was a donkey boy, I did that for three or four seasons, and I loved it."

His interest in cooking started a bit later when he decided to take home economics at school "because there was a girl in the class who I fancied".

He immediately took to cooking and his mother suggested he joined the Army Catering Corps. It turned out to be a rare wrong career turn.

"I absolutely hated it," he says. "I did my basic training, but just couldn't get on. I got into some fights.

Image caption Mr Atherton, second from the right, is a regular on TV cooking shows

"Between my stepfather and my sergeant they decided it was time for me to leave. So I went back to Skegness with my tail between my legs."

After a few weeks down in the dumps Mr Atherton got a job in the kitchen at a local hotel, where his cooking talents soon impressed the owner.

Mr Atherton recalls: "He said I was a natural cook - it was the first time someone had ever said I was good at something.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Mr Atherton spent a number of summers looking after the donkeys on Skegness beach

"He also said that if I was serious about getting better I should move to London. So that's what I did, and my life just took on another form.

"I worked my way through all the top kitchens in London and then France and Spain, and that was it."

Gordon Ramsay fallout

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Atherton had a public falling-out with Gordon Ramsay

After learning his ropes in a number of prestigious restaurants, in 2001 Mr Atherton started to work for fellow celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who he says is still the biggest influence on his career.

Considered to be Mr Ramsay's "right hand man", Mr Atherton spent nine years with his mentor, most prominently as head chef at a restaurant called Maze.

Yet in 2010 Mr Atherton decided to leave and go out on his own. As newspapers reported at the time, it was not a happy parting.

"It didn't end well, but there was no malice from my side," says Mr Atherton.

"Of course I understand why he was upset, I was one of his main guys, and no-one likes to see one of his main guys go.

"But I just wanted to be free… I always wanted to be master of my own destiny."

So Mr Atherton quit, remortgaged his house to raise £500,000, and started to look for premises to open his first restaurant.

With a Singapore-based multi-millionaire friend coming on board as his outside investor, Pollen Street Social opened in London's Mayfair in 2011 to immediate rave reviews and full bookings.

Within two years the other restaurants started to follow. Those overseas are tie-ups with local partners who bring in both capital and understanding of the restaurant scene in their city.

Now with eight overseas restaurants, and more to open next year in New York, Dubai and Sydney, does Mr Atherton ever worry that he is spreading himself too thin?

He says that while people will always make the accusation, he had his team work very hard to run the business "very sensibly".

"We just use our common sense," he says. "Look after the staff, pay your tax on time, and do cash flows every single day. It is very simple mathematics. Only then can you do the fun stuff like run the restaurants."

Image copyright Jason Atherton
Image caption Mr Atherton still cooks at his main restaurant Pollen Street Social when in London

Yet for all the time spent on the business side of things, Mr Atherton says he is still first and foremost a working chef. This he says helps keep him firmly grounded.

"I don't take the success for granted, it is really important to look after success, to cherish it."

And despite his long working hours, Mr Atherton also makes sure he reserves time to spend with his two daughters.

Such is his belief in the importance of saving time for his family that he has teamed up with retailer to launch a campaign called "Dadpreneur Movement".

This aims to help shine a light on the issues and challenges facing modern working fathers.

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