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In conversation with Chef Jason Atherton

British celebrity chef Jason Atherton discusses the impact of the pandemic on the global restaurant scene

Much like everyone else, at the dawn of the new decade, Jason Atherton had big plans for the year 2020. From opening his first Mykonos outpost to moving into his brand-new London home after welcoming his third child, the Michelin-star-winning chef was gearing up to finally enjoy the fruits of his labour. We caught up with him at his Dubai venue – Marina Social – in December after the first phase of lockdowns in the United Kingdom and he revealed just how much of those plans truly panned out.

What was the beginning of 2020 like for Jason Atherton?

“We purchased a new home in London. I felt truly successful only when we could afford to buy that house and so we said to ourselves, let’s just breathe a little before we go again. We wanted 2020 to be the year we could take a break. I felt like I was in a good place and then boom, the carpet got pulled from underneath me.”

So how did it unfold?

“It’s been horrific. We lost millions but we also dodged a bullet. We had plans to expand in the UK and then, the coronavirus started to show its face in Asia. So I put the deal on hold. I’m grateful that we didn’t borrow a large amount of money to open up those restaurants. We would have been in a lot of trouble. Clearly, COVID-19 had other plans for us. Around the same time, we were opening our Mykonos outpost in April. The restaurant was built, the furniture was at the airport and all of a sudden, the virus showed up in Italy. Within a few weeks, the world came to a standstill.”

How did you come to terms with the lockdown?

“The hardest thing for me was seeing my restaurants temporarily shutting down. I know that this is coming from a very selfish place but I got home one night thinking it’s not fair. I’ve spent 34 years working so hard. I’m talking 19-hour shifts a day, six days a week devoted to learning my trade. I never worried about missing out on just about everything to focus on my career and build the business. But COVID left me wondering whether I would even have a business after this.”

What was it like when the first lockdown lifted?

“We had to reinvest a lot of money. Having a restaurant shut for that length of time is not just a case of switching the lights on and mopping the floor. There’s retraining, restocking and fixing equipment that had broken just because it hadn’t been switched on for months. It was tough and emotionally draining. Every day I woke up, there was another problem. But the most heartwarming part was when the customers came flooding back after the first lockdown. That proved the power of the brand.”

What strategies did you adopt to keep the business afloat?

“The one thing I feel we got right is that we acted very quickly. You’ve got to be non-emotional. If you don’t save your business then how can you create jobs to help the economy and help the next generation of people coming through. You’ve got to focus on the bigger picture. We had 1,500 people working at our restaurants worldwide and we had to bring that down to 650. I’ve had sleepless nights wondering how they were going to feed themselves. But if you’ve got to save the business, you’ve got to cut costs. I’ve never been this ruthless, I’m not that guy but I’ve had to be. If you are as committed to that as you are to producing amazing food and service, you will survive.”

What lessons will you take away from this experience?

“I think the silver line is that we are more efficient. We’ve been able to hold on to the company and rebuild it. Hopefully, we can soon get back to 1,500 people. I also feel that our customers will be more thankful for the services that hospitality has given them. There are so many people who could afford to go out all the time without thinking twice but have now come to realise how important bars and restaurants are to their social life. Hopefully, they will appreciate our contribution even more.”

How did you manage to keep sane through it all?

“You have days when you go into a bit of a hole, and then you have days when you’re happy. Professionally, we are seeing a revival in the brand. We’ve got a couple of offers to open in different parts of the world. It’s exciting to see these buds popping up again. On the personal front, we have a new baby. Athena is one year old now and she’s been totally spoilt during the lockdown. Every afternoon she’s been sleeping on my chest. With the first two children, it was very difficult for me to bond with them when they were young because I was always at work or travelling. Of course, we are close now but with Athena, the minute she was born, we went into lockdown and I got to spend every day with her for four months.”

Do you think the dining scene will ever go back to normal?

“I don’t think it ever well. I think this pandemic has changed the world forever and that’s something we have to accept. Diners will want to feel that a restaurant is prioritising their health and safety above all else. They will no longer want to go to brasseries where they squeeze you into tiny little tables. I don’t see that two-metre gap going anywhere anytime soon.”

What do you miss the most about pre-pandemic life?

“Freedom! You could wake up one day and say I want to go to San Francisco for a week. All you had to do is book a plane ticket and go. Now, everything is going to take a lot more planning.”

And what do you not miss?

“The dirty planes and chaotic airports.”

What’s next for Jason Atherton?

“Mykonos, that’s the only restaurant we’ve got planned at the moment. Everywhere else, we are just rebooting. We are also remodelling Pollen Street Social as we are certainly looking for that to be higher up in the guide books. Besides that, we are just looking to get back to normal as normal is – the new normal as they are calling it these days.”

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