“You have to keep up with trends without being trendy, because being trendy means you’re going to have a short shelf life. You have to be current and have your finger on the pulse without being too on the pulse. It’s a fine line to walk,” declares Jason Atherton, the British chef, restaurateur, and TV personality, who’s spent over three decades walking that fine line.
Here in the Middle East, Atherton started working on the concept of Gordon Ramsay’s Verre restaurant at Hilton Dubai Creek in 1999. Not only was it Ramsay’s first overseas restaurant, but it was widely regarded as among the first restaurants by a celebrity chef to open in Dubai. “The culinary landscape in Dubai was completely different to where it is today. It was a lot harder to get good produce and trained staff back then. I think the work we did opened the floodgates for many people to come forward and continue that culinary journey in Dubai today,” says Atherton.
During his stint at Verre, there were a handful of restaurants in the emirate that he distinctly remembers. “The chefs’ after-work hangout was Rock Bottom in Bur Dubai. Burj Al Arab had just opened, and so we used to flock to Al Mahara, the seafood restaurant in the basement. The Noodle House too was a brand-new burgeoning concept at the time and so all of us chefs used to go there. Back then, there weren’t loads of Michelin Star chefs opening restaurants [in Dubai],” notes Atherton.
Atherton, who was the head chef at Verre from 2002-20005, returned to London in 2005 to work on another Ramsay project, Maze, which is where he tasted Michelin success when the restaurant earned its first Star. Atherton eventually branched out a few years later to set up his own entity called The Social Company. “We have seven properties in London and growing,” says Atherton. Two of these, Pollen Street Social and City Social, have one Michelin Star each.
“We have 17 restaurants globally. We have a portfolio of multiple styles such as French bistro, modern British brasseries, fine dining, Michelin restaurants and cocktail bars. We’re a family business – my wife runs the accounts and I’m the culinary director. As a global hospitality group, we operate in places including Shanghai, Mykonos, St. Moritz, New York and AlUla in Saudi Arabia. We’re based out of London, of course, but Dubai is a second home for us.”
Atherton returned to Dubai’s dining landscape with the opening of Marina Social at the InterContinental Dubai Marina in 2015. That space eventually closed this year. But far from exiting the city, he has now instead debuted an all-new four-in-one dining and entertainment concept at Grosvenor House, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Dubai.
City Social House, spread across the 43rd, 44th and 45th floor of the property, incorporates four concepts: City Social Dubai, Jazz By City, 7 Tales and Row on 45. He says he worked closely with Pam Wilby, complex general manager of Grosvenor House Dubai and Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, to convert the former nightclub – Embassy – into City Social House. “This house offers everything from a fantastic brunch on a Saturday at City Social Dubai to multifaceted experiences in different areas. You can be at the bar and listen to the DJs or sit out on the terrace in the winter months. You can enjoy a family meal or put your glad rags on and listen to great music [accompanied by] European food with Japanese flavours.
“On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Jazz By City comes alive as a sophisticated steakhouse with live jazz music. If you want to dance the night away, you can do so in 7 Tales which has fantastic Japanese-inspired cocktails and modern funky music.
“When it’s your birthday, book in at Row on 45, which has a 17-course fine dining menu. It’s very exclusive and you move to three different rooms as you go through your menu. Each room has a different ambience, different crockery, and a different menu. It’s probably one of the most exciting spaces I’ve ever opened.”
While City Social Dubai, Jazz By City and 7 Tales opened a few weeks ago, Row on 45 – inspired by sister restaurant Row on 5 which will soon open on Saville Row – has only 22 seats and opened this month.
Beyond Dubai, here in the Middle East, Atherton turned his attention to Saudi Arabia and opened Maraya Social in AlUla on the rooftop of Maraya which is the world’s largest mirrored building. The restaurant, which opened in 2021 and is operational during the winter months, is easily accessible to guests from many of the top-end luxury resorts which are establishing themselves in AlUla.
As for expansion plans, Atherton isn’t in a rush to open a streak of restaurants in the region. “We believe in the Middle East and the way it’s growing. We certainly want to operate more in the Middle East. I always like to let the business grow organically and let people choose us rather than us trying to choose them. When people choose to work with you, they choose you for the right reasons and then that relationship flourishes,” says Atherton.
Beyond building a global culinary empire, Atherton’s celebrity profile has only ascended with his TV appearances. Some of the most prominent were when he co-hosted the UK series, My Kitchen Rules, appeared as a guest on MasterChef Australia and hosted BBC’s The Chef’s Brigade. In July, his latest show – Dubai Dishes – which explores some of Dubai’s little-known culinary talent, debuted on UK’s ITV network. For Atherton, there were aspects of Dubai’s culinary universe which he discovered for the first time when researching the show. “Chef Hattem Mattar has a restaurant called FIYA, and he cooks a lot of food outdoors. We hadn’t heard of it until we started research for the show. He’s cooking amazing authentic Middle Eastern food over an open fire, giving it a new twist. I think concepts like this showcase how versatile Middle East cuisine can become,” notes Atherton.
While the 52-year-old Atherton can spot emerging talent, and even mentor them as he has in The Chef’s Brigade TV series, he can also identify a flash in the pan. “It’s important to remember that everybody wants to be somebody really fast. But you should take your time, because if you learn your craft properly, you can be around for a very long time.
“You have to look at the greats, the Jean-Georges, the Thomas Kellers, the Alain Ducasses – they’ve been around forever, and they’ll be around forever. It’s because they understand quality, luxury and their guests,” says Atherton who has refined his craft alongside the likes of Ferran Adrià, Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffmann.
“Now, you can be a flash in the pan and at the age of 23 be that hit chef that everyone wants. But your offer is limited because of your knowledge. You have a very successful three-four years, and then remember that you’re not the only hit chef in the world – there are another 5,000 that appear around the corner. How do you sustain the challenge of those people? How can you take something trendy and turn it into something more meaningful and sustainable over time?
“I’ve made mistakes. My restaurants have been almost too trendy and super busy for two-three years and then they start to fall off a little bit. The customer base changes quite regularly. We’re always trying to find new customers and understand their likes and dislikes. Never take for granted that your restaurant is busy today. We have a motto that every new guest is always a potential regular, and if you don’t treat them that way and just see them as a number coming through that door, you won’t be in business for very long.” Coming from someone who’s been in business for over three decades, Atherton puts his money where his plate is.