Jason Atherton on Dubai's food scene
Ahead of the opening of his first Dubai restaurant, Michelin star British chef Jason Atherton talks why he’s different to other celeb chefs that open eateries here.
Jason Atherton is in town preparing for the launch of his first Middle Eastern restaurant Marina Social on September 4.
“Look at people and places like Jean Georges, Wolfgang Puck, Zuma, La Petit Maison, Coya, the competition is really really stiff. “
This is his 17th restaurant since he opened the doors to Pollen Street Social in London in 2011, and while the new high-end restaurant might be his first in the region, he’s certainly not new to Dubai.
Before Dubai Marina even existed, Atherton called the city home when he was head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre on Dubai Creek.
Now, with Ramsay opening his new Bread Street Kitchen in Dubai later this year and British chef Tom Aikens joining ranks with his Pots, Pans and Boards next month, Dubai is overflowing with restaurants by noted chefs.
Atherton spoke to What’s On about his latest endeavour, and whether it’s true what they say about too many cooks?
How has the restaurant scene changed since you were here? The thing is, 15 years in a normal city is a long time, but in Dubai it’s about 50 years because everything moves so quickly. To come back and see the growth and be part of Dubai’s restaurant scene today is very very exciting, because it’s so powerful, so competitive and cutting edge that I’m just really flattered to be back here doing what I do best.
The restaurant scene is very strong right now. You’ve just got to look at people and places like Jean Georges, Wolfgang Puck, Zuma, La Petit Maison, Coya, the competition is really really stiff. But that’s a good thing. Everyone asks me, does it reach a saturation point? No, no, a saturation point only exists for the people at the bottom of the food chain, because they’re the ones who can’t up their game.
I’m very confident that Marina Social can compete at the highest level. I’m not saying we’re going to be the best, that’s arrogant, but what I’m saying is that we can give it a shot to be in that top tier of restaurants in Dubai.
What’s exciting for me in Dubai is that as more and more great chefs – home grown or foreign – come in the pot gets stronger, the weak fall away and more people want to challenge that so they get better, that’s just evolution. Then all of a sudden you get a city that has such an amazing array of restaurants and only the best will survive. That’s been the same for London and New York and now Dubai’s the same.
So you’re confident about Marina Social? I’m not confident in an arrogant way. I’m confident that we have a great team here and we will work. I didn’t just fly into Dubai to get my photo taken, have interviews and then I’m on to New York, I don’t work like that. I have three days of media, and then all that stops and I’m in the kitchen where I’m supposed to be. That’s super important. I’m due to be here for a month and a half.
You have restaurants all over the world. What attracted you to Dubai? I met my wife here, I have very fond memories. I love this city. We come here for holidays once or twice every couple of years and we love the shopping, I like to play golf here when I get the chance and the beaches are great. We lived here for four years and even though it’s changed, it’s still Dubai. It’s home away from home.
Where are some of your favourite places to eat? I go to Petit Maison quite a bit, that’s one of my favourites. I’m yet to try Jean Georges, but I used to work with Colin Clague, the chef de cuisine, and he’s a very talented guy so I’m looking forward to trying that. It’s pretty hard to eat badly in Dubai these days.
Then there’s local food too. Where I used to work on Dubai Creek, behind there is a street [Baniyas Road], it has a whole row of local restaurants and I used to finish work at about 11pm or midnight and we used to go there afterwards – either me and my wife while we were dating or me and the boys from the kitchen – and we’d eat really great local food at two or three in the morning and tea or coffee. It was great, I really enjoyed my life here.
So what can we expect from Marina Social? It’s going to be modern European food, and we’ve taken on board the Mediterranean diet, for me that’s a very important part of the concept. We live in a country that’s pretty much hot all year round and so we want people to be able to eat lightly.
The idea is that you can come and have a couple of snacks and a cocktail and then go somewhere else for a main, or have a main course and call it a night. Even though we offer a very high-end experience we don’t necessarily have to take up all of your time. If you just want to come to The Social Room and have a bit of a dance and a party then we also cater for that.
Is this restaurant very different to your others? It’s unique. Every single restaurant we open is unique. I can’t stand replicating stuff, so if I was coming to Dubai to replicate Pollen Street Social – why would I do that? I want this to be unique to Dubai, I want this to be unique so the people in Dubai have their own version of what we do.
It’s not copied in New York, it’s not copied in Hong Kong, it’s not copied in Sydney, this is very much part of Dubai and you can only get this experience in Dubai. And that excites me, it excites me that I want to get on a plane and come and cook here.