Entertainment

The best of British

Chef Jason Atherton is tired of his country copping a serve.

The English chef Jason Atherton wants the world to know that Britain has more to offer than "overcooked beef, and fish and chips".

Atherton, 41, whose 15-month-old restaurant Pollen Street Social rated nine out of 10 in Britain's The Good Food Guide, thinks it's his "duty to say his bit about British food" when he speaks at the Crave Sydney International Food Festival.

"Poor old Britain gets a good old knocking, but it's actually not deserved. We just lost our way for 20 to 30 years," he says from the floor of the Mayfair restaurant.

He blames rationing after World War II and the rise of the supermarket and fast-food chains for the demise of British culinary arts. "We have this amazing gastronomical history, going back to Norman and Tudor times.

"We used to actually send chefs to France in Tudor times and teach them how to roast beef," says Atherton, who earned a Michelin star within six months of opening Pollen Street Social.

Atherton, who also has two restaurants in Singapore and one in Shanghai, is one of a string of chefs bringing about a renaissance in British food. He worked for Gordon Ramsay for 11 years, including a stint in Dubai as the executive chef at Verre. In 2005, he opened Maze in London for the Ramsay group.

Aria's Matt Moran will cook a six-course degustation menu with Atherton for one night at the Sydney Opera House. He says his friend was known as "the chef's chef" in the Ramsay fold. "He is one of the most passionate and hard-working chefs I have ever met," says Moran, also a Ramsay protege.

Atherton might be an international restaurateur, cooking-show host and menu designer for Hong Kong Airlines, but his feet are firmly planted in the everyday business of sourcing and making food.

He's at his most animated when he talks about the "ale-gar", a mediaeval vinegar that fellow British chef Alan Coxon makes for him, or knobbly organic carrots grown in Kensington - not the baby ones, but the ones they leave in the ground for three weeks longer.

"I want that pristine carrot flavour; that when you eat them after they've been roasted you say, 'Wow, that tasted more of carrot than any carrot I've eaten in my entire life'."
Pollen Street Social's menu is designed by brainstorming "ripples" of flavour combinations and stretching them as far as possible before they stop making sense - a process of thinking he will speak about in Sydney. And Pollen Street Social challenges the status quo of fine dining. Diners can come for anything from an eight-course tasting menu, an after-work drink, or post-theatre sweets at the dessert bar, the first of its kind in London.

He credits his time with the Spanish creator of El Bulli, Ferran Adria, for opening his mind to thinking laterally about food.

"When you work for someone like Ferran everything changes," he says. "I still remember walking into that kitchen for the very first time and watching 40-odd chefs crowded around three to four benches creating food I never knew existed, let alone could reproduce."

Cooking has to become a life passion, Atherton says, and for him it seems it always has been. He remembers wanting to be a chef since he was a small boy, laying out starters on tables at his mother's guesthouse in a coastal seaside town in the north of England.

"I got my hard graft, as we call it in the UK, or my work ethic, from my mum and my stepdad."

At 16 he ran away from home and formal cooking school while his parents were on holiday to "get his arse in the kitchen".

"It's been my dream for 25 years to open my own restaurant, ever since I first donned chef whites at the age of 16. But I never dreamt for a single moment that I would have my own Michelin-starred restaurant in the middle of Mayfair," he says.
When he lands in Sydney he will be nervously awaiting news.

The Britain and Ireland good food awards will be announced just as he arrives, when he will learn if he has kept his one Michelin star or risen to even dizzier heights.

The Crave Sydney International Food Festival runs from October 1 to 31. See cravesydney.com.