Sheffield Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton is back on our screens tonight with a new TV show, Grace Hammond reports.
Four years ago, Jason Atherton decided to give up on TV.
In the past, the Michelin-starred chef hosted popular series such as My Kitchen Rules UK. But making telly, while also running your own restaurants (he currently owns 16 worldwide), is undeniably difficult.
“Very few chefs get that balance right,” suggests the Sheffield-born chef, who has two daughters – Kezia, 13, and Jemimah, seven – with wife Irha, and another baby on the way.
“And if you spend too much time doing one the other one gets neglected, and less successful. But I always said I would never say never.”
Indeed, when the offer of fronting BBC Two series The Chefs’ Brigade, which starts tonight on BBC 2, came along, he couldn’t resist a new challenge.
It sees him take 10 chefs – from pubs, cafes and caterers across the UK – on the ultimate culinary journey across Europe, transforming them along the way into a kitchen brigade (the structure of chefs in top professional kitchens).
To put their skills to the test, in each country they visit over the six episodes they are pitted against a well-respected local Chef’s Brigade to see if they can beat them at their own game.
“It was interesting for me to take myself out of my world, and try and see, ‘OK, can we take 10 kids who’ve not had the training that I’ve had, and in a short space of time can we put all of our training ideas into practice, and turn them into something special?’ I wasn’t dressed up as Coco the Clown teaching people how to make lemon drizzle cake, which is not for me.”
But he admits filming did put him out of his comfort zone.
“It was scary. There were nights when we would go back, once we were off-camera, and go, ‘Oh my God, what have we got ourselves into?’ We had to really buckle down, and it was tough,” he says.
“Long days of training, going through the motions, teaching basics; stuff that a lot of chefs know, but these chefs didn’t. Stock-making – it’s basic, but it’s really important, because if you get that wrong you can’t go anywhere.
“There were a couple of kids in there who really struggled with their emotions. I’ve been there, and you’ve got to spend time with those people, you’ve got to try and get them through it, because it’s not connected to the food per se, it’s connected to the fact that they’re missing their family. Some of them in general struggle with missing social media (they had their phones taken off them) which was a new thing for me.”
Atherton said his own experience as a young chef helped him empathise with some of the contestants.
“I had a chip on my shoulder. Because young people do, don’t they? You forget that; when you get older you think, ‘Oh, I never had a chip on my shoulder’, but we all did. You just need it knocking off you from time to time. It’s like a protection thing; young people get it for a few years.
“I mean, my eldest daughter’s just turned into a teenager – it’s a nightmare. She was a sweetheart six months ago, I don’t know what’s happened! I just get grunts now.”
He believes the industry has changed a lot since he started out.
“It’s easier to have a life in cooking, and I think that’s very important, because, yes, there are more Michelin star restaurants but that was always going to happen, because (in) Britain the food couldn’t have gotten any worse 25 years ago,” says Atherton.
“Now, there’s not enough chefs and there’s too many restaurants... A lot of people moan about it, but I look at it as a positive. Because that means the public, their appetite is insatiable – we want to go to more great restaurants. That means the young now have a better chance of opening their own restaurants because the demand’s there. When I was younger, it was a risk.”
One of the biggest challenges while filming the series came when his daughter became seriously ill.
“My daughter got rushed into intensive care on the Sunday night (when he was meant to meet the contestants at Stansted). She contracted Type 1 Diabetes... well, it’s always been in her genes, but we didn’t know.
“She’d lost 10 kilos in weight. It was the worst night of my life. I was broken. So I had to call Colin (Barr, from the production company) up at 2 o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Look I can’t come’. The BBC, all of them, they were amazing: ‘Just take what you need’.
“By Wednesday lunchtime my daughter was out of intensive care. By Thursday she said, ‘Look daddy, I’m OK, they’ll let me home next week, mummy’s going to take care of me. You get on a plane and go film the show and do me proud’.”
So how does he switch off outside of work.
“I go to the gym every day, which is a little bit of me time. My wife is very good at being very strict with my timings... And we’re in a nice position. We have nice holidays – we spend time together that way. Weekends is always family time, unless I’ve got to do an event or something,” sqays Atherton.
“I’m nuts about food. It’ll be my obsession till I die. To be good at anything you have to be obsessed... Everyone says, ‘But do you think obsession is a dangerous thing?’
“If you want to be an Olympic champion you can’t just turn up to a track and field event and say, ‘I want to be an Olympic champion’. You’ve got to turn up the next morning, earlier than everybody else, and then the coach goes, ‘Hang on a minute, who’s this?’
“It’s the same in cooking.”
Jason Atherton was born in Sheffield. He started out working alongside great chefs including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis and Ferran Adria at el Bulli, before joining the Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2001 and launching ‘Maze’, first in London and then five globally. He left Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2010 to launch his own restaurant company, Jason Atherton Ltd. His flagship restaurant ‘Pollen Street Social’ opened in April 2011 in Mayfair and was awarded a Michelin star within six months, alongside 5 AA Rosettes and no.3 in The Good Food Guide’s best UK restaurants. Since then, Jason’s ‘The Social Company’ has grown to have a portfolio of restaurants which include the Michelin-starred Social Eating House and City Social, as well as Hai Cenato, 5 Social and Berners Tavern – named ‘the defining restaurant of the decade’, He also has critically-acclaimed restaurants in Shanghai, Dubai, Doha, St Moritz and New York. In 2008 he won the BBC’s Great British Menu, winning both the starter and the main course.
Chef’s Brigade is on BBC 2 tonight (July 30) at 9pm