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The British chef has a worldwide restaurant empire, including Marina Social in Dubai. Winner of a Michelin star in 2011 at his London eatery Pollen Street Social, Atherton spoke to EDGAR about the memorable firsts in his life
What's your first memory of going to a restaurant?
I told my parents I wanted to be a chef aged 15. They took me to a restaurant called The Mill in a little town outside Skegness, near where I grew up. To me then it was wonderful, delicious food. Going there, I felt grown up.
What's the first dish you fell in love with?
My parents used to run a guest house and my mum would make prawn cocktail with that classic ketchup and salad cream sauce and a bit of lemon juice – I was addicted to that flavour.
What was the first restaurant you opened?
Pollen Street Social in London in 2011. I was working for Gordon Ramsay in London, earning a lot of money, I had security, a nice home, I was living the dream. But to open my own restaurant I had to re-mortgage my house. I haven’t told many people this, but it got to a point where I was borrowing money from my parents to pay my kids’ school fees. A couple of times I had anxiety attacks. If the restaurant didn’t work... well, it was a big gamble. I questioned what I was doing but never for a second did I not believe in myself.
What was your first job in a professional kitchen?
It was at the County Hotel in Skegness. I arrived there straight from school and everyone was in proper chef whites, I was terrified. I was 16, a baby, the youngest guy in the kitchen by a million miles. It was dog eat dog, but I was pretty resilient.
When was the first time you took up golf?
When I moved to Dubai in 2001 I was 29 and single and working at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, Verre. I joined the golf club at Dubai Creek and I became obsessed, playing every single day. The longest run I had without missing a day of golf was seven months – no joke. Like most serious chefs, I’m obsessive by nature, because Michelin star level food is all about detail and consistency. When I played it was a complete switch off for me and allowed me to clear my mind. Three years after I took up golf, my handicap was down to six.
How much was your first pay cheque?
I was on the YTS government training scheme set up by Margaret Thatcher so it was £27.50 a week (AED 120). With my wages I’d buy Adidas Samba trainers, and clothes from Sergio Tacchini and Lacoste. I was a Sheffield United fan so I’d get on the coach with my mates and go to see the game.
What do you remember about your first review?
Matthew Fort was a feared restaurant critic whose food knowledge was extraordinary – he’d eat a chicken and know what farm it came from. He reviewed Pollen Street Social and he scored us 19.5 out of 20. It was amazing because I really respected him.
What was your first TV appearance like?
It was a programme called Top Chefs on British TV and I was terrible! I cooked a dish while being interviewed and it was an absolute disaster. I was so nervous, I couldn’t put anything on a plate. It was the most horrific experience and scared the living daylights out of me.
How did it feel to get your first Michelin star?
They’re really important to me but they do not rule my life. I respect them and I worked hard for them. It’s a benchmark to work towards but that’s it. So many chefs bring it into their private lives and it destroys them.
When was the first time you met Marco Pierre White?
I was working in London aged about 22 and one of the guys I worked with had a job interview with Marco who was the hot thing of the moment. My mate got me an interview too. I went to meet Marco and he shook my hand with his massive hand. He has a big presence, he’s strikingly handsome, quite posh and a bit cuckoo. He showed me around his restaurant and said, ‘Do you want a job?’ Two days later I was working in Marco’s kitchen. Watching him work, he was majestic, unbelievably fast and precise. He was born to cook.
What was the first proper watch you owned?
About five years ago I bought a gold Audemars Piguet Royal Oak with a crocodile strap in Dubai. I bought my wife one at the same time. She said to me, ‘Are you sure about this?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, do you know how hard we work? Let’s buy ourselves a nice watch.’ On the plane home I couldn’t stop looking at it because it was so shiny.
END OF INTERVIEW