If you're not yet familiar with the name Jason Atherton, then it's time to get acquainted with the Michelin-star chef who's set to create waves in the local culinary scene with his new tapas bar located at a quaint shophouse in a quiet corner of Chinatown.
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The British chef's name might not hold the same weight as culinary bigwigs like Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adria or Marco Pierre White, but he's a star in his own right, albeit an understated one. After all, he's worked with all three of the aforementioned, was Ramsay's right-hand man for a good part of a decade, and was the first British chef to complete a stage (internship) at the famed El Bulli. His own establishment, the Pollen Street Social in London earned its very first Michelin star after barely a year into business, and he's also the executive chef at the highly-lauded Table No. 1 in Shanghai.
So it's strangely endearing, really, how Atherton decided to eschew the usual route of celebrity chefs setting up glitzy restaurants at Marina Bay Sands as their first ventures into Singapore. But do not mistake this for complacency.
"I want it [Esquina] to be the best tapas bar in Singapore. I don't care if it never becomes famous -- the more important thing for me is that if Singaporeans hold this in their heart as one of the best, that's a job well done for me," he says, perched on one of the slightly avant-garde high stools at his new restaurant in Singapore, Esquina, which opened for business last week.
The restaurant, a joint venture with hotelier and restauranteur Loh Lik Peng and born out of his love for all things Spanish, is small and intimate with just 19 seats (standing space for 35), and designed with an open-concept kitchen with a raw industrial vibe. The place is also immaculate and spotless, something that Atherton is absolutely adamant about keeping in all his restaurants, as he recounts his days of cleaning the gardens at El Bulli after prep work, and asking a wait staff who turned up in a creased shirt to leave his restaurant.
The tenacity, and immense dedication to his work is hard to fathom, but it's not everyday that someone finds their calling at a young age like Atherton did -- he fell in love with cooking in his early teens after reading the Gault Millau [one of the most influential French restaurant guides], and subsequently ran off to London for his first job. The rest, like they say, is history.
So what can local diners expect from his very first restaurant venture -- would we see shades of Atherton's time at El Bulli? Atherton acknowledges the use of modern techniques and original creations, but is reluctant to put a label on it. "It's just good and fun food. We want customers to come in and have fun and not have to think too much about what they're eating."
LifestyleAsia (LSA): You've worked with many chefs who are notoriously tough to work for -- what was it like at the beginning? Who would you say was your biggest influence?
Jason Atherton (JA): It was really tough. It's just long hours, low pay and strenuous and mundane jobs. But I never fell out of love with the food because it was never about becoming famous. Ferran Adria has been the one to open my eyes to being a creative chef and making me realise that you should always question the questionable. It was just amazing [working at El Bulli]. In my eyes, that guy is God -- I just love everything he stands for and his passion.
LSA: I'm sure you get asked all the time, but what was it like working with Gordon Ramsay?
JA: I think he is the most amazing person as far as culinary goes. Gordon Ramsay, no matter what he does, has the knack of being the best at it. He's excellent on TV -- he's confident, very charismatic and he commands a room when he's in it. He's also the only British chef who's ever really built an international empire. I'm a very driven man, and I would not have not wasted ten years of my life working with someone who's not fantastic.
LSA: Moving on to the present. How did you end up working with Loh Lik Peng?
JA: Mavis Oei [Executive Director of Goodwood Park Hotel] and her nephew [film producer] Eric Khoo came to my restaurant in London, Maze, and fell in love with my food. I talked to them a little, and six months later, got a call asking if I wanted to do food promotion at Goodwood Park alongside other Michelin-star chefs, and I thought 'why not?'. I was introduced to Loh, and became friends. In 2009, I was leaving Gordon, and I was gonna do a business deal with someone else, and Mavis offered to do a business deal with me, and that was that.
LSA: What kind of food and drinks can diners expect at Esquina?
JA: A little bit of traditional tapas, but we stand out on the more original stuff. The Spanish breakfast for example, has an egg that's been cooked for two hours very slowly, and served with patatas bravas and Spanish olive oil and crispy Iberico ham. It comes in a pot in miniature form, and and when you eat it, the flavours just explode in your mouth. For dessert, we have black olive sorbet with strawberry gazpacho.
LSA: Any other plans for more restaurants in Singapore?
JA: We're actually doing a place at Gardens by the Bay, called Pollen Restaurant. It's going to be a Mediterrenean restaurant with lots of sharing food, a dessert bar, a glass kitchen, and an actual real-life working Mediterrenean garden where the temperature's controlled at 22.5 degrees celsius all the time. We're going to have olive, lavender, fig trees shipped in from France, Greece and Italy. It's just like being in the Mediterrenean -- it's absolutely beautiful.
LSA: What are your thoughts on the current culinary scene in Singapore? Any favourite restaurants?
JA: It's fantastic and very, very exciting. It's just gone leaps and bounds in the last twelve months. I'm a big fan of Andre Chiang. We've cooked together for Goodwood Park last year, and I don't want this to sound like an insult, but Singapore's lucky to have him -- I think he's that good. For restaurants, I like Tippling Club, Iggy's and also love local food like salted egg prawns, black pepper crabs and oyster omelette.
LSA: Going off-topic for a bit: how do you unwind and relax in your spare time?
JA: I work at 18 hours a day, five to six days a week, and literally sleep at my London restaurant. So when I have spare time, I sleep, play a little golf. I'm a big golf nut -- I don't play that much now, but I love it. Also other normal family stuff -- hang out with the kids and so on.
LSA: Complete this sentence for us: if I hadn't been a chef I would be...
JA: I'd be a rock 'n' roll star. Nah, I'm joking. If I could, I'd like to be a serious actor who does none of those cheesy movies. I used to host a show called Great British Food, and I really enjoyed the presenting side of it. It's terrifying at first, but you just gotta get past it. And now I just love it.