British chef Jason Atherton famously spent 10 years under Gordon Ramsay's tutelage before striking out on his own in 2010, opening his first restaurant, the modern-European restaurant Table No. 1, in Shanghai. He's been on a tear ever since. In 2011, Atherton debuted his flagship restaurant, London's Pollen Street Social, and was promptly awarded one Michelin star; in the years since, he's followed that up with two restaurants in Hong Kong, two in London, and two in Singapore — including Pollen, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant inside the city's iconic Gardens By the Bay.
Pollen is celebrating its one year anniversary all through July with a special anniversary menu (sample dish: "mosaic of foie gras and confit duck with edible flowers"). Atherton recently chatted with Eater about the travel involved in managing a multi-continent empire, working in a temperature-controlled glass dome, and how diners in Singapore are "just crazy about food."
You opened your first Singapore restaurant, Esquina, in January 2012, then followed up with Pollen just six months later. Was the plan always to open two Singapore restaurants back-to-back?
No, no. I don't plan anything. I just go with the flow. And as opportunities come up, and things are right, and I feel like I've got the right staff members who want to take on that challenge alongside us at the company, then we do it. It's a team decision, it's not just my decision.
Inside the dome at Gardens by the Bay [Photo: Unlisted Collection]
So how did the opportunity for Pollen come up?
There's four [individuals] beside myself. A gentleman called Peng Lik Loh, who's a very prominent restaurateur in Singapore, then we've got Geoffrey Eu, and my normal business partner, Mavis Oei, she's my business partner in London. And they came to me with this site — the Gardens by the Bay's an iconic piece of landscape in Singapore. So, when the restaurant became available, they said, "Look, should we go for it?" And I went over there and saw this incredible structure between these gardens being built inside these superdomes, where the air conditions are kept to 22 degrees Celsius [71.6 degrees Farenheit] at all times. It's a country that's either in hot or rainy weather, so I thought it'd be a good idea to open a restaurant there, so that's what happened. And that was it.
What made you decide to go with a Mediterranean concept?
I kept thinking to sort of cook creative Mediterranean food because of the fact a 1,000-year-old olive tree was being planted right outside the restaurant's front door. So, for me, it just was like common sense to carry that through the whole theme of the restaurant.
There are also some recurring themes from your other restaurants: the dessert bar from Pollen Street Social, for example. Are there other elements from other restaurants that show up in Pollen?
Yeah, the meat locker: We like to showcase all the meats, because we buy the very best meat that's out there at the market. So when you walk into the restaurant, you'll see a big display unit where all the meat is being displayed and you see the chefs working, taking it out, cooking it. So yeah, there's a few little things like that between Pollen Street and Pollen.
Pollen dining room. [Photo: Unlisted Collection]
For people who don't know, the restaurant is in a Flower Dome that's temperature-controlled. Does that prove challenging at all for the restaurant?
Yes, obviously because you've got to meet recommendations as far as comfortability is concerned. People coming into the restaurant, they sometimes find the place a little bit too cold. So, to counteract that, what we do is when they sit down, we offer them a shawl, pashmina, that types of stuff. There's always ways around it — I mean, the temperature's [stuck the way it is], the plants need those temperatures to survive. All the kitchen's built from scratch, all brand-new... and it was built on a different specification than the restaurant. So the it's completely fine.
Do you remember what opening night was like?
It was a bit of a blur. It was good. I flew in my people from London. Every time I open a restaurant, the team from London flies in, and then we'll work together for about two or three weeks on that particular project until we feel comfortable with the systems being put in place — and the chef has the right, whichever chef running that particular unit has the right team around him to continue the good work. Yeah, it was very positive.
Has the menu changed since opening?
It's gotten a lot more refined. The food's gotten more refined, just like any restaurant that's a year old? it just comes naturally over time. It doesn't mean it has become more pompous or anything like that, just more refined. The kitchen has more time to practice the recipes, more time to [get accustomed to] giving the customers what they're looking for... Singapore is just crazy about food. Crazy about food. It's great, when you talk to Singaporeans about how their day is going, it's about what the next meal is they're eating.
The Pollen dining room and garden. [Photo: SRC]
Let's talk about the garden in the dome. Was that something you'd been involved with from the beginning?
Yeah. We have a part-time gardener that works four days a week, and he plants all the plants in the garden alongside the restaurant. And we've got a lot of thyme, rosemary, wild fennel, fennel pollen, we have a fig tree there that's bore fruit. It's mostly herbs to be honest, marjoram, mint. I think 12 varieties — for the first year, it's not bad, but we don't really much space [to go beyond that]. But it's a fun space for fun and mayhem. We got one strawberry. [Laughs] Nine months keeping it, and hey, we got one strawberry.
How do split your time between all the restaurants?
It's pretty straightforward. My system is very simple: I have a head office in London that takes care of all the day-to-day stuff, to make sure the chefs and front-of-house managers have everything they need. Operations-wise, if anything breaks, they don't come to me, they go straight to operations? You have to put that structure in place. What I do is I work closely, the only part of the business I touch all the time with my fingertips, is service standards, the wine list, cocktails, and obviously the food menus. So, I go to all the food tastings. I sit down with all the chefs, I inspire the menus, and make sure the chefs stick to seasonal ingredients if that's relevant — like to places such as London. Singapore, it's not relevant, because it's hot year-round. And then I get each chef in each unit a percentage in the business. Apart from Pollen Street, Pollen Street's my baby. I work in Pollen Street on a daily basis.
And when I need to go to Asia — every five or six weeks, looks like August 10th, I'll get on a plane, fly to Singapore for five-six days, go to Hong Kong for four-five days, and up to Shanghai for four-five days. Down to Dubai, then fly home. I'll stay in London for five to six weeks, then back out to Asia, then back to London. That's what I do. There's a saying here in England, if you make your bed, you lie in it.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
No. It feel like five minutes. Time goes pretty quick.