“Hello, service!” Jason Atherton calls out in his distinctive English accent. “Can we have some coffees, please?” The 43-year-old Michelin-starred chef is sitting across from me, wearing a neat, white chef’s coat and black slacks on his tidy frame, in the dining room of his new restaurant, the Clocktower, which has yet to fill up for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon.
When the coffees arrive a few minutes later in paper cups, Atherton does not hesitate to correct. “Can we have them in china, please?” As the embarrassed server leaves, the chef and I exchange looks and he, visibly flustered, remarks, “What, is there a Starbucks sign above me on the wall?” He hardly sips his coffee as we chat. It turns out that Atherton is the kind of person who seems to subsist on air alone.
Many great European chefs have tried to open fine-dining restaurants inside New York City hotels and haven’t had much luck, Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse among them. That might be why Atherton specifically sought a more casual vibe, with a dressed-down menu, at the Clocktower. (Not too casual, though. Given his reaction to the coffee cups, paper plates are surely out of the question.) The restaurant opened in May inside Manhattan’s New York Edition Hotel, in partnership with boutique hotelier Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame and award-winning restaurateur Stephen Starr. The trifecta is a powerhouse: Schrager stands for detail-obsessed aesthetics and celebrity-heavy parties, Starr for a well-oiled restaurant machine, and Atherton for complex, well-polished cooking. But while Atherton is perhaps best known for the “deformalized” fine-dining concept at his popular British restaurant Pollen Street Social — as well as the 10 years that he worked as executive chef under Gordon Ramsay, first at Verre in Dubai, then at Maze in London — he is now less interested in proving his competency in the kitchen and instead focused on running a smart business and bringing repeat diners to the Clocktower.
To do this, Atherton spent time dining in various spots around the city, particularly focusing on lunch. “At lunchtime in Britain, you can pretty much run the same menu as dinner, and that works,” he says, whereas in New York, people want “sophisticated sandwiches, big portions of salads.” Atherton visited Roberta’s in Brooklyn at various times and loved the atmosphere: “You go in there, the girl serving you’s got skull rings on, she’s got her hair tied up with a neckerchief, and she’s just like, ‘What’s up, man?’ She chips an amazing salad down, you eat, you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s amazing,’ and she’s like, ‘Course it is, it’s Roberta’s!’” He also enjoyed eating at Reynard in Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel and at Brooklyn Fare, which he calls “off the charts.”
After all that research, though, the lunch menu at the Clocktower features only one sandwich (of king crab), and the salads certainly aren’t big bowls of chopped kale — rather, they are composed arrangements of stem-on radishes and dollops of congealed pistachio puree. Still, it is many buttons undone compared to the “fussy and beautiful” food Atherton cooked at Maze, the restaurant he opened for Gordon Ramsay in 2005. Perhaps that’s because Atherton was a younger chef then, and Ramsay’s style of cooking was more in vogue than it is now.
Atherton, who has opened 16 restaurants around the world since he left Maze in 2010 (with another three scheduled to open this year), knows better than to try this concept in modern-day New York City. While the menu at his London flagship highlights Atherton’s technical wizardry, the Clocktower is much more straightforward. Rather than aiming to blow diners away with his creativity, Atherton aspires to a kind of elevated crowd-pleasing, efforts he finds at the heart of the successful empire of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “If I’m honest, I model my ethos on [Jean-Georges],” says Atherton. “He’s a smart businessman as well as a smart chef. I’m a massive fan of his, the way he adapts his cuisine to different locations. I went to ABC Cocina and Kitchen, and they’re packed. The food’s great, it fits the location, fits the price point, people kill at lunch to get in, they go for a sophisticated dinner at nighttime.”
Despite the rocky end to their decade-long working relationship, Atherton says his former mentor, Gordon Ramsay, remains an influence. “That guy when he was full-time on it, he was the best in the business, and I got to witness it firsthand,” Atherton says. Not only did Atherton develop the opening menu for Maze in 2005 and earn a Michelin star within a year, but he also opened five other Maze locations around the world and authored the recipes for a Maze cookbook that bears Ramsay’s name.
At the end, Atherton says, Ramsay had not honored the 10 percent shares that were meant for him, and he parted reportedly scowling over his shoulder at his mentor. Now, though, Atherton has put that all behind him, perhaps because his own success leaves no reason for him to hold a grudge. “People always focus on the last 12 months of that time [we worked together], when it all fell apart,” says Atherton. “But it was purely a business thing; we’re friends now and we have massive respect for each other.”
In finding success after many years of working 16-hour days, Atherton has capitalized on his associations with celebrity chefdom. He has become a brand ambassador for BMW, a role that allows him access to the latest car models. Atherton is also part of the London Fashion Council, and he is active in organizing Men’s Fashion Week and often collaborates on GQ magazine editorials. “I was always interested in fashion, but I could never afford it as a young chef,” he says. In New York City, Atherton favors APC Soho and Club Monaco for their elegant designs, and he is a big fan of the recent work that Yves Saint Laurent’s new designer, Hedi Slimane, has been doing. Atherton likes to live well; he also likes to spend time with his two young daughters and wife, who all live in London.
But Atherton is not just resting on his laurels or living decadently; he is in the kitchen at the Clocktower every single day. He also goes to Soulcycle every morning, and the gym in the afternoon. “My ambition is to one day, hopefully, be remembered as one of the great chefs,” he said. “And that takes discipline.” How will he achieve this? By making the Clocktower “a great restaurant,” he hopes. Just not in the same sense that its across-the-street neighbor, Eleven Madison Park, is a great restaurant. Rather, Atherton wants people to be able to have a pleasant, memorable meal at a “reasonable price point” — and to come back again and again. Will they do so? And will Atherton develop a name for himself Stateside? Possibly. There will always be some clientele with the disposable income to splurge on a lunch that could easily run $75 per person and the desire to dine in such beautifully and uniquely designed settings, with custom-designed champagne charts rolling by. But these days, many diners seem more interested in Roberta’s or downtown spots featuring small plates, like Estela, or innovative tasting menus and natural wine, like Contra, than in fine dining. Perhaps further research is required.