Following not-so-hot on the heels of the UK announcement one month ago, the stars have come out for New York City. The anglocentric take can only begin with one chef: Jason Atherton. Owner of nine London restaurants, including five under the ‘Social’ moniker, his first transatlantic venture has landed him a third career Michelin star, following in the footsteps of Pollen Street Social and City Social, opened in 2011 and 2014 respectively.
The Clocktower, on the site of the New York Edition Hotel, opened in 2015 to a welcome of spendy predictability, NY scepticism and critical acclaim from Eater London’s American compatriots. In a city that, according to Atherton, “would have laughed us out of JFK” no more than fifteen years ago, serving up $21 fish and chips in a room with a billiard table would seemingly not befit a restaurateur with a sixteen-strong restaurant empire state of mind.
Fast forward to here and now, and Atherton has entered into a culinary constellation that still shines bright in any chef’s firmament, no matter how many times it digs itself into a 140 character rut; no matter how many times its awards and rejections are bitterly predictable (read: annually.) While the chef told Eater London that “no chef should ever open a restaurant looking for a star,” he was also unequivocal about the magnetic risk of entering a city as ferociously proud of its food as it is ruthless in skewering those that don’t meet expectation as a new, foreign operator.
“You know your home city”, says Atherton, “you know what people like, you know what people dislike, you know what they want to eat and when they eat. New York is the scariest restaurant city. It’s a vicious restaurant city ... I didn’t tell many people that I moved out here for six months. My wife and kids came to visit me intermittently and I worked in the kitchens from 7am to 1am making sure we made everything perfect.”
This kind of commitment is staggering and par for the course in equal measure. Much has been made of the lengths chefs will go — or the lengths ‘meathead culture’ forces them to go — in the pursuit of excellence, of which Michelin acclaim is but one, indisputably powerful instantiation. The weight on Atherton’s shoulders was clearly a heavy one; the irony is that a warm welcome made it all the harder:
The most difficult thing was my respect for the chefs over there — Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten ... I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Jean-Georges hosted a dinner in the restaurant, stood up and clapped afterwards: it was a wonderful welcome but it made it even harder. It’s expectation. These chefs are idols and having them support me was a blessing as much as a curse.
Aside from these chefs’ common qualities being ‘old,’ ‘white,’ ‘male,’ and “Michelin-starred” it can not be missed that Keller and Vongerichten (more so than, if not excluding Humm) are talismans of a culinary era fading off into the distance. Weathered in the face of shifting scenes, withering assessments and cynical upscaling, they are in many ways guardians of a kind of cooking and eating that rubs up against London and New York’s dining credos, rather than gracefully slotting in. The Clocktower, in its way, also directly controverts New York’s current situation: it’s unabashedly British, it strives to be an institution, and gives the voguish a wide berth. Ryan Sutton put it thus: “The Clocktower bucks all the trends, and is better for it ... [it finds] inspiration not from predicting the lean future of food but rather by tipping a hat to its indulgent past.” Where Keller and Vongerichten have ossified, Atherton has invigorated. This is, as ever, not without nuance. While Vongerichten’s French-Asian flagship Jean-Georges lost a star in the same guide that garlanded Atherton, Vongerichten’s cooking elsewhere in the city at ABC Kitchen is precisely the lean, plant-based, small-plate dining that New York has taken to heart. Excellence in its many, often contradictory shades.
Atherton — who has opened iterations of the ‘Social’ brand and small-plate forward sites that (mostly) retain integrity — is certain that “London and New York mirror each other.” He is also certain that who exactly gets to decide whether a restaurant lives or dies in these cities that shadowbox across the ocean couldn’t be more different:
Critics have a lot more power in New York. I remember when Pete Wells came in we didn’t recognise him the first time, or the second time, but we did the third — you’re literally pooing your pants waiting for the review to come out. A bad review in this city can close a restaurant. It’s not the same in London — I can’t think of a critic who wields that much power. Also, it’s not the chef in London; it’s the experience, the food, the room — the person behind the kitchen doesn’t seem to matter as much. City Social got the worst reviews when it opened, but the best public reaction.
All in all, he is ‘amazed to be a part of it’ — it the sometimes intangible, sometimes all too tangible experience of being a restaurateur in the Big Apple. He first visited New York as an impressionable 32 year-old fifteen years ago, out on a research trip with a little-known chef, Gordon Ramsay, with whom he had just opened a restaurant called Maze. He remembers being wowed by what awaited him — a dining scene that he can now call home.