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Drumbeats charity dinner with Jason Atherton and Laurie Gear

Drumbeats charity dinner with Jason Atherton and Laurie Gear

by Eliot Collins 25 June 2015

Family, friends and people in need seem to be at the top of the list for some of the country’s leading chefs, with many doing all that they can outside their already hectic schedules to help others who are less fortunate through charitable work.

Eliot is Chef Partnership Manager at Great British Chefs.

One charity of note was set up by food writer David Mabey and his sister Gill. Drumbeats is dedicated to Gill’s former partner Ced Sharpley, internationally renowned drummer who played with Gary Numan amongst others and stalwart of the local music scene. Ced spent his final days in the Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU) at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and Drumbeats raises money to improve its facilities – not only medical equipment needed for the one-to-one care that is essential in ITU, but also creature comforts for families, friends and relatives visiting the patients.

David, Gill and Ced’s passion for food led David to approaching both Jason Atherton of Pollen Street Social and Laurie Gear of Artichoke to take part. ‘It was an idea I had and I just threw it out to them, and they both said yes without any hesitation!’ It is a charity that is obviously very close to David and Gill’s hearts as Ced was looked after with incredible care at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and this is their way of giving something back.

The charity dinner at Artichoke consisted of six courses during which both Jason and Laurie spent time at the tables chatting with the guests and expanding on the dishes. The evening ended with a dynamic live auction of unique gourmet ‘lots’ donated by Artichoke and the Social Company which raised nearly £4000 for the charity. Additionally, each couple were given a signed copy of Jason’s cookbook, Social Suppers, to take home as a memento of this one-off night.

I managed to talk to Jason and Laurie during the evening about the many roles they juggle.

Jason Atherton

Chef Jason Atherton in the kitchen
Jason Atherton in the kitchen

Chefs have always found time to do good deeds. How have you found the time? And why do you think it’s important?

I think if you get lucky in life to be successful and to be in a position to be your own boss, to work hard, and this industry is always going to be a lot of hard work. Inspire the youth, set an example and be a role model, if you like. I think part of being that role model is helping your community, doesn’t matter in what shape or form, large or small, but just having philanthropy going through your veins is really important. I think in life, the more I can give, especially as I get older, the more I can give people things and help people, it makes you feel good about yourself.

Because I spent 20 odd years being really selfish learning how to be a great cook and just buried my head in the kitchen. Not going to my friends weddings.. I didn’t even go to my sister’s wedding because I was so consumed by food. Then you get to a point in your life when you can open up your own restaurant or restaurants and become more financially successful and it makes you naturally want to give back. I don't shout about it or have a foundation, I do it as part of my makeup because I’m a very religious guy and go to church most Sunday’s and I like to make other people feel good.

It’s not just about giving money away; it’s about sharing knowledge, helping a young chef achieve his dream, not just working for me, but I help a lot of young chef work abroad because of my connections. I get contacted by young chefs who don't have the same privilege in their current kitchens so they contact me on email or via the office and ask me to make a recommendation. They know I know Daniel Humm or Daniel Boloud or Thomas Keller or Ferran Adria so they ask me if there’s any chance I will write a letter on their behalf to see if they can go a work in their kitchens.

 
Jason Atherton at the pass
Jason Atherton at the pass

What did you set up as a mentor that you’re still doing today for the head chefs at you restaurants? What have you got in place to help develop new talent?

We try and set an example in the industry about leadership, about training and we’re not perfect but we're in a position to set an example because people are aware of what we do. When we open a new restaurant, people take notice. They come, they turn up, they see a succession plan in place. We rarely take on a head chef from outside the company; they’re always from within the company. We make them business partners, share in the profits, we pay for their training. My chef Alex (Craciun) who's with me here tonight is helping me to open up a Japanese restaurant Sosharu, Farringdon in November has been training for the last 18 months in Japan which we funded and paid for. Flights, lodgings and his full salary that he got paid in London. We didn’t want him to take a pay cut, I wanted him to have the same lifestyle he still had, going to Japan and not living on shoestring. I wanted him to have the best opportunity to succeed, not just reading Japanese cookbooks and copying recipes, but actually eat, breathe and sleep Japanese cuisine. Being a cook can be very selfish and I would have loved to have done that when I was younger, but it’s too late now. It's not too late for me to learn, but I’ve now got a wife, kids and a very happy home. My wife travels with me all the time so for me to take a year out of my life and go to learn how to cook Japanese food, (maybe when I’m older because I'd enjoy it) but now is not the time for that.

There’s a new level of professionalism from chefs, mentors and restaurateurs. Gone are the days of an autocratic, old school brigade-style system and it's interesting to see. I’m not sure why that’s evolved and why we’re seeing this…

It’s simple. It all started 7, 8 years ago when the last batch of chefs went through those types of kitchens. Rivalry was immense and you had to be part of it. If you worked for Marco, everyone that worked at Nico’s (Chez Nico) was an enemy it was all very territorial. Where now this generation of cooks, the Sat Bains, Simon Rogans, Tom Kerridges, Marcus Wareings, Clare Smyths. You name all those top chefs and they’re all friends, everybody’s friends and we'll all do anything for each other. When Sat was raising money for his Hospitality Action trip to Nepal, even though he never succeeded, that was irrelevant. He just took the time off to do that, we all chucked a load of money in the pot to raise money for Hospitality Action, all from our own restaurants. That just shows the level of support and that would never have happened 20 years ago. Never, ever, ever! He would have been flying solo. But he had the support from all of us, because we’re all mates, we're all buddies and we all get on together. We also share ideas and I could call Sat up tomorrow and say, ‘hey Sat I’ve got a problem with my lemon tart, this is happening, what do you think?’ He’d say, ‘have you tried this, have you tried that?’ That would never have happened 20 years ago, no chance. They would have said, ‘fuck your lemon tart!’ Tom Kerridge, another one… I could be stuck on the motorway and he would leave in the middle of service to come and pick me up!

Lastly, what do you think has sparked the British food revolution over the last 10 years? Something has happened, undoubtedly and it's given us scope to open restaurants with international flavour, modern British cuisine has gone through the roof. What have you seen from your early career until now that’s made this happen?

In the old days, as a nation we took our produce for granted. We’ve produced good dairy, nice sheep, whatever. We get fresh fish whenever you want it and no one ever took it really seriously. I’ve literally travelled the world with my career and the produce we have here is the best in the world, I’ll tell you right now and I’ll stake my career on it. What we've got is some of the best produce on the planet. We’ve never, ever given our farmers, producers or any one of these people any credit. I could name 20 farmers off the top of my head, right now. 20 years ago when I started to cook, when I was a chef, you didn't know where your lamb came from, it was just lamb! We bought it from Fairfax Meadow the supplier, because he said it was good lamb. Whereas now, it's not about the guy who’s supplying it, we want to know the farmer. Now, all these guys are getting the credit they deserve… Using Johnny from Flying Fish for his day boat in Cornwall, he’ll only fish for so many restaurants because his fish is the best. I’ll call up Johnny and tell him I need some spanking red mullet for my new summer menu. He’ll say ‘OK Jason, how many do you need each day?’ I’ll let him know ‘I need 15 for Pollen Street hand picked by you, I don’t care how much they cost.’ Even if I’m away at one of the restaurants in Asia, I know I won’t get a call from one of the chefs to tell me that the fish is terrible because Johnny’s on it.

 
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Raw Orkney sea scallop
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Hop smoked sea trout

It’s more about the intimacy of the relationship between chef and producers…

And that’s what’s changed. Great Britain has embraced food, it's embraced its chefs, its producers, all of that. You could never have just served a beautiful piece of cheese, no one would have appreciated it 20 years ago. They would have said ‘this is just a piece of cheese, I can get cheese at home.’ Now they understand the relationship between the cheesemonger and the chef and how they take care of the product to be served simply with some home-made chutney and home-made bread and BOOM! It's a fantastic part of the meal.

I think chefs like Simon Rogan who have embraced the countryside thing at L’Enclume, growing his own vegetables etc., are amazing, but we have to remember that Raymond Blanc has been doing this for 25 years and does not get the credit he deserves. For me, Raymond Blanc is a 3 star chef and should have been a 3 star chef 20 years ago. I have no idea why he’s not, but anyway that's a different argument. For me, he’s a 3 star chef and I’ve always treated him like a 3 star chef. He’s been growing his own produce and was one of the first chefs to really get into his suppliers, using wild salmon when it’s in season, not just when it's around. Proper chef!

Laurie Gear

Despite having your hands full, you’ve always managed to fit in extracurricular commitments. What's given you the drive to commit to contributing your time to charity?

I just think it’s good to give something back. As you say, things are nose to the grindstone, heads down more than 90% of the time. When there is a little bit of an opportunity to do something nice that’s going to be beneficial then it’s a good thing.

Tell me about your relationship with David and the way he contacted you about this.

The beautiful link was the fact that his favourite restaurants are Pollen Street and here [Artichoke] that he believes have some sort of symmetry, even though we’re poles apart in many ways it's nice that there was some sort of symmetry found with the food.

 
 
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Laurie Gear during service

Chefs that run successful restaurants seem to have a nurturing quality to them, developing a team seeing young girls and guys not only coming up through the kitchen, but front of house as well. What have you developed over the last few years?

I think that’s critical from my own beginnings, which was washing dishes in a West Country Hotel. When we moved to the area and bought the restaurant, staff were limited. We were getting a lot of young school leavers and the latest example is Amy, who came on board from Chesham. She started off on pot-wash, but we told to get a feel for the sights, sounds and smells of the kitchen, get that into your bloodstream and see if it’s going to stick. Now Amy’s up on pastry and I think it's fantastic. You soon know whether they're going to stick or not and she certainly has.

Are there any kitchens or experiences pre-Artichoke that have inspired you to adapt the chef mentor approach?

My short stint in Copenhagen (Noma) where there was a lot of creativity. I’m a big believer that Ben and I are leading the kitchen together without looking over their shoulders too much. If we take half a step back and nurture instead of bully, we find that is more creative. Obviously there has to be regimentation and direction, but we've found that over the years, if we take a little step back and try and have a calm, but professional atmosphere, then that’s more creative in convivial terms. We’ve got a good atmosphere and good team and it means they stay longer.

There were many 1, 2 and 3 star kitchens where chefs, back in the day, were infamous for treating their staff very poorly. That seems to have changed. Why do you think that is?

It’s progression; it’s evolution and this is how human beings behave as a rule. Certain things that were considered the norm back in the day are abnormal these days.

 
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Laurie Gear in the dining room

British cuisine has really turned on its head and we know you’re a huge advocate for modern British cooking with accolades from AA and The Good Food Guide. Why?

With the produce and British restaurants in general, there was always that sniffiness with some of our overseas colleagues that we were a very young cuisine. Where as in effect that’s not entirely true. Our restaurants have evolved and evolved very quickly I think. Now within the UK we’ve got some of the greatest restaurants in the world, I would go as far as saying. So I think the overall international acknowledgement has really helped. We’re no longer seen as poor country cousins, we've got a proper platform now.

Where are you finding inspiration for menu and dish creation?

We’re always looking at hooking up with local suppliers with seasonality in mind as one of the main focuses that Ben and I use when putting dishes together. Little things like points of interest, for example we’ve got a new relationship with the local watercress farmer and I’ve moved house and happen to be right next-door. It’s a fantastic watercress farm and the guy has just taken over from his father. They've been going for the last 70 years, his father used to cut the watercress and send it up on the trains to London. It died a death, but has had a rejuvenation because of the influx of British produce. So that’s been a great influence. Meeting people at the local Chiltern Brewery and how they talk about beer, it’s like a chef talking about food! One of the dishes tonight is the hop-smoked sea trout that is smoked from the local hops from the brewery.

For further information regarding this event and the Artichoke please contact 
Johanna or Jacqueline at the restaurant.

Email: reservations@artichokerestaurant.co.uk Tel: 01494 726611

www.justgiving.com/DRUMBEATS

@DrumbeatsCed, @PollenStSocial, @ArtichokeChef

 
 

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