Interview: Jason Atherton for Esquina
Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton, culinary director of new tapas bar Esquina and protégé of famously foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, speaks to us about the boisterous pleasures of communal eating—and his thoughts on Hell's Kitchen
Jason Atherton says he hopes Singaporeans will take to the convivial nature of Spanish tapas culture
When we meet Jason Atherton at his achingly hip, deliberately obscure tapas bar—our cab driver took a good ten minutes poring over the street directory before deigning to start his engine—the master chef is behind the counter, calmly dicing root vegetables. We sit and watch, hypnotized by the deftness of his knife, as disc after disc of cerise-and-cream radish fall like leaves onto his chopping board...until we notice the glint of an Oyster on his wrist.
Yes, Jason Atherton is your consummate appreciator of the finer things in life, a man of food, watches and cars. Besides being a one Michelin-starred chef with accolades that run two pages long in his press bio—a degustation of which includes “Restaurant of the Year”, “Newcomer of the Year” and “Chef of the Year” for Maze at the Harpers and Queen Restaurant 2006 Awards; “Best Restaurant in the UK” by Restaurant Magazine in 2008; and the honor of being the first Briton to have ever completed a stage at Ferran Adrià's elBulli—Jason is also a watch and car collector. That Oyster on his wrist is a Rolex GMT-Master II: perfect for someone who traipses around the globe so frequently. And back home in South London, Jason zips around in a Bimmer: "I’m a big fan of the new 6 Series. I’ve got a 645Ci, it’s beautiful, it’s my baby."
Yet Esquina, his latest and first Singapore venture, looks nothing like your typical posh nosh joint. For one, there's precious little space to talk about: the indoor bar sits just fifteen and is Tokyo apartment-small at 500 square feet. Like the yatais in Shinjuku-ku which Atherton also loves, you're expected to eat standing up. What it lacks in space, however, Esquina makes up for in offbeat spiritedness.
Borne out of a partnership between Jason and local arbiter of cool, Singaporean hotel-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, Esquina, Spanish for "the corner", is situated at a corner of Jiak Chuan Road, a few steps from Loh's Hotel 1929. The tapas bar's location oozes Loh's signature underground charm: Esquina is hidden away amidst a gently uphill, fiercely eclectic mix of colonial-era shophouses-turned-cafes, convenience stores and boutique hotels.
While we're still soaking up the urbane ambience and noting the quirky little touches that dot the bar, like the bronze lamps and interesting bottles of garishly hued Spanish vinegar, Jason has moved on from radishes to Iberico—in fact, this entire interview was conducted while he prepares food. Arranging slivers of cured ham on a platter for the night's service, the multi-tasker makes occasional, indecipherable exchanges with his Irish executive chef Andrew Walsh, who is also at work behind the counter. Proffering freshly baked pan rustico to this interviewer, Jason Atherton tells us about his infatuation with Spanish cuisine and culture, the raison d'etre behind his latest labor of love.