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Jason Atherton on why Hai Cenato is a return to his pizza-making days

By Stefan Chomka , 17-Feb-2017
Last updated on 17-Feb-2017 at 11:04 GMT2017-02-17T11:04:32Z

Jason Atherton on his new pizza restaurant Hai Cenato

Jason Atherton, along with chef Paul Hood, have just opened Italian/New York restaurant Hai Cenato in the new Nova development in London’s Victoria

What's the thinking behind the new place?

I’ve been wanting to cook this food for a while. I’ve spent so much time in New York, I go there four or five times a year minimum, and two of my favourite restaurants are [wood-fired pizzerias] Pasquale Jones and Roberta’s - they are where I go and hang out to enjoy the food and vibe. When the opportunity to take this site arose it was our chance as The Social Company to do a version of a New York/Italian restaurant.

So nothing like your other restaurants then

I don’t want to replicate what we do. I like the fact that you can never get bored coming to our restaurants. You can have pizza here, sashimi [at Sosharu], an anniversary dinner at Pollen Street Social, go to Social Eating House and have a burger or steak, and go to Berners Tavern for the most luxurious Sunday lunch. 

There’s a lot of decent pizza places in the capital. What made you want to go head-to-head with them?

I’m no stranger to pizza. When I was 25 I spent time in California at places like Rose Pistola [in San Francisco] doing stages ready to open a restaurant in Manchester with Oliver Peyton. It was called Mash & Air and it had one of the first wood-fired pizzas in the country.

What’s on the menu?

The emphasis is on pizza. We’ve spent a lot of time working with Shipton Mill [in Gloucestershire] to get the right flour and we have a dough factory behind the bar where staff work throughout the night. It’s all about getting that real proper sour dough pizza that is crispy but has a bit of chew to it, too. There’s also some pasta dishes and grills and we do great gelato. Our kit for making gelato is as good as anywhere in London, it has to be otherwise why are we doing it? I could just stay at Pollen Street and Paul at Social Eating House and both of us just push for two stars. If we’re going to break off and do something different then we had better do it well.

New York meets Italy: Hai Cenato

Hai Cenato is more mainstream than other restaurants in the group...

We designed a concept that fits with the area and what people are looking for. You can come and have a pizza and a glass of wine and be back in the office in 20 minutes - and all for under £20. It’s very good value, but it needs to be for the location. Whatever genre of food at whatever price the quality has to be there - we are working hard every day as if we were chasing three Michelin stars. The day you think you can go into the mid market and do well just because you run fine dining restaurants is when you’re going to get bitten on the arse. You’ve got to pay attention to the fact that people have access to great pizza these days, whether it be Homeslice or Santa Maria. The choice is massive. We need to be as good as them, if not better, because they are charging the same price as we are.

Slice work if you can get it: Atherton will get top chefs to design toppings 

The restaurant has lots of chef caricatures on the walls. How come?

When you go to New York Italian restaurants you often see pictures of owner with celebrities and politicians and I wanted to recreate that. I though about doing a wall of famous London criminals but it was a bit cheesy. Then I though I’d get caricatures of all my favourite chefs. I’m a patron of Hospitality Action and every month one chef will suggest a pizza topping, with money from the sale of that pizza going to the charity - the first is Tom Kerridge’s ground spiced venison pizza with salami and gorgonzola. They can suggest any pizza topping and then we create it and tell them if it tastes good. There’s around 150 chef caricatures in total so it’s going to run for a while.

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