Interview: Sat Bains

Photos: Dom Henry
Interview: Al Needham
Tuesday 26 January 2010
reading time: min, words

"You should cook with a bit of love...a bit of skill and technique"


Sat Bains is in possession of the only Michelin star in Notts, has been described as the most wildly inventive chef to emerge from Britain since Heston Blumenthal, and drags in gourmets from all over the country to a shed in Lenton to sample his extraordinarily British take on Modern French cuisine. He also might just be coming to the Lace Market very soon…

Nice place you’ve got here, Sat. Tell us about it…
Well, it’s in a very obscure location under a flyover and a pylon. I love it. Years ago when I was working at Jesse's restaurant, which used to be the original Jesse Boots in Hockley, I said to the owner that I'd love to be the first Nottingham chef to have a Michelin star restaurant - and I'd like it to be in a shed, so that it would be the food that drove everyone there. I've not done half bad, I think.

Was it purpose-built?
It was originally a farmhouse. About twenty six years ago a chap bought the whole place on auction - it was derelict and he did it up. Because it's an obscure location, it allows me to be a little bit more creative with the food; if I was in the city it would have to be a bit more mainstream. 

How long have you lived in Notts?
I'm originally from Derby. Being from the East Midlands is something I'm very proud of. Nottingham's my home now, my wife is from here. This region is very rich with cuisine - the whole middle of the country is. I've travelled a little bit and I've worked for a small amount of time in London, a little bit in France, but I was always going to come back. 

Why’s that?
I never wanted a restaurant in a big city like London. I always wanted a locality that had a bit of heritage and was rich with culture - but also where my food will excite people and make them travel. I go to London quite a lot to eat and it's some of the most boring food in the country because it's easy - everyone's on your doorstep, so you haven't got to try. We have to try here, every single week, to get people to come down that lane.

What drove you towards cookery?
Originally I went to college as all my mates were doing A-levels, to carry on the fun of being a kid, mainly. I didn't know what I was going to do when I enrolled, but then I saw this queue with loads of girls in, so I joined up - and it was cooking. Food’s always played a big part in my culture - it's a big part of the Punjabi community. I’ve always loved communicating and having that interaction with people around a table. So that's probably one of the reasons that I love it.

You've done quite a bit of TV work. Is that something you're keen to do more of?
Yeah, I did The Great British Menu and gained massive exposure, but I never really wanted a TV career. This is what I do (chops goose in half). I'm a chef.  I think you should be known for your first job. That's what gives you the credibility. The key to doing TV work is to keep yourself very grounded, and hopefully do it in a way that is good for the business. The other TV chefs are earning a living and I can't really knock them - that's their choice and you've got to respect them. After I did The Great British Menu I was offered lots of bits and bobs on the side but I turned a lot of them down because it would have took me away from what I loved doing. 

Everyone’s into locally-sourced produce these days. What’s your policy?
At the moment, about 85-90% of it is British. I've got about 175 suppliers for this restaurant, and probably about 160 of them are British. We use things that are very much in season - like our asparagus, which only has a six-week season in this country, rather than getting it from Peru or wherever. There's nothing worse than seeing strawberries in supermarkets in winter, when we all know that English strawberries are fantastic and incomparable to any in the rest of the world. My parents are from the Punjab, but I'm British and I want to celebrate the heritage of British cuisine, done with a bit of excitement and make it click a little. I've always looked at the ingredients as a key start - the chef's just the middleman to the customer.

What's your favourite ingredient?
I'll be honest, I haven't really got one. I love everything. It could be a pilchard or it could be a lobster or a truffle or it could be macaroni cheese - If it's done well, it's incredible. That's what I love about food; it doesn't matter what level it's cooked at, whether it's Michelin star or no Michelin star - if it's cooked well then it's delicious.

How did it feel when you got your star?
It was great to get the recognition. Ultimately, we're striving to be a very good restaurant and I think accolades will come as you strive to slowly climb that ladder. But it's a great thing for businesses in this climate and it puts you in good stead - but then the pressure's on to deliver. It gets reviewed every year, but I don't lose any sleep in the month preceding. It's a nice time for the industry - because everyone is nervous and want to know who got promoted, who got demoted,  but it's like the Oscars; everyone's intrigued for about a week and a half, and then as soon as the guide's out it's like it never existed and everyone carries on as it was before. 

You’re one of the pricier restaurants in Notts. What makes your place so much better than, say, somewhere that charges twenty quid a head?
Ingredients. We buy some of the most expensive ingredients in Britain; we pay top dollar. Our venison will cost anything from £20 per kilo, because it's the best. Our fish will cost anything from £16 per kilo, because it's the best. Hopefully the customer will appreciate that. They’re also paying for skilled man-hours. We are giving you something elevated - there's nothing wrong with simple food that's done really well, but the skill level elsewhere is lower. I've got seven chefs in here producing some of the finest food in Britain.

We’ve saw a lot of very good restaurants in Notts go to the wall in 2009. Do you worry about the recession?
Oh, you've got to worry. It's the only recession I've ever had a business in, so I'm obviously concerned – but it makes you a little bit more aggressive in your business model. I think the key to survival is offering a bit more of yourself to your guests; you raise your customer service skills, because they want to remember the experience even more.

What mistakes do you see other restaurants in town making?
I wouldn't say I see mistakes; I just see what their beliefs are. They've got their own way of running their own business and I'd never be that naive to say that I knew how to run everyone’s restaurant. It's about the delivery of the product; a lot of restaurants in town, I believe, are trying to specialise in fine dining, which is OK when they're doing fifty to sixty covers in the week, but when they're doing 120 covers at the weekend that can go out of the window. We're a 36-seat restaurant and it's very, very hard to keep a high standard all of the time.

Do you think there are too many restaurants in Nottingham?
No. There’s a good diverse range in town and with a lot of choice. I don't like seeing restaurants close, put it that way - it depresses me, because you want Nottingham to be a vibrant city and sustain itself. Even though there’s a recession on, people in Nottingham are still supporting their restaurants

What are your favourite nosheries in town?
I love Cumin on Maid Marion Way and Wagamamas in the Cornerhouse - I went for a quick bowl of soup there the other week and felt absolutely invigorated. Takeaways? It depends, really. It could be Pizza Express, it could be anything - but I love Midhuna, a really good Punjabi curry. I love MemSaab, it's really great there. Obviously I'm talking about Indian restaurants here, which is probably because I miss my Mum's cooking and it's the closest I can get to it. 

Do you ever send anything back?
I'm not really a fussy eater, I'll eat anything. I never complain - I don't think being a chef warrants me a complaint. If I don't like somewhere, I just won't go back.

One of the general perceptions about chefs is that they're horrible bastards to their staff. Is that a cliché?
Ask 'em, they're all here…

Is he a bastard to you, mate?
Chef:  No, he isn't.
Sat: Ha! You're after more money, you are! I'm not paying you any more! Nah, it's a cliché - if you were, you wouldn't have any staff. Yes, you've got to discipline them, make sure they're on the right track - it's my obligation to my team to make sure that I don't waste my time or theirs. I've got to show them the path I believe they should go on. If I’m sloppy or lenient then they're not learning anything, so I'm actually jeopardising my own career. When they move on you want them to excel - you don't want them to say 'when I was at Sat's he allowed me to do this'.

What role does your wife play in the running of the business?
She's the gaffer, I'd be stupid not to say that. She looks after the whole thing; she's the GM, she's the director, she looks after the whole of the front of house staff. She oversees everything front of house, I oversee everything back of house. She allows me to keep the eye on the ball and focus on what I'm best at.

What do you do in your spare time - if you have any?
We're closed two days a week, so once you've done all the usual shopping for the restaurant then I like to play squash or badminton. I like to go out to eat with my family.  I'm just a regular guy, really. There's nothing extravagant there, just what you enjoy to recuperate for another week of hard graft. Two days off is a godsend, as it means you can actually relax and that you can switch off and recharge which is crucial. I'm normally here between half eight and nine in the morning - then I break around two-ish. Then I'm back at half four and then finish about half one in the morning. It's a long slog, but I've done it twenty two years and don't know any different. 

What are your plans for the future?
Well, we're looking at a site in town to do something really, really exciting. It’s going to be nice and relaxed and accessible to a lot of people. The food in here is very high-end and special occasion, and we want to take that to a larger audience. Because I love food, I don't think there should have to be a hierarchy. Just because you get a Michelin star you shouldn’t put your barriers up. You should cook with a bit of love, a bit of skill and technique - on a par with the best things you've ever tasted. I like the Lace Market - it's a nice area with a lot of footfall. We’d fit in well there.

What advice would you give people who were thinking about starting up their own restaurant?
Do your research, know the level you want to aspire to, and do your homework. Give yourself a five or ten year plan, think where you want to be and every year assess it - are you still on track? That's a really good piece of advice that I was given when I was a young lad, and it was invaluable to me.

If you could make punters change one thing to improve the quality of the food they eat, what would it be?
Source your ingredients better. The less food miles ingredients have done, the fresher it is, and you will actually taste the difference. You don’t have to go to great lengths - the Farmer's Market is in the Square, every two weeks, and it's a great way to get some really good butter, meat and fish that you wouldn’t get in the supermarkets - proper old school shopping.

You're on Death Row, and can request a last meal. What is it?
I love my Mum's samosas. A dozen samosas and a pint of milk. Brilliant.

Restaurant Sat Bains with rooms

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