Sat Bains quite literally stands head and shoulders above other chefs. He talks to Mark Sansom about his rise to the top of the industry
To look at him, Sat Bains has no right to create the food that he does. Measuring almost 6ft 4in with bear paw hands attached to tree trunk arms, his food is an impeccable dichotomy.
As Food and Travel meets with Bains on a blazing-hot afternoon, he’s testing dishes that are soon to be aired on the seven- or ten-course tasting menu at his eponymous Nottingham restaurant with rooms. A ‘minestrone’ of melon and carrot made with aged soy, dashi and olive oil delivers a blast of umami, sweetness and smoke unrivalled in its intensity. The flavour comes as sharply as an intravenous injection of beauty, straight to the palate. Just how does he do it? Where does it come from?
‘It’s difficult to talk about your own food as a “thing”,’ Bains contemplates. ‘Inspiration can come from Gaudí, from Anish Kapoor, from music, but it is the deliverance and impact on the mouth that takes it to another level. Creating a dish is a fluid process. It can take up to 40 iterations for it to feel complete. The minestrone is about 70 per cent there and we’ll probably add another ten per cent to it today. When it’s ready, I’ll know.’ Listening to Bains speak about food in such existential terms is like listening to one of the great masters describe their muse. Indeed, his plates are nothing short of art.
Bains is a rare breed of chef who hasn’t spent years in the kitchens of other cooks. He realised at an early age that his food philosophy wasn’t quite aligned with anyone else’s. Sure, he respected what they produced but it wasn’t his. There are, however, a couple key junctures in his career that he credits with making him the chef he is today.
‘I won the Roux Scholarship in 1999, which gives you the chance to work at any three- star [Michelin restaurant] in the world,’ says Bains. ‘I was desperate to work with Michel Bras. I loved his work with vegetables and edible flowers – it takes so much more skill to cook well with these. When Michel Roux Snr told me I couldn’t because he only had two stars, I was devastated,’ he slumps. ‘Though I heard that Laurent Pourcel, who had worked for Bras, had just moved to Montpellier and the three-star Le Jardin des Sens. I had to go.’ Within the week the apprenticeship was sourced and the flights were booked.
‘It was insane. I arrived early and walked the streets around the restaurant for three days and realised how beautiful produce could be. I went into the kitchen with a load of confidence but soon realised it wasn’t going to be reciprocated - they were French, after all.
‘A couple of days in, I saw a guy in the corner of the kitchen who wasn’t looking down his nose at me and seemed normal. We hit it off immediately. We’d go out for drinks, smoke cigarettes and have a great laugh.’ That boy in the corner? René Redzepi, chef-patron at Noma, the Danish restaurant that held the world No.1 spot for three years. And so began a 20-year friendship and hive mind that exists to this day.
‘One weekend, René suggested that we go to Spain and try a restaurant called El Bulli; I’d never heard of it,’ laughs Bains. ‘We spent the morning in Girona looking around Dalí’s Theatre and Museum in Figueres, which was phenomenal. We were completely absorbed and taken in the moment.
‘That evening we were booked in at El Bulli. René was talking about a caviar and bone marrow dish. I thought it sounded disgusting. We walked in and I wasn’t impressed. Shabby fabric banquettes, old tables; it didn’t look like much. And then the food started coming out,’ Bains pauses for a big slurp of espresso and seems to gather himself. ‘They brought out this exploding ravioli with squid ink and coconut juice and it stopped me in my tracks. We didn’t talk; just ate.
‘Then I then went to the loo and caught a glimpse of the kitchen. It was surreal. Out front is this family style restaurant and here it looks as if a spaceship has been stuck on the side: brilliant white, loads of glass with everyone moving in silence. There was a bloody great bull’s head on the pass. Nothing made sense. I loved it.
‘We must have been high on the experience as we had the audacity to go up to the chef and challenged him to make us a dish off the cuff. He turned out foie gras with fig ice cream and caramel sauce. It was the perfect match of taste, texture and temperature.’ The two young chefs looked at each other and realised they had a lot of work to do.
Fast-forward 20 years and now it’s Bains and Redzepi’s restaurants where young chefs come to be inspired. As we sit chatting in his restaurant’s beautiful conservatory space, a young Korean chef who Bains met in Melbourne appears unannounced, dragging a suitcase. Within the hour, he is in his whites and peeling onions. Cheffing, it seems, is a community without barriers.
‘It was a real drop-out’s job in my day,’ says Bains. ‘Chefs smoked too much, drank too much, some took drugs. We didn’t know about minimum wage or anything like that – the job just took as long as it took. The industry changed at the same time as football. As David Beckham started washing his hair and wearing a skirt, chefs started looking after themselves and became professional.’
Does he dish out the “it wasn’t like that in my day” lectures? ‘Not a chance. The chefs of today are educated. They’ve got gastrophysics and food science degrees and choose the industry. Their environment needs to reflect that.’
Bains was the first chef to introduce a four-day working week back in 2015. Michel Roux Jr followed suit at Le Gavroche last year. ‘We recorded a six-figure loss in year one but if we’re keeping current with the menu and service, this needs to extend to their work-life balance,’ he says. ‘Don’t get me wrong, they still do serious hours but when I turn the key on a Saturday, they know that their section will be the same as they left it. They can have a lie in, do their admin and research and come in on Wednesday raring to go.’
You can imagine, then, that if someone isn’t on their ‘A’ game it doesn’t go down well. ‘If you walk into work in a bad mood, don’t bother. We can do without you,’ says Bains. ‘If they’re doing a brilliant job 80 per cent of the time then I need to nurture the other 20 per cent. During service, I keep them at a very high level of stress and anxiety. When they’re in the zone their reaction time is so fast. They can deal with anything.’ Sportsmen describe this state as ‘flow’ – a period of operation in complete energised focus where time appears to move slowly. Whether Bains realises it or not, he’s coaching one of the most advanced psychological principles on the planet.
Indeed, Bains’s restaurant is modern in every respect. In Nucleus he has one of the most futuristic test kitchens in the country. In his dining room, he’s whipped off the linen and replaced it with deer hide tables using game from nearby Wollaton Park to improve acoustics. Outside, there’s a vertical garden where herbs grow to head height in a riot of colour and fragrance.
As we’re in Nottingham, we can’t afford to follow trends,’ he says. ‘To stay relevant we have to be ahead of the curve. Some chefs will jump on a bandwagon and that just isn’t me. Like when René opened, they didn’t have enough waiters, so they sent chefs out to serve guests. Within a month, everyone was doing it without questioning why.
‘The point is that chefs aren’t good waiters. They don’t know about topping up glasses. They’ve got dirty fingernails and they smell of fish – let the waiters do their job and stop copying people.’
You can never accuse Bains of pandering to trends, or criticism, for that matter. ‘Would you like my feedback on your food?’ a diner experienced in eating in Michelin restaurants asked him. ‘Yeah, sure,’ Bains said. ‘But I’m not going to listen. Just because I’ve listened to music all my life, it doesn’t mean I’m an expert.’ In a world of trailblazing chefs, Bains really is in a league of his own.