In coversation with Sat Bains

Published 11 October 2019

From the location of his restaurant to the title of his book, Sat Bains is clearly a chef of singular vision and determination. For nearly 20 years he has been one of the most famous faces in hospitality. Lisa Markwell asks him about his life, work and rumoured book obsession. 

Sat Bains has two Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant in Nottingham. He runs the Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms business with his wife Amanda and they are a formidable team: focused on delivering exemplary food and service. Bains has clear views on expansion, training chefs and the commitment required to stay at the top of the game. 

He was brought up in a Punjabi family and was required to work in the family shop before and after school. He says that when he learnt to cook, his mother “said I was turning gay, but my older sister said ‘let him do it’. So I did, and what I loved was it was so far removed from home life. I loved the discipline of the neck tie and polished shoes.” 

He got a job in a restaurant at 18 and met the-then 16-year-old Amanda at a hotel in Derby. “My parents found out and kicked me out of our house, so I had two bin liners of clothes and my mum said, ‘I never want to see you again’.”  

Many teenagers might struggle without family help, but Bains sees it differently. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to me, because it meant I was independent from the family. I wasn’t tied into that whole arranged marriage, the cultural background of having to be a dutiful son, the only son carrying the name on. You know, there was a lot of pressure.” 

He continued his upward path in hospitality, becoming a head chef at 24 and adds, “It was seven eight years later that I reconnected with my family.” 

How do you feel your largely self-taught career has made you different from other chefs? 

I have never had any mentorship, so the creative side has outshone the acquisition of a skill set. I can think really well and know how a dish is going to be, and I can prepare it. But I am never going to be as good as say someone like Nathan at filleting fish, because he’s filleting thousands of them, I haven’t. I’m never going to be as good as someone doing butchery, because I hadn’t been at a restaurant where they have had to do pig trotters. So my skill-set came from a free and open mind – that for me is the biggest bonus. But there is an element of me possibly feeling like an imposter. Like I’m not the best as fishmongery, so am I actually a two-star chef? Well, I am a two-star chef with my food.” 

You’re very clear about what a young chef coming to work at Restaurant Sat Bains should expect… 

We have very talented people that come through our doors. The ones that have passed through, they hopefully going to be able to make it, because I teach them how to think, how to taste, how to cook a very specific way. I’m not going to say my way’s the right way, but I do nurture people into a very specific way that opens up doors. They not taught normally, they’re taught to think. ‘Why you doing that? Do you think it needs that? Do you think it needs more acidity? Why are we doing that? Does that go before that one? Do we need that?’ Where a lot of chefs just say that’s how a dish should be cooked; that’s my dish. But I’m saying, ‘What do you think?’ We make chefs who question – and it creates this whole new genre of chef, for me, a more thinking chef. 

Not saying you’ve peaked but are you ready to take it a little easier now, rather than keep searching for inspiration? 

I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve done that now; now I’m reversing it… I hate the idea of becoming a chef for 30 years and leaving the kitchen. That’s when you’re at your peak. You should be in the kitchen, because that’s what you’re passing onto your team. That’s what my guys are gleaning from, we’re working shoulder to shoulder. I’m not coming in every Wednesday and bollocking them all, saying ‘why’s that shit?’, or giving John a hard time over the phone, ’cause someone’s complained on TripAdvisor. I’m here, Amanda’s here. We’re hands on. We’ve given ourselves a four-day week, and we work very hard for four days. That gives us the best possible chance to perform at the highest level. That’s the difference. 

So presumably that’s a reason why you haven’t expanded and opened more restaurants? 

If I had two or three restaurants, I couldn’t do this. I don’t know if it’s inspiring, but I think contentment comes later. I know in terms of aspiration, I’ve got a house I want to live in, I got a nice car, we can go wherever on holiday, so I’ve got no wants: I don’t think I will ever buy another watch, because I’ve got three. What do you want more for? It’s just ego. 

We all go through the stages and life’s ups and downs and crises and all that, but if you break all of that away, happiness is key. Success comes from being content and having a great team that I will inspire and who inspire me every day.  

We’ve had opportunities [to expand], but we haven’t taken them, because we only wanted one. Well, we wanted one other one year ago and we didn’t get it and we were glad, because I think if you put all your effort into one, you can hopefully achieve a very high level of success. If you then dilute by two you only going to care a certain percentage and that’s going to be 70%, but you’ve got to be happy with 70%. I’m not happy with 70%. I’m happy with 90 plus. So I’m giving myself the best chance to perform at 90+%. That’s from the heart. 

Let’s be honest. Why would you open five restaurants? I mean, fucking hell I haven’t got enough drive. I don’t know what it feels like. Also, if you want to taste the food you’ve got to come here. I’m not going to take a bastardised version of it to fucking Italy or Australia. It doesn’t make sense. You get on a flight and you come to Nottingham. Why not? 

We’ve talked about you having children but you do say you’ve got 48… professionally! 

And we have a very, very strict hierarchy system. Amanda’s very disciplined with the guys, I’m very disciplined with the guys, but we’re very firm but fair. We give you the tools, we give you the environment, and we give you the food to eat that’s going to give you the nutrients you need to perform at very high levels. 

You’ve just got to turn up now. And perform. And if you don’t there’s an issue. 

We should get a subs bench, so if a guy’s fucking up, you sit him on the bench until he’s ready. That’s something we should do. Go there and sit. 

Where do you stand on bloggers/influencers/Michelin star collectors? 

They take photographs and comment on the food they’ve eaten and give themselves credibility… I’ve been cooking for 30 years and I’ve eaten all over the world. I still know fuck all. I know what I like, but I know from a technical point if something’s wrong, that’s cold, that’s not cooked right that’s still got a pin bone in, whatever it is, but I’m not going to start slagging it off. ‘Cause I’m from the kitchen.  

I’ve got friends that all they do is, they can’t wait to go to the restaurant to fucking unleash terror. And I just don’t want to go out with them, if you’re not going to sit at a table and become ‘one’. I fell in love with cooking was because as a Punjabi family we always used to eat together. So we enjoyed that communal eating, sharing chapatis. And that stuck with me – And I love that shit. And with these foodies that have become collectors, their voice is hollow. 

But you are on social media… 

Instagram for me is a way for me to put my ideas out there, and that works. And when I put a new dish out there, and people say, ‘Oh my god I’m there on Friday, is it on?’ It works as a tool. My feed is genuine – it’s mine, no one edits it, no one looks after it. I just feel that’s a really direct way to talk to people about certain things. 

It may or may not be true, but I read that you have 700-800 cookbooks. 

Yeah, easily 900. I’ve got loads here, but some are in the lock-up. What’s interesting, and this really pisses me off, is that when I was a kid I couldn’t afford more than two a year. Now everyone gives them to me for free. That’s how that works! 

But I’m not reading them now ’cause I didn’t buy them, ’cause when you bought them you read them for a whole year and really protected them. I was like, ‘Shut the window, Amanda, the sun’s on it!’ 

It was the most beautiful thing you ever had, someone’s life in a book. Now it’s like ‘fuckin’ hell, I’ve got 28-30 books not read. Now the ones I do like, because of the staff meals, are the family ones – Marcus did a family one, so did Tom Kitchin. We give them to the boys and they do recipes from them. So we’re eating Marcus’s food.

Can you choose any of those 900 books that you use or revere the most? 

I’ve actually sous vided some of them. So there’s the Great Chefs of France, Michel Bra, and René’s first one. They’re sous vided to protect them! I love the Repertoire de la Cuisine, that’s one of my favourites, Escoffier… I love French food, I love sauces. Sauce for me is a true skill. 

Do you spend time with other chefs

I never had a mentor and it’s because I have come from a different background, with a different mindset. I never came from a legacy of chefs. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really get along with other chefs. I get on with about a handful… I’m not a typical chefs’ chef.  

You know, I am really bad at communication. With chefs, friends, I never text them, I never talk to them, I never ring them. I’m very insular, but I’m very extrovert when it comes to food. For me it’s an expression of my artistic output. I use all my energy at the restaurant, but then I’m very private and personal away from here.  

I am very bad at keeping in touch. So when I’m with Claude [Bosi], who is a friend, we have to plot like two days in. Otherwise I won’t see him. 

It’s not because I don’t want to, I don’t know why, the reasoning. It’s ’cause I’m probably happy just being. I’m not thinking ‘when am I going to see you again?’ or ‘shit I must speak to Jason, or should I text him?’ And it’s not because I’m not thinking of him, it’s just a trait I’ve got and we talk about it a lot, but I don’t know why. If no one texts me, I would probably not text anyone again. That’s how extreme it is. It’s weird isn’t it? It’s not that I don’t care, It’s like if I text you out of the blue and you would be like ‘Fuckin’ hell Sat, how you doing?’ And we’d be back on… 

Do you think about the future? 

Ultimately, I think we would like to end up in Australia. To retire, but I would like to have a business out there, just like a small little café, nothing crazy. I’ve been there about 20 times and that’s where we feel the happiest, in Australia. 

We love Nottingham, we love this, but I think if you going to look at a life span I would say we’ve got another 30 or 40 years hopefully, if we’re healthy. I like the idea of an ending, I like something just stopping and not carrying on, thinking ‘Oh my god, we got to keep on going’. What for? Who for?

This article was first published in Issue 19 of CODE Quarterly.  

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