Sat Bains is one of the UK’s most prolific chefs. He started his career at the first branch of Raymond Blanc’s Le Petit Blanc in Oxford back in 1996, before going on to become head chef at Hotel des Clos in Nottingham, which was relaunched as Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in November 2002.
The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2003, becoming the first restaurant in Nottingham to do so. In 2011, the restaurant was upgraded to two Michelin stars and has held on to them ever since. Bains has also acted as a mentor for some of the most exciting chefs in the UK right now, including Niall Keating who oversees Whatley Manor and Gareth Ward who operates Ynyshir in Wales.
Despite his career stretching across a 20 year period, Bains is showing no sign of slowing down. We caught up with the man himself to chat Michelin, how his restaurant is helping the environment and what he considers to be the perfect fish finger sandwich recipe.
Restaurant Sat Bains has held two Michelin stars since 2011. Are stars ever guaranteed?
You never expect to get a star, because you’re being assessed every year and things can change a lot within a year. The good thing about Michelin is that it’s a nice way to not get complacent and a reminder to not take anything for granted. We always make sure we’re trying to improve year on year and work very hard to give our customers a world class experience.
Do you think the Michelin guide is still relevant?
Michelin is the standard bearer for high end gastronomy all over the world. It’s the guide – everyone knows what it means and chefs obviously aspire to that and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Michelin inspectors are unbiased, they pay for their meal, they’re discreet and they come and go like a normal guest – surely that’s the best way to be assessed.
How does it feel to have so many people who worked under you go on to have great success?
I think it’s phenomenal. It’s all their own hard work but it’s nice and makes me very proud that they’ve come through our doors. They’ve gone off and started their own careers, but they’ve also taken a bit of us with them. I’m trying to make my way round all of their restaurants, but there’s quite a few to get through – it’s hard to keep up with them all!
You recently refurbished the bedrooms at the venue – what changes have been made?
It’s completely changed in terms of the design – we’ve got beautifully designed luxury wallpaper that gives that sumptuous feel. Most hotels that I know of are designed by men, which doesn’t make sense – when my wife Amanda designs a room, she thinks about things like how far away the plug socket is from the mirror for the hairdryer and those little touches that a man wouldn’t necessarily consider. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not a hotel where you stay for three nights, but we want to make our guests' overnight stay as comfortable as possible.
Sustainability is a big topic right now – what does your restaurant do to be eco-conscious?
We just put our first solar panels in four weeks ago, which will give us an 18% reduction on our electricity usage, which is phenomenal. We also put waste from the kitchen onto a compost heap, we grow our own herbs on the grounds, we’ve got a beehive for honey and we’ve ditched linen tablecloths in favour of tables made from deer hide. If you count it all out, there are lots of tiny things we’ve done which ultimately add up to a big contribution. Of course, the best way [my wife] Amanda and I have helped the environment is by not having any kids!
With plant-based dining on the rise, how have you adapted your menus to accommodate vegetarian and vegan diners?
Of course we have plant-based dishes, but we’re not a vegetarian restaurant. We do cater for vegetarians, but we don’t currently cater for vegan or halal and that’s my choice – I can’t go to a vegan restaurant and order a steak, so I think that’s fair. I grew up on vegetarian food as both of my parents are from Punjab, so 80% of my childhood diet was chickpea curries and dhal, and I’ve had some brilliant vegan dishes in my time too, but it’s just not what my restaurant is about.
What would you say to people who think tasting menus are outdated?
About two years ago Daniel Clifford [who operates two Michelin-starred Midsummer House] announced that tasting menus are dead, but in less than four months he went back to tasting menus – but no one talks about that. Tasting menus aren’t dead, but when you get lazy chefs who just put their à la carte dishes onto a tasting menu, that doesn’t work out.
The way I look at a tasting menu is similar to going to the theatre or watching a film; you need that contrast of the peak and flow of the meal, so it’s got to be thought out. You can’t be lazy with a tasting menu, as you have to be thinking about contrast, balance, texture and temperature. When you nail that, your guests are left with a world class experience.
Do you think it’s important to hire chefs and staff from the local area?
We encourage chefs from the local area to apply for jobs here, but I’m not necessarily going to hire them. It’s never been about locality per se, as I want the best team from all over the world. However, I do support local chefs through my annual Young Chef of the Year competition, as I’ve lived in Nottingham for 20 years now and I really want the area to do well.
Have you experienced difficulty with hiring chefs in what’s becoming a very competitive market?
There’s so much competition, but we’re lucky because we offer a four day week, a pension, five weeks holiday, health insurance, staff meals etc. We’ve had to do that out of our own pocket in order to be competitive in the market. We treat our staff as part of the family because we want to make sure they’re having a great time and we want to see them grow. We are a breeding ground for talent, but you have to nurture it.
Are you worried about the impact Brexit will have on your restaurant and the UK restaurant scene in general?
We’ve seen the effects creeping in already in terms of prices, such as the cost of wine exports. The thing about Brexit though is that no one knows what’s going to happen and that’s why we’re all in limbo. We’re all just looking at each other and not knowing, so it’s quite a weird time in the UK. We’re quite an embarrassing country to the world right now.
What would you say is the secret to your success?
I think the secret is consistency, evolution and experimentation. I’m pushing harder now than I’ve ever pushed – we have 48 staff now, and there was only seven when I started. Success is about that desire to not give up and a striving to be better than you were yesterday. Ultimately, you’re in competition with yourself.
What do you think about the role of social media in food and people taking pictures of food at restaurants?
It’s impossible to deny the impact of social media in food. It’s a great marketing tool at the end of the day – it’s about utilising it in its purest form for positivity. You’ll get the odd person who says something negative because they want attention, but the beautiful thing about social media is you can block people. I’ve no problem with people taking pictures of food for Instagram in my restaurant either, because as soon as a dish leaves the kitchen, it belongs to the guest. Just don’t complain the food is cold once you eat it!
Sat's Quick Bites:
Favourite thing to cook at home?
I love to cook eggs; they’re one of my favourite ingredients.
What would be your death-row meal?
My wife makes mind blowing fish finger sandwiches. Jumbo fish fingers from Waitrose, sourdough bread, layered with lettuce, red onion, capers, jalapenos, pickles, cucumber, mayonnaise, ketchup and sriracha in buttered bread.
Guilty food pleasure?
I love chocolate – I grew up on Dairy Milk. I know it’s not the best chocolate, but because it’s a childhood thing there is a real sense of nostalgia there.
Describe your cooking style in three words
Creative, honest and consistent.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I think I’d be an artist. I love that field of creativity and freedom. I’d probably be a painter or maybe even a graffiti artist – it could have been Bainsy instead of Banksy!
If you love dining in Michelin-starred establishments, discover every Michelin-starred restaurant in London.