At last October’s Michelin Guide launch, Whatley Manor executive chef Niall Keating took to the stage for a one-on-one interview with presenter Amanda Stretton. Among the questions she put to the Michelin Young Chef Award winner was what it had been like working for Sat Bains (Keating was chef de partie at his restaurant between 2013 and 2015), which he didn’t appear comfortable answering in front of a room full of people. It was a loaded question, which seemed to seek validation of Bains’ fearsome reputation in the kitchen.
The incident is brought up as a relaxed Bains sits in the dining room of his two-Michelin starred restaurant in Nottingham. He recalls watching the Michelin ceremony via a live feed while in New York on a Roux Scholarship trip – he won the coveted title in 1999 – having been informed by Keating he was being asked the question beforehand. “What was that about?” he laughs. “He froze. I sent him a text afterwards full of emojis.”
"IT IS THE ‘P’ WORD – PRESSURE – THAT REALLY GETS BAINS SALIVATING."
But surely there’s no smoke without fire? If you were to imagine any chef being tough in the kitchen it would be Bains, a man mountain of muscle for whom Mike Tyson is a huge inspiration (for his boxing, nothing else) because of his “disciplined aggression”. Bains’ Instagram feed – the avatar of which is a rather mean looking black and white portrait – features numerous posts of his considerable frame and punishing exercise regime, often with selfies taken after having pushed himself to breaking point, and he’s no stranger to the odd spat on social media. With that in mind, what’s he like in the kitchen? “It was a strange question,” he admits, considering it further. “But if you ask people what I’m like, I would hope they would say I am firm but fair.”
Bains is one of the most recognisable chefs cooking in kitchens today. At the age of 47, he is very much part of the old guard – to which fellow chefs (and in many cases friends) Tom Kerridge, Jason Atherton, Marcus Wareing, Daniel Clifford and Claude Bosi belong – a group not afraid of tough talking and ‘pushing on’ despite such an attitude having become less fashionable with today’s more mild-mannered younger chefs. Chefs and friends are known affectionately as ‘chief’, and he is also addressed in this manner.
The pursuit of perfection
But Bains is no relic. In fact, Restaurant Sat Bains (RSB) is arguably one of the most progressive dining rooms in the country, (it was recently named the fourth best in the world by TripAdvisor) with the Nottingham venue offering a number of different dining experiences, including Nucleus, a restaurant located within its development kitchen; the four-seat Kitchen Bench within the pastry kitchen; and the eight-cover Chef’s Table. The highly technical set menus are micromanaged and tweaked almost on a daily basis, with the self-taught chef continually questioning everything in pursuit of perfection.
He and wife Amanda, who co-runs the business, were also early adopters of the four-day week at the restaurant, introduced to give their staff a better work-life balance. Staff are given free health insurance based on how long they have worked at the restaurant and family meals have been specifically created to provide slow-release carbs to keep the team focused.
But it is also an oddity. The “working-class two-star restaurant”, in Bains’ own words, was originally Hotel des Clos, located in a far from salubrious part of Nottingham on the River Trent, at which he worked for a number of years before buying the property and getting his name above the door. In 2003, it won its first Michelin star, and gained a second eight years later.
Much has been made of the restaurant’s location under a busy flyover, but even to describe it as this is to underplay the incongruity of this fine-dining operation. Set on the bend of a nondescript and shabby lane off a huge roundabout, it’s seconds away from an Audi car dealership on one side and an Asda park and ride on the other, in the shadows of an electricity pylon.
On our visit, the constant drone of the traffic above on the Clifton Bridge flyover was competing with the loud hailer shouts of the police diving team training on the nearby river. If a trip to ElBulli was designed as one to remember, the journey to Restaurant Sat Bains is one to forget.
But then that’s the point. For Bains, the location is perfect – and purposeful – with him actively seeking a down-at-heel part of town for his juxtaposition. “When you strip away the location and the drive down, you’ve only got the food to rely on,” he explains. “You see restaurants in all these lovely locations, but how much is it about the food? Here, you only have the one thing to attract people to come, unlike Hambleton Hall or Le Manoir or Chewton Glen. It makes you work harder.”
'P' is for pressure
The location hasn’t been without its challenges, but Bains wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s applied a massive amount of pressure to us, and has taken a long time, but applying that pressure made me perform.” While the pressure cooker environment in kitchens has come under a lot of negative scrutiny of late, he is a firm believer that, when applied correctly, it is an essential part of running a highly ambitious restaurant.
With pressure comes control, but also clarity. RSB runs in a very deliberate way to get the best out of its chefs but to also ensure corners aren’t cut and excuses aren’t made. As well as giving staff a better work-life balance, the four-day week is designed to get the optimum performance out of them. Open from Wednesday to Saturday, there are two different shift patterns, 7am till 1pm and 4pm till close (front of house does a straight shift and one breakfast shift a week), giving staff plenty of time off. But when they are in the kitchen, he expects them to perform.
“You know you’ve got to work hard when you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of pressure that’s applied at the correct point to make you better. I put that pressure on myself every day - I’ve got to perform as a restaurateur and a chef because if I took a back seat I don’t think it would all fall apart but there would be errors. Errors I’m not willing to allow because I’ve given us the best chance to perform.” The four-day week means he can always be in the kitchen (Bains often uses his days off to eat outside of the UK), something that is important to him. “I don’t want people saying they worked at RSB and never saw me. I want them to say we created dishes together and pushed forward. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 47, I can do what I want, but I want to be here.”
Eliminating excuses is something Bains is also hot on, and his operation evolved with this firmly in mind. He recalls a time early on at the restaurant when he had to go with the owner to House of Fraser to buy a £12 blender for the kitchen. “I knew it wouldn’t last and it didn’t. When we could afford it, we bought a Vita-Prep 3, which is the best money can buy, so now if I get a lumpy purée it means it’s human error. I’m giving [my staff] a world-class kitchen to perform at a world-class level, there’s no room for error. And if there is an error I can trace it back to the individual.
The pressure has to be mountable to the point that you are answerable to your own mis en place. When the pressure’s on, you’ve got to perform.” Is this where he gets his tough guy reputation from, then? “Maybe. But I have their best interests at heart. That means they get pulled up on everything, but that’s me doing my job, to create craftspeople of a certain ilk.
Am I soft with the boys and girls? Yes. Am I hard? There are times for that. But am I fair? Absolutely.” He leads by example. Bains trains in Israeli martial arts, and he and Amanda have also recently taken up yoga – things that put him out of his comfort zone. “I like the contrast of having a trainer and doing something I’ve no skill at. It means I’m also a blank canvas. If I believe I can still be taught something it helps when I tell other people things.
A stable for chefs
We’ve created a family that believes in a vision and a culture. A culture to say ‘I want to work here for a period of time that will enhance my career’.” RSB is a breeding ground for talent, evidenced by sous chef Laurence Henry recently being crowned winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2018. But unlike some chefs who choose to expand to hold onto the talent they have nurtured, Bains has no plans for a second restaurant, despite receiving loads of offers over the years. He understands that chefs come to learn from him and then leave.
“I’m not interested in opening other restaurants and keeping chefs with me. It’s an old school mentality. We are a stable that creates chefs – we teach them how to cook, how to think and how to create and, ultimately, they go off on their own way and use the philosophy we’ve taught them. I’m not collecting chefs. I want them to go and use the things they’ve learnt here and pass that forward. But you know an RSB chef when you meet one.”
This includes loyal staff such as right-hand man John Freeman, who has been at the restaurant for 17 years. “John is part of the DNA. He gave me the strength I needed early on in my career to do other things and we now support each other, side by side. I’d miss him sorely, but I can survive. I’m not going to keep someone who doesn’t want to be here.” RSB’s operational set-up reflects this policy.
A decade ago, Bains made the decision to overstaff in the kitchen by two chefs (it employs 13 but could work with 11) to not only ease the workload on the brigade but ensure the food doesn’t suffer if people leave. “The food is the most important thing, not me or my staff. Of course, my staff are important, but the food comes first.” Chefs that have passed through Bains’ kitchen include Keating; Ynyshir’s Gareth Ward; Ben Greeno; and Alex Bond, whose restaurant Alchemilla is also based in Nottingham.
In an interview last year, Bond revealed his old mentor hadn’t been in to try it. “The reason I haven’t been there is that it’s too similar to us,” Bains reasons. “I don’t want to eat our food in another restaurant. If [Alex] was doing something completely different, I’d be there every other week.”
"THIS POINT ON ENHANCING PEOPLE’S CAREERS IS SIGNIFICANT"
This begs the question: how easy it is for chefs to throw off a style of cooking like that at RSB, once they have been indoctrinated into it? RSB might be a breeding ground for talent, but how do people that pass through find their own niche? It’s one Bains struggles to answer at the time. Instead, he sleeps on it and comes back with a more considered response the following day. “They are going to struggle to get that identity,” he admits. “There’s such a force that we put over them and a very single-minded view, so when we get chefs who are quite impressionable it’s difficult for them to shake that off and get their own identity because they are not strong enough in their own character yet. “You’re not going to taste the true food of some of the guys who have left us until they are in their 40s, that’s just the way nature is. It’s very hard for a chef to find their own identity if they have worked somewhere quite influential. But one of my teachings is to think for yourself.”
Like other great autodidact chefs, Bains’ lack of formal culinary teaching has enabled him to approach his cooking from a fresh angle. He says that when he gets chefs in for a trial and asks them to create a dish, they automatically prepare it as at the last place they worked. “I never had that. If I had trained under Gordon or Marco, I’d have a heritage of dishes locked in my head, but I had to learn on the job. So I have freedom, hence the uniqueness of some of our dishes.” For Bains, cooking isn’t prescriptive – it is more of an explosion of ideas. “At the end of the day who wants to be a copycat? It’s lazy. I’m not lazy.”
Attack, Attack, Attack
His childhood has also had a big influence on his career. He describes his desire to only own one restaurant as a “corner shop mentality” he got from his father, who only ever ran one shop. Being of Punjabi heritage, his parents kicked him out of the house aged 18 when they discovered he was in a relationship with Amanda, who was the restaurant manager at the hotel where he worked at the time, going against their wishes for him to marry an Indian woman. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “Life throws circumstances at you to turn you into the person you are. I don’t think I could be doing this food if I had a really chilled out upbringing. I need challenges to overcome. The fighting instinct comes from that.”
This same fighting instinct drives Bains to strive to make RSB world class (“if every country has three top restaurants, I want to be in that top three”), with an obsessive approach to his menu. The chef approaches it as if it were a play or a piece of music before going on to discuss Freytag’s pyramid, the theory that a drama is divided into five parts – the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.
His 10-course menu follows a similar dramatic arc, he says, with an introduction, crossover and conclusion. This process requires continual refinement of dishes, as well as wholesale changes, often on a daily basis. Bains doodles every dish – his first passion was art – and says he knows what it will look and taste like before it gets near a plate. A coddled egg and white truffle dish on the menu one day, for example, comes with the addition of a parmesan and herb soldier the next. “I’m going to work for the rest of my career perfecting 10 courses. Trying to understand the process of 10 dishes will be that beautiful lifelong journey. Like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s my quest.” That said, and despite Bains’ irrepressible nature, he surprisingly believes this quest won’t lead him to a third Michelin star. “I do believe we will never get three stars here. I’ve been to 20 or 30 three-star restaurants and it’s something I don’t believe we can achieve. Two stars for me is the highest I thought we’d ever get. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up, it means I’m being realistic.”
It’s also probably because, deep down, he doesn’t really want them, he reasons. “When you have two stars, you’re playing an attacking game; when you have three, it’s almost defending. I never want to be in that position, it’s not productive. I’ve got an attacking nature, it’s the way I’ve been brought up.” So what will the future hold? “To continue to be a serious restaurant in the location we’re in,” is the goal. “I like the idea of an endless pursuit, to keep striving to be something better. I’ll never reach perfection, but I’ll enjoy the journey.” And what about his legacy?
He and Amanda have never wanted children, a decision he says they made from a young age, so there’s no family to follow in his footsteps and no former chefs running Sat Bains-funded restaurants elsewhere. “I’ll have no legacy,” he says. “Apart from maybe that we cooked really delicious food once. Legacy is for family you leave behind, which I won’t.” For a notoriously tough guy who has famously ‘pushed on’ his whole career it’s a surprisingly temperate stance. “I like the idea of closure, of the end of a story and it just finishes. That we worked really hard and enjoyed what we did, left some really good people in the industry, and then it was finished. There’s something poetic about that.”