His restaurant is in a far-from-picturesque setting, so Sat Bains has had to work hard to bring in the diners… and it's a tribute to his skills that he has just about single-handedly put Nottingham on the culinary map. Now, after 10 years of winning awards, he's finally ready to branch out. Joanna Wood reports.
You can tell a lot about a person by taking a look at the books they read and the art that adorns their walls. Sat Bains has a penchant for books such as legendary American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything; and hanging above the reception desk of his eponymous Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham is a large photograph of two rabbits standing between a forest of four black-trousered legs. Here is a man who is definitely coming from left of centre.
For the record, the legs are those of Bains and his wife and business partner, Amanda, and the rabbits are their pets, Tyson and Biscuit. The Steingarten book that so caught his fancy struck a chord because of its quirkiness and the American's obsessive fixation with food - something that all top chefs possess and 38-year-old Bains has in bucket-loads. "It was really funny, too," grins Bains. "I loved the fact that he was buying 15 coffee machines in order to get the perfect cup of coffee. He had all those traits that chefs have - obsessive, wanting to get to the end of whatever he was doing - but then, once he got there, he was bored and moved on."
We're sitting having a chat in the conservatory dining room of his 36-seat restaurant which, despite the dull November day outside, still retains an airiness and warmth. The warmth comes mainly thanks to Bains's own particular expletive-dotted, off-piste charm. One thing you can never accuse Bains of is dullness. He has just induced a spluttered coughing fit in Caterer‘s photographer after the latter's failed attempt not to laugh at an off-the-cuff reply to an innocent query about whether it's safe to eat wild food foraged from the River Trent (on whose banks the restaurant stands). "Yeah, so long as you don't mind a tampon and a Raleigh bike frame!" was the sharp answer.
However, though Bains is ever-ready with a flippant quip, once you get him talking properly about food and his business, he's as serious as they come. Steered back to the subject of foraging, he is eloquent and informative about how he's embracing wild ingredients in his menus with the help of Kent-based forager Miles Irving (www.forager.org.uk).
"We've used Miles for about two years now," he explains, "what he does is introduce you to wild herbs that are in season and vegetables that are on your doorstep. He came up a few weeks ago and we went along the river bank and found maybe nine or 10 different vegetables and herbs: wild turnips, lovely rose-hips, jack-by-the-hedge seeds - they're a bit like wild mustard seeds. So we've tried to incorporate these things in the menu, so you're tasting the region."
Irving also supplies Bains with wild food foraged from other "little spots that are quite secret" around the UK - seashore vegetables and forest ingredients among them. As far as Bains is concerned, though, it's not a case of just sticking the foraged ingredients any old how in a dish. He and his team taste everything first, decide what its flavour and texture profile is, then replace a similar-profile ingredient with the new one in any given dish - or sometimes add it to a creation to provide another layer of complexity for the palate to pick up on.
When you're presented with one of Bains's dishes, however, they're blissfully free of overwrought complexity: taste, texture and temperature sophistication are present, but in a deceptively simple way - if you want an example, just take a look at his crab, peanut, turnip, beach herbs, a spin-off from a basic seafood cocktail (See caterersearch.com/recipes). Yes, it has avocado (but in an emulsion); yes, it has acidity and sweetness in a dressing (but achieved using a combination of lime, lemon and yuzu for citrus and a bit of mirin for the sugary element - and given extra richness by using butter); yes, there's a salad crunch (but in a tiny pickled turnip rather than lettuce); and there's a little element of surprise with the peanut brittle and fresh beach herbs.
The dish pretty much sums up Bains's present style - described on his website as "taste, texture and temperature… classics with forward-thinking techniques". It's a style he has developed and refined over the past decade, since winning the prestigious Roux Scholarship back in 1999. And over the past 10 years it has steadily won both him and the restaurant numerous plaudits: a Michelin star and Catey Menu of the Year in 2003, the Square Meal award for Best UK Restaurant in 2007, Observer Food Monthly‘s award for Best Restaurant in 2008 - and, just three months ago, the rare accolade of five AA rosettes.
The word on the street for the past two years has been that Bains deserves a second Michelin accolade, but so far that has remained elusive: will 2010 be his year? He won't be drawn, but is happy to reflect on the AA gong. "It was a great achievement. A bit of a shock," he says. "We knew we were on their radar because we'd had a lot of inspections. They were looking for consistency, I think, and that's what we've delivered. The team in the kitchen has been solid for the past two years - it's the strongest it has ever been: and the team out front led by Amanda is brilliant."
It's not only the gong-givers that have recognised the quality of cooking at Restaurant Sat Bains in recent years. Those national restaurant critics that have made the trip up the M1 (and there are sadly still too few who have stirred out of London) have raved about the food that Bains and his team deliver on his tasting menus (he stopped running an à la carte in 2008). And he's gaining an increasingly wide pool of admiring diners - only 30%-40% are local to Nottingham; the rest are from the UK and even, these days, abroad. Many are fellow chefs, brought through the doors by accolades such as the AA rosettes ("since we got the five rosettes, we've cooked for probably 200 chefs - it's very flattering"). In addition, a great swathe of roaming armchair foodies have hotfooted it to Nottingham since Bains's winning appearance in 2007 on the BBC's hit series Great British Menu.
"It had a phenomenal effect," he concedes. "The series was in three million people's homes for five nights on the trot and you can't buy that kind of marketing. It's kept us full for two years. But what you've got to remember is you've got to deliver because you want that massive influx of guests to become regular clients in the future. We prepared in case we got a big run and were careful not to overstretch ourselves by over-booking and turning the tables. We didn't change, and I think it was crucial to keeping our feet on the ground. The motto we have here is ‘You're only as good as today.' You have to start every single day with a blank sheet of paper, and earn their respect every day."
Interestingly, Bains thinks that the location of his restaurant has been a big player in fostering his culinary creativity, alongside working or eating at places such as the Pourcel brothers' renowned Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier and Ferran Adrià's legendary El Bulli in Spain at key moments in his career. Much has been written about the fact that Restaurant Sat Bains nestles in the shadow of a motorway flyover and a series of electricity pylons; less about the fact that this has meant the restaurant itself needs to be extra special to lure in customers. "People shit themselves when they first find out where we are, but it's underground, it's edgy. I love it. It has made me more creative. And it just goes to show you don't have to spend three of four million pounds to achieve the top-end of gastronomy," enthuses Bains, pointing out that he and his staff work hard at giving customers "really exciting food in an environment that's really relaxed," and free of haute cuisine pomp.
The fact is that he wants his customers, like the chefs in his kitchens, to get the bug for food. For Bains, there's nothing better than tossing ideas around with his team to come up with new dishes. He encourages anybody, at any level in the brigade, to input ideas. "We've got 1,500 dishes logged," he says with pride. "We tweak and tweak until we get a dish right, then it goes on the menu. It's a collective. Years ago, the chef would stand there [intimating] ‘don't talk to me, because you're not good enough.' That's bullshit. It's important to nurture creative freedom in the kitchen. If you don't let your team in the kitchen excel and spread their wings, they're going to leave."
Encouraging culinary creativity is a potent and persuasive tool in helping to retain talented chefs in a kitchen brigade, but ultimately the opportunity to progress up the career ladder is just as important. However, when your business is small in structural terms, as Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms is, then career scope is limited. Well aware of this, the Bainses are planning to expand their business empire in 2010 by opening a second restaurant in the centre of Nottingham, which will give their staff a greater number of career options as well as giving themselves another business challenge and outlet for culinary creativity.
The plan is for it to be a small, relaxed tapas-style bar/restaurant with seats arranged around a counter from which diners will be served by three chefs from an open kitchen - rather like London's Barrafina or Roka restaurants. Bains aims to showcase British produce, cooked in the modern idiom - that is, home-grown ingredients influenced by world flavours, in the same vein as at his flagship restaurant. He's also hoping to incorporate an outside area at the new restaurant with large table seating, to encourage family dining. "Where you can sit with a beautiful piece of meat on a board, carve it, eat it, no fuss - just have a good, chilled out time eating some great flavours - brilliant food, brilliant produce cooked really well, but not gastronomy."
But where, exactly, will it be? "Ha - we've just put in a bid for a site in town - there's some big operators going for it as well, so I don't think we've got much of a chance, but I'm always hopeful." More, he will not say: but he's happy to discuss how, logistically, he and Amanda will run two restaurants. Amanda will take an operational role at both businesses, and he will split his time between the sites. "Nottingham is only seven minutes away, so I can see myself spending time in both places. I've got a great team here: John Freeman, my head chef, is a talent in his own right - he has been with me for seven years now and he can run the kitchen easily. The past 10 years, because my name's over the door, if I've not been here we've been closed. Who's been the fool? Probably me. There are only so many hours you can spend behind the stove," he muses.
It's clear that Bains is bursting with culinary ideas for the planned restaurant, but has no intention of drawing back too much from his flagship restaurant-with-rooms. Rather he's hoping that by taking on a more executive chef-patron role and handing over coal-face cooking duties on a daily basis to trusted brigade members, he'll be free to give his culinary creativity full rein. "I've got so much more in HERE," he says, pointing to his head.
Of course, if the new restaurant is successful, then there's an obvious potential for rolling out further "brand Bains" tapas bars, something which Bains readily admits is in the back of his mind. To date, he has been fiercely proud of forging his culinary identity outside the often back-biting London restaurant scene. But would he be tempted to bring bite-sized Bains to the Big Smoke? "If it takes off, I may. Who knows? I've been told never to say never if people want it, you know, I could open in New York!"
PORK, PUMPKIN, CHORIZO
(serves six to eight)
For the pork belly
- 1 litre water
- 150g sugar
- 150g salt
- 1 pork belly
For the pumpkin purée
- 50g shallot, finely diced
- 250g shaved pumpkin
- 1 small stick of lemon grass
- Fresh ginger, peeled - to taste
- 100g white chicken stock
For the chorizo jam
- 1 shallot, finely diced
- 50g chorizo
- 250g apple juice
- 100g Granny Smith apple, finely diced
- 50g sugar
For the pumpkin dressing
- 100ml pumpkin oil
- 100ml lemon juice
- 100ml maple syrup
For garnish/to finish dish
- 1 scallop
- Coriander cress
- 2 sheets of raw pumpkin dressed in the pumpkin dressing
- Quince terrine
- Ground cumin, to taste
For the pork belly: combine the water, sugar and salt to make a brine. Trim the pork belly and pickle in the brine in a sous-vide bag for 24 hours. Remove from the bag and rinse and soak in clean water for 20 minutes, then sous-vide (poach in a water bath) at 68°C for 48 hours. When cooked, press and leave to cool.
For the pumpkin purée: sweat off the onion for a couple of minutes, add the pumpkin along with a small piece of lemon grass and ginger, add the stock and cook until soft. Remove the lemon grass and ginger, blend and pass through a fine sieve. Reserve.
For the chorizo jam: sweat off the shallot with the chorizo, add the rest of the ingredients and cook to a jam consistency. Reserve.
For the pumpkin dressing: blend all the ingredients together. To finish/for serving: roast the scallop and the belly pork. Place the warm pumpkin purée on the plate and top with the scallop and the belly pork. Roll the chorizo jam in the sheets of pumpkin. Place the quince terrine on the plate. Finish with some of the dressing, coriander cress and a dusting of cumin.
CRAB, PEANUT, TURNIP, BEACH HERBS
INGREDIENTS (serves four)
For the crab
- 200g white crab meat, cooked
- 1 duck egg yolk
- Chopped chives, to taste
For the avocado emulsion
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 ripe avocado, peeled
- Lemon juice, to taste
- 300ml vegetable oil
For the pickled turnip
- 1 turnip
- White wine vinegar
- Sugar, to taste
For the butter and ponzu dressing
- 10g dark soya
- 1tsp yuzu juice
- 1tsp lemon juice
- 1tsp lime juice
- 1tsp mirin
- 100g butter
For the peanut brittle
- 200g sugar
- Splash of water
- 10g glucose
- 200g peanuts
- 4 slices granary bread, frozen
- Foraged beach herbs, blanched and refreshed (eg sea beet, purslane, samphires if in season)
For the crab: pick through the crab, ensuring that there is no shell, bind the crab meat with duck egg yolk, add a pinch of chives and season to taste. Chill and reserve.
For the avocado emulsion: place the egg yolk, peeled avocado and lemon juice in a blender and blend on its lowest speed. Once emulsified, slowly add the oil until it forms a mayonnaise-like consistency. Pass the emulsion through a sieve, check the seasoning and the acidity and adjust if necessary. Reserve.
For the pickled turnip: slice the peeled turnip on a meat slicer or mandolin in to wafer thin slices. Place in a small sous-vide bag together with a dash of vinegar and a sprinkle of sugar, compress on full compression.
For the butter dressing: mix all the ingredients together, except the butter, to make a sauce. Heat the butter to beurre noisette stage, leave to cool slightly, then add and mix with the ponzu sauce.
For the peanut brittle: combine the sugar water and glucose in a pan and boil to 160°C or a light caramel. Add the peanuts, remove from the heat and turn out on to an oiled surface or silicone mat or paper. When set, blitz to a fine powder.
For the bread: On the meat slicer, thinly slice some granary bread from frozen, brush with melted butter and bake in the oven at 160°C for six minutes until crisp and golden.
For serving: assemble everything on a plate as per photo.
April 2009, Daily Telegraph "Sat Bains, my finest discovery of the year… he is the most wildly inventive chef to emerge from Britain since Heston Blumenthal [a] scallop is covered with black herring roe reclining on tiny asparagus spears, with crunchy hazelnut adding texture. Good, but the next course is great: crab bisque with pickled turnip and brown butter ice-cream. Outlandish combinations can clash but this is a love match even though, like all the best marriages, it is slightly sour."
Jasper's verdict: RATING 5/5
Matthew NormanJune 2007, The Guardian "Fabulous freshly baked rolls gave way to a weird but wonderful freebie pre-starter, introduced as "textures of corn" in which sweet popcorn and corn ice-cream floated in a corn soup. First came the dinner menu, and a starter of genuine brilliance in which pieces of juicy, crispy-skinned quail worked to perfection with artichoke hearts, asparagus and a salad topped with shavings of Parmesan… This is clever, complex, highly imaginative, technically brilliant food served with warmth and charm in a restaurant that is splendid in every regard. It takes a bit of finding, and it's by no means cheap, but it is many years since I've come across somewhere more categorically worth the effort and expense."
SAT BAINS ON….
Adapting ideas: "One of my bugbears is when chefs copy dishes but don't give credit. If you have taken an idea, tell people - ‘that was so-and-so's idea and I've adapted to my style'. There's nothing wrong with that, that's how food has always evolved."
Being a chef: "It's a profession you should be proud of. Not ‘it's a hard life, it's 60 hours a week' - that's medieval stuff. Let's look at it as a serious career."
His Anglo-Indian roots: "Every Wednesday at home when I was growing up was sausage and mash day, every Friday was fish and chips. Indian the rest of the week - vegetarian curry in the week, at weekends it was always meat. That's probably why I love vegetables so much."
Colleges: "Ever since I criticised them in Caterer a few years ago I've worked closely with the local colleges, mentoring students. I'm not sitting on my arse slagging them off. They've still got a long way to go, but they need chefs to give them input."