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Sat Bains’ success varies from the prestigious Roux Scholarship he won in 1999, enabling him to work at the three Michelin-starred Le Jardins des Sens, to the prize for best starter on 2007’s Great British Menu. A dynamic chef, Sat’s innovative work in the kitchen making modern British cuisine has won him many fans and has seen his eponymous restaurant thrive as a result.
Sat, first and foremost thank you very much for your time today.
You're welcome. Pleasure.
It's great to come and see you at the restaurant. You have had huge success. You've been here since 2003, is that right?
Well, I have been here since 1999 and took over in 2005. So, yes it has been a crazy few years, to be honest.
And you are Nottingham's only Michelin starred restaurant?
Yes, that's right. It's a great achievement for the team and everyone here but it's not anything I loose any sleep over.
That was going to be my next question. Obviously, the Michelin Guide for 2010 has just recently been published and "¦ leaked early (again). You didn't get your second star this year, of course it's disappointing not to get it but does that motivate you to do more? Or do you say "you know what, I am comfortable where we are."
Well, I would never say we are comfortable. We are striving to be amazing. We wake up in the morning to be the best. So, yes it is always going to be disappointing but then it's not a race. To cook brilliant food is not a race. Because when you ultimately get the two or one Michelin star that you are after, as a Chef, you have got to be able to maintain that level and keep motivated and excited about cooking and for your team. So for me it has never been about "Yes, I think we deserve two stars." I would never say that. I think we are comparable to some two stars with the food I have eaten in them, but I am never going to say we're better. So for me it wasn't a surprise. It was a disappointment, naturally, because I have been at one star level since 2003 and there is no way the food is the same as it was then, but I am not an inspector so I have never known the criteria of how to achieve the next level. . . and I think that is the beauty of Michelin. Because if you think about it, why are they so illusive and exclusive? It's because they are so strict. Because if this year there were 10 new two stars then it would look too easy "¦ it would de-value it.
They are very clever in their marketing and they are very disciplined. I've got to take a kick in the b***s and say we're not good enough.
And I mean that and I will tell the boys that.
Does that motivate you?
Well it motivates me to carry on but it won't motivate me to change anything. We get a Hell of a lot of Chefs eating here and it's great the comments we get from them. But I am not going to start believing my own Bullshit and that is the key.
So you don't look at dishes on your menu and think "That's two star"?
No, I look at a dish and the first question is "Do I want to eat it?"
That's it, regardless of the star rating because I don't know how they judge the star rating. The secret is - do what you do. As I said before there is no race to get there it is just a badge. A badge of absolute exclusivity with regards to quality and yes, we all want to cook at that level; to say "Yes, we're cooking!" But there is no way I am going to contrive what we do here by me mis-interpreting what I think they want. I could go off on a tangent and screw it all up.
And I have got to show the boys that the confidence is within; in the produce. The guys start again from scratch! Today. Every day, it's not a case of "Wow aren't we lucky we've got a star"; no it's about "Do you want to eat that dish?" " Is that the best you can do?" "Yes, Chef." - fine then get it out.
Tell us a bit about you. Everyone knows you from when you had Restaurant Sat Bains, but tell us a bit about the early Sat Bains"¦ A lad from Derbyshire.
Yes, I'm from Derby. From Normanton - the really posh end of Derby.
Is there a posh area of Derby?! (Laughter)
Yes, of course there is. I went to Willmorton College. And it has been well documented that I joined a course with the most girls on it"¦ half of them were lesbians (but I didn't know that at the time). I enjoyed what I did. Had a great time and fell in love with cooking. It wasn't until I was in the trade, probably about 23 that I first read about Marco. And I thought "Wow, this guy is unbelievable". I was working in a restaurant at the time and this pushed me on. I thought "OMG, what am I doing?" It inspired me to send a few CV's off and see what happened. I sent one of to John Burton-Race"¦ Got rejected. I always remember this ponsey watercolour at the bottom of the paper he rejected me on, it was a picture of him cooking. And I decided at that moment that I am never going to believe my own bullshit because it was just so over the top "¦ it's just so much bullshit. Anyway, I got rejected, which was a great thing. I went to work for Petit Blanc. Had a great time; very hard work. 18 of us opened the restaurant within 6 months there was 10 of us left. It was hard, hard graft. It was great because you were taught that you can push yourself. 18 - 20 hours a day; 6/7/8 weeks on the trot. We were wrecked. I lost three stone in three months. I was actually in bits, but I had a great time.
And what a fantastic diet plan - there's a book there - work for Raymond Blanc (laughter)
But what was great, you did it and you survived. And that is what I needed, I was only 25 and I needed a kick up the ass. Me and my wife got married. Went to St Lucia for the honeymoon. Came back and straight away went to Oxford for a year and then came back to Nottingham.
The irony is that I went to Oxford on 12 grand and I came back from London and demanded 24 grand. And I thought "What!!?" I had only done a year. It kind of really frustrated me because I wasn't any different as a person; yes I had picked some more skills up but it just showed the power of having something on your CV.
Yes, CV is definitely king.
Yes, so at that point I decided never to work for anyone ever again"¦ as a named Chef. I didn't want it. So I decided to work obsessively. Learn the craft. Read as much as I could. Try techniques that I didn't know. So I went down that sort of route.
So, would you say, from a profile point of view, that you started getting on peoples radar when you ran for the Roux Scholarship?
Yes, I think so.
You are now, obviously, part of the Roux family?
That's right. And it is a great family to be part of. I love Michel Roux.
Was it 1997 you won that?
'99. I was out of work. Unemployed.
What made you enter it?
It was my last year. When I was working I sent off the form and I got through to the regional. In between going through from the regional to the final the restaurant I was working in closed. So at that point I thought "OMG, what happens here will dictate the rest of my life - I can't loose." But the calibre was phenomenal. There was the guy from the Aubergine, there was another starred restaurant. These guys worked all over. So there is me; almost the under-dog. So I just went for it. But there was no way I thought I had won. I was blown away when they called my name out. I went to the South of France, to work at Le Jardin des sens. I had a brilliant time. Went to Ferran Adrias El Bulli while I was there. I was lucky enough to have gone in '99; and before all the hype
At those sort of places you start from scratch. What I ate and saw at El Bulli! I left there. All I took away with me was some of their creativity.
It's very niche, isn't it the El Bulli?
It is, yes.
They are masters in what they do.
Yes, but I wanted to be master in what I did. I didn't want to replicate anything.
Yes, that's a danger isn't it - copying what somebody else is doing.
Yes, it's taking their creativity. That could have made me angry. I didn't want to do that. So I decided to work on a very unique style that was very much part of my sole and get it on a plate. Some of it was very classically driven, but then how can you make a Parfait better? We worked out that if you cooked it lower and longer you don't get the grainy effect on the sides. Where as traditionally you cook a Parfait, the middle if beautiful. You would trim the sides and throw away those bits - what is the point in that! Just keep it at the temperature where it is never going to coagulate; so we learnt that and now we have a Parfait that takes an hour and a half to two hours, we never take it above 62. It's perfect. For me, it's one of those dishes that has evolved. That's what we do. We question everything. The first few years it was very hard to get the calibre of staff I was looking for. It was only when we won the star in 2003 that things started to change. We have been very fortunate but it has been very hard. Any business is very hard in this climate. I have talked to a number of chefs in the business, up and down the country, we are all finding it very difficult. But we are all still in business.
"¦ And that is very promising.
Sat, how big an influence were your parents to your cooking? Your parents are of an Asian background. How much has that influenced you as a chef?
I don't think they influence me as a chef. I think they influence me in the way to eat.
Because eating at our home was a pinnacle point. It was a get together of the family. So what ever you were doing; regardless of your age; or your studying or what ever we did, you had to be at the table for 7.
We sat down as a family, which, as you know is missing these days.
Yes, sadly missed.
And what we have done from that is we have a Chef's table. Every night at 5 O'clock we all down tools and we sit together and eat.
So, it's a nice family feel. There is no hierarchy, so it allows everyone to be equal. The chefs put a menu together for the week; everyone knows what they are having. Everyone gets excited about food. We cook as good a food for them as we do for ourselves because it's important that we all share that passion. It's not cheap - I spend a lot of money on staff food. We look after them. I think it's important. As far as my family were concerned, food was a real big part of our culture; sitting around the table and enjoying the food. Sikhs are very passionate about food, they eat very well and that's what rubbed off on me.
Yes, and that enthusiasm for food comes across when we are talking, now. You have been hugely successful and, I guess Great British Menu raised your profile even further.
Yes, it was phenomenal.
And we do sometimes hear Chefs saying "No, I don't want to do telly." But realistically it has got to be good for business, hasn't it?
Yes, but I actually said no in the beginning to The Great British Menu.
Umm, I think it was the thought of stepping your toe into the unknown. You don't want to come across as a fool or a gimmick. You don't want to become a novelty. You want to be representing you trade and craft; you don't want to be ridiculed. But then, I remember speaking to my wife, and I said "They really are pestering me to do this now, what do you suggest?" And we couldn't see anything wrong with it - just be yourself.
I think from my point of view, as a viewer, I think it's the best programme for Chefs to watch.
And there are people like you on there, Nathan (Outlaw), Alan Murchison - some great names. No disrespect to Ready Steady Cook and things like that, but it is driven at a different market.
I had a great time because I was myself. If I had tried to act a certain way it would have come across as contrived and I would have felt (and looked) uncomfortable. And getting through to the final was ultimately the goal. The Duck Egg is something that we still have on the menu now and we probably sell 70 or 80 a week.
Have sales for that dish increased since The Great British Menu?
We get people travelling from all over the country to come and try that dish.
I put it on the menu, originally, as part of the Tasting Menu. My wife, ever the business woman said "Sat what the f*** do you think you are doing? People are coming here to eat that - charge for it." So we now charge £15 for an extra course and we sell 70/80 a week. So there you go, business dictates.
We took a massive hit of people coming to try us out - people are sitting in their living room and they see you on TV and they make a judgement as to whether they like you or not, probably within the first 10 minutes of seeing you. So as a follow on from the TV programme, we only got people travelling to us who actually liked what they saw; the others stayed at home. Television is the most powerful tool but you have got to make sure you get it right.
So you can't bastardise yourself and that is why The Great British Menu is great for showing off Chefs that are unknown; it puts them on the radar and it puts customers on their seats. You can't knock it.
A little bit about Sat Bains Restaurant. What is the concept of the food here? On the menu it's clearly marked: Taste Texture Temperature. Tell us about your philosophy behind that.
I like texture, the Sweetcorn dish for example "¦
I tried that.
Did you like it?
But the whole dish has three elements to it: roast sweetcorn; popcorn power and popcorn sweetcorn ice cream and sweetcorn soup. So you have the temperature, taste and texture. So when you eat it your whole palate is given a "working over". But it makes so much sense because that is just one ingredient and you are showcasing all it's elements. And that is what true chefing is all about for me. For me, that is what the driving force is. I have always been interested in creativity; I don't want to do what somebody else has done. I have always wanted to give something that is quite unique but not just for the sake of it. I do it so that I can do some research; I don't want to be a lazy chef.
Yes, it's fantastic having a Michelin star but you do need an identity.
Yes, of course you do. I want to hear people say "Bloody Hell you need to see what Sat is doing with his team." I want to be known for being creative. So if someone has travelled, say from where you are in Dorset, I want to blow them away. Otherwise they have had a wasted journey and I hate that.Yes.
I would hate the idea of someone coming all this way and being let down. It hurts. If someone has got the passion or the vision and they have gone away a little bit hollow it kills me because I've not delivered. And we have to take that on the chin. The driving force is that I want to give you something that tastes amazing. That's it.
Regardless of accolades or hierarchy of who's done it. I want to give you something to remember. That's what people will remember. I love the fact that this restaurant is in a derelict area; under a pylon and flyover and you can hear the traffic "¦I love that because it makes us try harder.
Yes, and it makes you quite unique as well.
I like that; it's already a challenge before we open the door.
It's been a tough year, what do you want to achieve in the next twelve months?
Well, I know it's not over. I think it's a lesson for all of us. It's the first recession that I've had a business in, so it's very hard. My business partner is my accountant. We are very strict. We have a great policy of letting all the staff know how the business is run. I give the kitchen a budget every week knowing what I have got booked. So I say I've got £1200; £1500 or £2000 or what ever it is, a week to spend and they deliver. Because that means the two most important people in your business: the one that is answering the phone and the one that buys the produce know what is expected. If you can control those two areas, because that is where money is coming in and going out, you're in a better position straight away. So my guys know that if they over spend it will have a knock on effect for purchasing the following week. They are going to be running their own business one day so lets teach them early how to manage it, then they are helping you run your business. I don't want them to get into a false sense of security; I want them to feel the pinch. If the KP's get to 59 hours and the budget is 60, then John sends them home and we do the washing up ourselves.
Sat, thank you very much for your time today. It has been a privilege to meet you.