John Freeman, Head Chef, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

The Staff Canteen

John Freeman is the head chef of Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham and has forged a formidable partnership with the former ‘Great British Menu’ winner. Although Sat Bains takes all the plaudits for the successful restaurant, there is no doubt that John is a pivotal cog in the machine.

Restaurant Sat Bains has two Michelin stars and is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the Midlands with its impressive array of modern British cuisine. John is a hugely important part of the restaurant and has worked for years very effectively within the parameters set by Sat Bains. Today he was kind enough to talk to The Staff Canteen. All photographs by kind permission of John Arandhara-Blackwell Introduction by Sat Bains "It's critical to find someone with synergy that can work closely with me. With John I have that; we have always got on and that is important, but equally what is very important is that they have their own ideas and gastronomic views that they can deliver and add to the business. John and I work closely on the concept for Restaurant Sat Bains Ltd, but he is also his own man, with his own ideas. Our focus at Restaurant Sat Bains is "flavour" John is a very important part in that; I give John the freedom to operate within the parameters of the concept. John is my head chef, he is under enormous pressure, and so what is very important, is that as the owner of the business I give him the support, the vision, and create a team culture that allows him to run the operation. It would be pointless having head chef if I continually tread on his toes. John has been with me eight years, and has developed hugely in that time. John has played a major part in our success and the recent award that the Restaurant Sat Bains has achieved John has played a very, very important part in that success." T

alk us through your daily role and your responsibilities at your operation, including your role title and length of service, and what position you were when you joined the operation. I'm the head chef at Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, my role here is very much the day to day running of the food operation, it's basically about maintaining a standard, and by achieving that, it means that Sat can work on other projects away from the restaurant if he needs to. It has taken us a long time to reach the stage we are at now. Back in the day, if we were doing a demonstration at a show or perhaps something overseas, then we would shut the restaurant.

That must have a financial impact on the business? Yes, that's right it does have an impact, and we have a couple of extra people in the team now that allows us to cover this. It's important that Sat knows that he can walk away from the restaurant on business for ten or fourteen days and when he returns that the business will be exactly the same as when he left.

How long have you been at the restaurant with Sat? I've been here for almost eight years. I joined as a commis chef, it was the only job that Sat had available. I came here for a meal when I was working at another restaurant.

Where was that? I was pastry chef at Langar Hall, we were doing excellent food - all local fresh produce and I came here for dinner, and I was absolutely blown away by the food. Personally, I'd just started to research other chefs and their work, looking at what chefs overseas were doing, before that it was very much get you're head down and get on with it. But I was looking at chefs with modern techniques, so the food that Sat was doing here at the restaurant was amazing.

So what happened after the meal? I asked Sat if I could come and work here on my days off for free, Sat only had a small team in those days, there was just three in the team and no one was leaving, so every day off I came here and worked for free. Yeah, I think he was scanking me on that one a little. I'm only joking and then one day Sat came to me and said he had a position, but only a position for a commis chef, I said "I'll take it".

Because you wanted to work here that much? Yes, Sat and I have always had the same mind set, when I came to work here it was almost like coming to work for my brother, we both wanted the same things; had the same goals and same vision.

How important is that, in what is still a relatively small team to get on? Very important. We are now seven in the team but the kitchen is very small, so having a good working relationship is important.

How have you developed and improved as a person, a manager and a chef whilst working under Sat Bains? I think as a person, I've very much grown, as I mentioned back in the day when I joined the food was very different from now, and I've grown with Sat. We feed ideas off each other. I have a free role here and I'm not tied down, whilst ultimately Sat is the boss, I'm not told what to do, if that make sense. I have a free rein to purchase ingredients, create dishes, in fact, Sat ensures that we do this - he pushes us to do it; he inspires us to do it.

When we interviewed Sat for the Featured Chef, he said that he sets a weekly financial budget that you have to work within, is that correct?  Yes, that's correct. We have a budget and its always kept within the limit even with the money spent on development.

Are you now tasked with managing the budget and setting this for the team? With the role that I'm doing I've now stepped up to that and although we have a budget we still have leeway to spend on projects and new ideas. we inspire the team to come up with new dishes because no matter how good your team are, unless you push them to come up with new ideas, then they'll carry on doing everything as you tell them to. It's up to me to push and encourage the team to come up with new dishes, even when we are busy it's important that we are trying to develop. I want to have a team that is able to develop new dishes and not be afraid to bring ideas forward.

I guess also it's rewarding for the team, to perhaps create a dish and get it or elements of it on the menu? Definitely if you look at the menu that we are running, it's not exclusively mine or Sat's. It's a menu that is inspired and worked on by everyone in the team. We may get an idea, that perhaps is not quite in the style that we work to, but we can look at it and evolve it. It's important that even if something doesn't work we encourage people to still bring their ideas to the table, as we can always develop and refine it. We have seven chefs that sit around the chefs table each night so we can look at something and all add something to perhaps a dish that needs development, we often get some of best ideas from dishes that haven't quite worked, so nothing fails. So encouraging chefs to be active and pro-active with their ideas has been my biggest development in me, the freedom and free rein that I get means that I'm incredibly happy here with Sat. I get asked all the time "Why have you been there so long? When are you going to leave?" The fact that we are developing, that keeps me interested. I am running an outstanding kitchen with an amazing team.

What has been your single biggest professional challenge whilst at your current operation and how did you overcome this? For me it's exceeding the expectations of the customers that dine with us, every day we try and be better than the day before.

Do you think though, the higher profile the restaurant becomes the more exposure that Sat gets, the higher the expectations of the customers? Absolutely, we get a number of chefs sat here on this Chef's table. We get chefs that I've looked up to for years and at the end of it, you're having a chat with them and for me that is massive - to be asked how did you do that, what method did you use for that, having a conversation with these guys is simply not something that I could have done ten years ago. Customers are also getting far more informed, they know so much more about food. The customer knowledge is growing with the internet, TV, books and we are challenged to ensure that we exceed and WOW; to come up with something that they can't do at home. We have guests that phone up now and ask where we buy our water baths, where we get our vac pac machines, so they are becoming very adventurous; so it's really important that we are moving forward and improving. The last thing that we want to do is have clients who's expectation we don't exceed.

How much importance do you place on training and the development of yourself and your team?  And how important is this to the operation as a whole? Massive, we simply don't want to stand still. Our goal is to have a world class restaurant and we won't stop until we do. We are investing in development; we've created a new role and have a chef called Nana. She is responsible for developing all of our ideas, we have a development kitchen that we've invested seventy thousand pounds in. We are extremely lucky there are not many chefs in my position, that can work in operations that have a development kitchen.

No, that is very lucky. Nana is really good and has really taken the role on board. We give her projects at the start of the week to work on, which when you are trying to run a kitchen can be difficult.

Because the simple day-to-day stuff gets in the way? Yes, but going forward we are going to be able to send one member of the team over with Nana, each day to work with her on projects, just so the team don't have to come in every day and be involved in mis en place. They can work on projects, get dish components ready, do the recipes, and we can then all create the dishes and hopefully be inspired.

What are you looking to gain from your operation and your role as head chef next in terms of personal development, and then future career opportunities? You've mentioned that you are very happy, and we are not looking for a sensational headline that you're about to leave, but what does the future hold? It is tough to answer, as I mentioned before, I do get asked it all the time "Why have you been here so long? When are you going to leave?" It's not something that I really think about; of course, I have aspirations to have my own place. So you'd like your own restaurant?  Yes, show me a chef that doesn't want to their own restaurant.

Is there something that you and Sat could do together perhaps? It's something that we've spoke about, we don't just see ourselves staying here. We want to expand this business and give the chefs that work for us those type of opportunities. I'm happy to develop new ideas on new places, but it's a tough question. I have a great role, great team, a boss that is inspiring, I don't think that I've met anyone that is not inspired by Sat. 

It gives me huge satisfaction to look at where we've come from. It's Sat's name above the door, but people understand that he can't do it all on his own and that's very rewarding for me.

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th February 2011

John Freeman, Head Chef, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham