John Freeman, head chef, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

The  Staff Canteen

John Freeman is head chef at two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains. He started at the Nottingham restaurant as a commis working voluntarily on his days off from his other job. Now after 12 years he is the head chef in charge of a brigade of 12.

The Staff Canteen caught up with him to relive the ride. Was cooking something you always wanted to do?

I fell into it basically. I had no aspirations to be a chef. When I left school I went into sound engineering because I just loved music so I went to college and I was doing that and working part time in a pub washing pots. I’d been there about six months and then one day the husband and wife who ran the kitchen had a massive argument and she stormed out so he called me and asked me to come in and cook on a section.

I went to work and did that one shift and never went back to pot washing again; I just loved it. I’d started uni at this point but I just dropped out and went straight into cooking instead.

  • The Bridge Pub Oxton 1997-98 Commis
  • The Anchor Pub Gunthorpe 1998-99 Commis
  • Tom Browns Gunthorpe and Adams Nottingham 1999-2000 Commis
  • Langher Hall 2000-2002 C de Partie
  • Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms 2002 - present
Chefs that inspired:
  • Gordon Ramsay (read Boiling Point) for the quality and sheer energy of him and his cooking.
  • Sam Mason (Pastry Chef at WD50) and Alex Stupak (Alinea and WD 50) for creativity
  • Magnus Nillson (Faviken) for his philosophy on food and ingredients
  • Sat Bains for all of the above!
Comfort foods: Hummus Frosties Toasted cheese Tiramisu

What were the experiences that formed you as a chef?

I worked at one place where the food was all homemade but wasn’t that great but then the guy left and his brother took over. He’d worked in London and apparently had been a Michelin-starred chef. I’d never heard of Michelin stars at this time but this guy came into the pub and just completely transformed it.

All of a sudden he was cooking all this food I’d never seen before; everything was fresh; a lot of things were done to order and all of a sudden my interest increased massively. It was a weird sensation working there because one minute you’re cooking lasagne and the next minute you’re doing this food you’ve never seen before and never thought you could create. He had a massive influence on me and all of a sudden I realised I wanted to be better.

After that I went to a country house hotel which was amazing; they had their own lambs on site, a vegetable garden and did a lot of their own butchery and this was about 14 years ago so for me it was the next step in the progression.

While I was there, what made me want to take the next step was seeing this leaflet of all these recipes from different chefs and one of them was Heston Blumenthal. He’d done this smoked bacon and egg ice cream, that really peaked my interest again so I started reading a lot about what he was doing and I realised I wanted to go in that direction.  I went for this meal at Sat’s with my girlfriend and it completely changed my life, and I mean that. I still remember it to this day.

Can you tell us about that meal?

Yes, we had a la carte; I had a truffle and dandelion salad with a poached egg yolk for my starter, then I had beef with girolles and pommes purée for my main course and I had a raviolo of pineapple and lychees for dessert.


What struck me was presentation – this beautiful refined food. I’d never had a girolle before and I remember looking at this thing on my fork and it was just like perfection; it completely blew me away. I came to Sat’s and that was that; I’ve been here ever since.

How steep was the learning curve at Sat’s?

When I entered Sat’s there were only three chefs there including me, so imagine being pushed into this world where you’ve got a lot of pressure on you from the start and you’re expected to perform. I think the main reason I stayed there is becauseme and Sat are quite similar so it was very easy to get on with him. It was very, very hard and very disciplined but it kind of makes you who you are; you take a bollocking and you learn from it, don’t you? I’d always had a very disciplined upbringing with my parents so it wasn’t hard for me to get shouted at and accept it if I was in the wrong.

One of the problems now is the lack of discipline people have growing up so you have chefs who get bollocked and crumble, start crying, basically and can’t take it.

Would you say that was the most intense period of your career?

Yes, for me at the beginning I’d caught this bug but I didn’t know what I was doing; because I could make lasagne I thought I was a chef, but of course I wasn’t; it takes a long time before you can call yourself a chef. In this job you’re learning all the time and in terms of intensity it’s just as hard now; it’s just a different kind of hard. At the beginning you’re learning constantly, you’re soaking things up like a sponge; you’re making mistakes and getting bollocked now and then it starts to change and it gets to the point now where you’re the one doing the disciplining and giving out the bollockings so it’s quite a mad journey if you think about it.


You’ve seen some huge changes in your time at the restaurant; what do you has changed the most and what has stayed the same during that time?

It’s difficult because so much changes from year to year. We’ve always got a project on the go either in the back of our heads or on paper; the tasting room was a project, next year is the development kitchen - we’ve got a brand new development kitchen being built; this year we added the Closed Loop composter; we are the first restaurant in the UK to install a new piece of technology to reduce food waste.

We’re starting to get our garden together, so we’ve got our greenhouses and some raised beds and we’re basically going to make an edible garden that can sustain the restaurant. We’ve also got a wood-fired oven being built into the side of the main kitchen. We’re going up to 12 chefs at the end of the month so it’s about always pushing forward basically.

Do you ever see yourself leaving?

If the restaurant was the same now as it was five years ago, I wouldn’t be here; I’d have left because I literally would have got bored but we’re always doing something to keep you interested. I’m at the point now where I love this restaurant; I literally love it to pieces and I couldn’t see myself working anywhere else. I’ve been part of something for 12 or 13 years now;

I’ve been part of a restaurant that’s gone from three chefs to 12 chefs, that’s gone from doing 20 on a Saturday night to 60 on a Saturday night; you grow with the place and have an emotional attachment, and I wouldn’t still be there if it wasn’t for Sat’s drive that he infects everyone with. I’m very similar to Sat and I think his drive and relentless energy has rubbed off onto me.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th August 2014

John Freeman, head chef, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham