If a riot were to break out in Nottingham tomorrow, and mindless f––kwits decided to trash a Michelin restaurant, as they did in London at The Ledbury back in August 2011, then chances are they’d descend on two-star Restaurant Sat Bains on the outskirts of the city. They’d soon realise however what a grave error they’d made.
Sat could probably bench-press me, and I’m heavier than I like to admit. Aside from his tall frame and muscular shoulders, he has hands like hams. (Fortunately, even though I’d arrived half an hour late for my meeting – a lifetime for a chef during lunch service – I was spared the consequences of testing Sat’s patience by the fact that, rather unusually, lunch is not served at Restaurant Sat Bains, unless you choose the Chef or Kitchen Table.)
The rest of his kitchen staff look like a force to be reckoned with too and navigate their way around a small kitchen with an impressive ballet of heel-to-toe shimmies and acute manoeuvres. I raise this observation with Sat and he smiles. “Well that’s why everything has its place. We’re structured and we tidy up as we go along. Deliveries come through the courtyard out the back door and are prepped then cooked, plated and checked over here,” he says.
“I signed up for a catering course after spying pretty girls in the queue at college”
This regimented approach is important for Sat. He hasn’t walked out from under the umbrella of a celebrated chef-cum-teacher and he hasn’t bounced around the gastronomic capitals of the world marking off apprenticeships under celebrity chefs. His skill hasn’t been learnt, it’s felt. His reason for pursuing a culinary career was, in fact, nothing do with wanting to master the art of sautéing and flambéing. “Girls,” he reflects. “I signed up for a catering course after spying pretty girls in the queue at college.”
There’s something freewheeling about Sat Bains, although the relaxed façade isn’t truly representative. I’m not sure I’ve met such a regimented chef before. Chasing skirt at college was the greatest decision of his life, and indirectly led to his winning the Roux Scholarship in 1999, winning the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2007, being given an honorary Doctorate of Professional Practice in 2011 by The University of Derby, followed by an honorary Masters of Arts degree by Nottingham University. He has five AA rosettes and two Michelin stars and in 2012 published his first book Too Many Chiefs, Only One Indian.
Times food critic Giles Coren commented upon his visit to Restaurant Sat Bains: “I sometimes express irritation with tasting menus, challenging combinations and, above all, low temperature water-bath cooking, and this meal only reminded me most emphatically why – because there is no point in doing it unless you can do it like this.” Likewise, high praise was handed down from The Telegraph’s Zoe Williams who dished out a perfect 10: “The opening dish of pork belly proved that Bains is not a chef just whizzing things up for the sake of it. This was presented as a square of perfection, probably cooked for a year at an improbable temperature.”
Sat’s plaudits come not just from cheery diners and newspaper critics, but from his best-known peers in the kitchens of the world. René Redzepi, Claude Bosi and Jason Atherton are all admirers of his wildly exciting repertoire, which draws on inspiration from his Nottingham home and the surrounding countryside. When I dined at his restaurant recently – there are only two dinner seatings, and two tasting menus (seven courses for £75 or ten for £89) – I knew immediately that my palate was in for quite a ride, from the first taste of doughy, delightful warm treacle and Guinness bread. Picks from the tasting menu that evening included: “pigs head pressed, smoked haddock, pickled vegetables” and “salt baked celeriac, chicken juice”. These were potentially strange ingredients, aligned together to create complete, perfect plates.
Rather than work around a single ingredient, capitalising solely on a grouse or lonesome scallop, plates are positioned in accordance with their pairings as a complete menu, and follow according to tastes, textures, and temperatures. Chief ingredients evoke the English woodland, countryside and coast, and are reflective of the importance Sat places on their quality. Local farms, butchers (Johnny Pusztai of JT Beedham & Sons was voted Best Producer in the 2011 Observer Food Monthly Awards) and fishmongers, as well as the surrounding Nottinghamshire countryside, are all key elements to Sat’s constructions; delicately placed and executed with an artist’s hand. “One of our driving passions at the restaurant is to give guests something quite unique,” he says.
This is made evident to the diner by multi-coloured dots on the menu demonstrating the flavours each plate will solicit: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. The dots snake underneath each plate’s description, rising and falling depending on the elements and palate results, reaffirming the seriousness Sat places on the flavour/palate journey. Take “English duck (Asian influences)”, for instance: it begins with grey (salt) and orange (sweet) dots, then dips fractionally to a green (sour) dot, lowering again to the smallest dot, blue (bitter), then up again to match the beginning grey; and orange with a brown (umami) dot. Here you trace the flavour journey by colour, crafted together by multi-coloured flecks.
The result is an extreme menu. It’s also one of the most considered, researched, rummaged-for and aesthetically driven in the country. Everything takes its rightful place according to its workings and what it offers in terms of flavour. (And, perhaps more importantly, how it leaves you and prepares you for the following plate).
And so, tucked away in the Midlands, far from the bright lights and bloggers of the capital, past the motorway flyover and just beyond the golf range, is one of Britain’s greatest culinary talents, just working. Just being Sat.
Restaurant Sat Bains, Lenton Lane, Nottingham NG7
0115 986 6566; restaurantsatbains.com