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Chef Sat Bains on the Importance of Progressive Techniques and Responding to Critics

Photo: Restaurant Sat Bains

Journalist Richard Vines described the chef Sat Bains as the "kind of man who would make a good friend and a bad enemy." Talking to Bains, you really do get that sense: he is straightforward to a fault, giving the impression that any sort of sugarcoating is akin to dishonesty. Any subject is fair game with him, and he'll attack whatever you give him with thoughtfulness, force, and a good number of expletives. Bains has gained a reputation for exceptional cooking, earning two Michelin stars at his eponymous Nottingham restaurant, as well as the respect of some of the world's greatest chefs. But he's also become known for that occasionally controversial directness. In the following interview, the chef talks about his career, the idea that chefs shouldn't fear modern techniques, the importance of having measured tasting menus, and the instances he's responded to negative customer reviews.

Tell me about the road to Sat Bains. From the things I've read about you, it seems like an interest in the French, in Escoffier has always been a part of your path.
When I was in college, we did a few years studying French classical cuisine. That was the closest I actually came to understanding any French cuisine. Then I went into the industry, where most of the repertoire you follow is French. Then, reading about the chefs at the time in the UK — Pierre Koffman, Raymond Blanc, Marco Pierre White — they were the pinnacles of the industry at the time. Marco was a massive inspiration to me. I read White Heat and had never really heard about a rock and roll chef before. He was on another level.

That took me to obsessively reading Escoffier and things like that. I would read and then replicate dishes or ideas from the classics. From there, I met a local guy in Nottingham named Mick Murphy, who was of Irish heritage. He had worked with Swiss-trained chefs who also had that French repertoire. There was always that connection. I spent hours talking to him about that repertoire, the old kitchen systems. It was fascinating.

When did you start cooking in French restaurants?
I had never had firsthand experience with it, so it was always a fantasy. When I was a senior chef, I basically was absorbed in reading about gastronomy. I was trying to work out my own journey, so I applied for a job at Raymond Blanc's brasserie, which was based around his region in France and dishes from his mom and things like that. I went there for a few months, then to London, and then back to Nottingham to work in a very traditional pub. We did British food with a twist there. We did Stilton cheese, pork pies, all that good stuff.

I applied for a scholarship at a very modern restaurant in the south of France, in Montpellier. I finally wanted to learn first-hand how the French guys were cooking.

That was Le Jardin des Sens? You cooked with René Redzepi there, right?
Yes. He started about two weeks before me. I knew that he wasn't French, because he had this glint in his eye. No one spoke English, allegedly, then I realized they did. They were just a bunch of arrogant fuckers. Once I realized they were a little insecure about trying to speak English, I did my best with my broken French. We got through fine, since it's somewhat easy to communicate in a kitchen. We had a great time for three months. It was kind of a role reversal: instead of learning French, I ended up teaching them fucking English!

Then, me and René went on to elBulli in 1999. We had heard a little bit about this Dalí-Picasso chef doing things with smoked marrow bone and caviar. We were like, What the hell is this. René booked a table for us to eat there, and that night really spun our heads around. It was an eye-opener about what was possible and what was going on. It was so foreign to us, in many ways.

I had already secured a head chef job in Nottingham. When I came back, the menus were very classical French, with a few influences from my readings, from Le Jardin. But there was this part of me that really wanted to break out of this shell after eating at elBulli. I didn't want to replicate. It had more to do with [Ferran Adrià's] ideas about being original, treating an ingredient as if it's the first time you're seeing it.

Even Escoffier shows hints of that. I was just reading the opening chapter yesterday night and I wrote down one of the quotes. Can I read it?

Of course.
"We must respect, love, and study the great works of previous chefs. But instead of copying them, we should seek new approaches so that we too may leave behind methods of working that have been adapted to the needs and customs of our time." That says it all. Everybody talks about the classics, but even Escoffier was a forward thinker. You have to work in the period and place you are in. That quote comes from 1907.

We have a lot of guys saying that we are going to lose our roots with modern cuisine. I don't believe that. Times are changing, and if you don't want to become a dinosaur, you adapt. You are never going to lose the classics, because that is the foundation of good cooking. If you can make a Madeira sauce better and lighter, without using veal stock or pig's trotter, and still get a fresh, clean, unctuous sauce, why wouldn't you? The days of the rich sauces have moved on, because people don't eat that way anymore, for the most part.

I'd agree with you, I think. A lot of people say that progressive cuisine is dead, but you look at a lot of restaurants that are part of this natural movement or whatever you'd like to call it, and they have most of the Adrià tools in their arsenal. They just use them to get somewhere else.
Of course they do. I think people are afraid of using modern techniques because it is somehow going to devalue their skills as cooks, but if you can get a better flavor using a centrifuge or another modern method, it's a no-brainer. The ethos of a lot of these restaurants these days is natural, but to get there they use a lot of modern techniques. We tip our hats off to places like elBulli and Arzak.

Back to your restaurant. What's the goal there? What are you trying to do?
We try to smash your face in with flavor. It's as simple as that. We have the craziest location, a place that everyone said wouldn't work. That made us think of wild ideas that were intended to make us stronger. We wanted to prove the people who were beating us down wrong.

There's a dish we came up with that is one of the only ones we've done that uses foraged ingredients. We didn't really want to push that movement too much. It's the same thing with most things that influence us — you can admire it and take inspiration from it but you don't always have to jump in with both feet.

What's the dish?
The dish is called NG7 2SA, which is our post code. The dish has wild horseradish ice cream and a nettle soup. The idea is that the ingredients come from within ten meters of the restaurant. So, when people are lost or can't find us — or a critic has criticized our location, the motorway, the cigarette factory nearby — this is the "fuck you" dish. You are now having to eat the area around the restaurant, and we make it absolutely delicious.

You can only eat it here. You are literally eating the post code. We turn the negative into a positive.

Can you talk more about the food and what you do at Sat Bains?
The ideology of the menus is that we do a seven-course or a ten-course. It's all about balance. We want each dish to be part of a sensible progression of flavors and textures and temperatures that ultimately give you a beautiful sense of comfort. You've had a great journey, but you are comfortably full. I hate it when menus go too long. More than ten courses is too much for me. The other thing that really pisses me off is that they make them so protein-rich that after you finish the main courses, you don't want anything else.

The key for us is having the protein dishes leave room so you can finish your meal on a nice finale of acidity. We also add chocolate in there somewhere as the penultimate thing, because in the UK there's the idea of having the chocolate dessert. But we always finish with acid. That fresh finish helps your palate peak and helps you digest.

A lot of contemporary chefs would probably agree with you, but there are still plenty gut-bomb high-end restaurants out there.
That's no good. How can that be a memory of a great night out? You want to relish thinking about that menu. We don't always achieve it, but what we go for is the feeling where you are lingering on the last mouthful because you don't want it to end. That's what we want to create. The "journey" is the key word. We want you to leave dinner, go upstairs to your room, and feel like you've had a smooth, nice night out with a loved one or friend.

I don't want it to be a pilgrimage or cathedral to the cuisine, either. You have to have a nice, fun time. We make fucking food. We aren't saving people's lives here. People are too serious about this. You should be able to have a laugh with the sommelier and occasionally put your elbow on the table.

It's interesting you bring that up because there's been a debate about the "tyranny" of tasting menus here — the idea that people are now completely trapped and subject to a chef's whims. What do you think of that?
I read some of those articles. I think that when it gets to the point where you are sitting at the table for fucking five hours, and unless it's someone like Ferran Adrià cooking for you, someone who is a fucking genius, you have to be very, very special indeed to pull that off. I'm sorry, but I don't think that there are many people who can pull it off at that level. These people, these few, are the types that can't sleep because they're thinking about the next texture, the next development. There are very few of them out there.

Look at kaiseki: it's balanced, it's beautiful, it reflects nature. You have cherry blossom on there when it's in season. It's light. It makes you feel good after you've eaten it. It's invigorating. They've been doing it for thousands of years, so surely we can learn something from it.

And how would you describe your new book?
The book is exactly what we just spoke about. It's about the journey of a guy who just fell into the industry. The idea was to inspire people to realize, Fucking hell, I want to be a chef and I can be chef. It's not because I'm the best. Definitely not. It's that if I can do it, you can definitely fucking do it.

You are probably tired of talking about it, but you have the reputation of being rambunctious, aggressive. The text in the book, for instance, is all caps.
The way I look at it, I'm an honest guy. I'm not going to bullshit someone. I'm not going to stroke someone, tell them they're great, and then shit on them behind their back. I wanted the book to be something I'm proud of. I didn't want to look back and be embarrassed. That's why we did it ourselves. That's why it took five years to produce. We didn't go to a publishing house, and I didn't want to be dictated to. I used my own money.

And what about responding to negative criticisms? You've been known to take on people on TripAdvisor? Is it because you feel the need to defend what you do? Do you get offended?
No, I don't defend anything I do. I just say that if you have the balls to say something to my face, fine. But if you are going to hide behind a review with a bullshit fake name, you are full of shit. The point I'm trying to make is that if the customer gets drunk in the restaurant and gets loud and then says that a dish is disgusting, they have to prepared for me to say their blouse is disgusting. It's a matter of personal taste.

I've never had a serious critic say something like that. I've had customers that go overboard, get drunk, and do things that nearly offend other guests eating there. The only ones I really can't stand are the ones that will shake your hand, tell you they had a beautiful night, and then say something negative online. What really pisses me off is that I want to do something about it when you're there. Tell me, please. If you don't like a dish, let me know and I'll try to give you some service. Not everybody is going to like everything, but I'm not in the business to upset my clients. I would be out of business if that were the case.

That's all I have for you. Any last words?
Yeah: fuck all! [laughs]

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Restaurant Sat Bains With Rooms

1 Lenton Lane, Nottingham NG7 2SA, United Kingdom

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