Refined Against the Devastation: The Contradiction that Drives Sat Bains

by Emily Bell, Interview by Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno
March 2012


Video Interview

Chef Sat Bains on the Virtues of the Anti-Chic

Restaurant Sat Bains Daily Declaration

1. Be the Best,…Work hard-work fast-work clean.
2. Every ingredient we use has to be the best we can afford.
3. Seasons have to rule the kitchen.
4. Only allow minimal manipulation when necessary.
5. Elevate flavors through understanding.
6. Cook as if you are eating.
7. Waste is poor workmanship.
8. Extraction of flavor is our role in life as cooks.
9. Balance of menu is our obligation to our guests.
10. Health is crucial in menu planning.
11. Seasoning is a true skill so taste, taste, and taste again.
12. Our goal is to be the best we should act like the best!

To the untrained or trend-obsessed eye, what Chef Sat Bains is doing with his restaurant might appear fashionable. And really, it’s almost impossible not to see Restaurant Sat Bains as some kind of diamond in the industrial rough, sparkling amidst the pallid fatigue of the functional (as opposed to fabulous) cityscape of Nottingham, England. But should you dare call Bains fashionable, or worse yet, accuse his restaurant of being “clever” or “defiant,” we’re guessing the chef might politely ask you to sod off. You simply don’t get it.

Don’t get us wrong. Bains isn’t a crank. He’s just aggressively visionary. And Restaurant Sat Bains is his outpost, a haven of culinary finesse that’s positioned itself very much intentionally in the wrong place. “The restaurant almost should not be here,” says Bains, whose broad smile belies an intimidating muscularity (dude’s big). “This was an old derelict farm that was left to ruin,” he says, a likelier setting for horror film barnyard depravity than Michelin-starred cuisine. But Bains, you soon realize, sees things differently—and far more confidently—than the rest of us. For him, the city of Nottingham and the bones of a decrepit old farmhouse were the unpretentious ground zero for his vision.

“I wanted to do something real,” he says. By positioning his restaurant beyond the gravitational chic of London, Bains underlines reality by contradiction (of context and cuisine), embracing the sensory-heightening rush of “two opposites” the way a chef might juxtapose piercing acid and melting fat. Want to grasp Sat Bains, restaurant and man? Imagine a snake tattoo coiled on the arm of a beautiful woman, or an ice cold plunge in merciless heat. Or better yet, imagine cooking some of the country’s best cuisine in olfactory proximity to a cigarette factory—“I love the smell,” says the former smoker. “It’s raw tobacco.” Like the graffiti artists who regularly baptize the city’s urban grit with splashes of vibrant color (Bains brought local icon Steve Dilks with him to experimental culinary-design collaborative, Paris de Chefs), he’s giving you something beautiful, somewhere unexpected. Or, as Bains puts it, “we are refined against the devastation.”

So how does it translate to the plate? While it’s certainly not as picked over as the El Bulli tasting menu (will anything be?), the Sat Bains experience has been widely broadcast in UK outlets, even receiving a perfect 10 from the Telegraph (it was his critically adored Ham, Duck Egg, and Peas that earned Bains the rare perfect score). And that’s because Bains is as confidently idiosyncratic in the kitchen as he is outside of it, eschewing many of the trappings of fine dining (“chefs spend too much time building fucking towers”) in favor of the elemental and straightforward. “I never chose to cook this way,” says Bains. “It’s an evolution.” A few lines from the Restaurant Sat Bains Declaration, read every day before service, sum it up: “Seasons have to rule the kitchen … Only allow minimal manipulation when necessary … Extraction of flavor is our role in life as cooks.”

For our tasting (we chose the seven over the 10 course option, though guests also have the option to click-and-pick their own 10-course “Unique” tasting menu), Bains remained true to form, serving us dishes that blended seasonality, minimal manipulation, and creative flavor combinations. Other heavy influences for Bains are locale—the restaurant employs a full-time forager—and history. “A lot of it gets down to what was here before us. All dishes have historical value.” And while one might qualify the resulting style as a blend of Bains’ French training, local/historical appreciation, and eclectic palate, the effort feels about as necessary (and about as cool) as writing a chronology of your favorite rock n’ roll song while you listen to it. Just eat.

You’ll be rewarded. Bains’ Fish Pie is a bowl of delicately riced potatoes, piled like snow atop tender pollock and the punch of marmite (yeasty Brit culinary birthright). His Langoustine, Brawn, and Charred Leeks is plated so simply as to exude confidence: a sweet coil of langoustine beside the carbon-dark char of leek on top a single slice of head cheese. And for his Salt-baked Celeriac, Bains rests a beggar’s purse of the salt-baked root in a purée of celeriac, and tops it off with a petal of pickled celeriac, reminiscent of pickled ginger, and echoed in its Japanese (almost kaiseki) simplicity by the earthenware bowl it arrives in.

The deconstructed “Waldorf Salad” has been done, surely, but Bains’ is a playful palate cleanser. And his English Duck with Asian Influences might appear fashionably tiny in its cavernous bowl. But Bains isn’t dabbling in the undernourished holy processional of avant-garde tasting menus. His duck is simply a small bite that emphasizes the huge world of its influences (contradiction heightening experience): grated cashew nuts, shiso cress, and Lancashire duck liver parfait that’s wrapped in crisped duck ham, all sprayed with ponzu, soy, mirin, and yuzu. “Britain is very multi-cultural,” says Bains, though the dish hardly reads like culinary UN. It just makes weird sense.

And that’s what Bains is after, in a way. Yes, there’s the contradiction that drives his restaurant. But the flavors of his food are about logic, even logic you never knew was there until you tasted it. “Grouse would be eating blackberries,” says Bains, who pairs them with that rationale. “It’s not the genius of the chef. You are observing. It takes craftsmanship to make it delicious.” Craftsmanship might be an understatement. Bains’ Fallow Deer with Cauliflower, Chocolate, and Quince was one of the most incredible dishes we’ve ever had. The deer sits on a buttery purée of quince, practically melting in your mouth with each bite. Roasted cauliflower is sweet and nutty, while chocolate shavings, which Bains uses like a seasoning, bring out the earthiness of the meat.

But don’t get too comfortable. Bains may be a perfectionist, but he’s got a puckish sense of humor, too. Take the NG7, the electric green, tongue-(slightly)-in-cheek “fuck you” course of Restaurant Sat Bains. As if the two-plus hour journey from London wasn’t reminder enough, Bains puts Nottingham—its gritty, graffiti-ed beauty—into the dish. “Everything in this dish is from a 10-meter radius of this restaurant,” says Bains, referring to the horseradish panna cotta, elderberry vinegar, caper, and tansy herb that give the (graffiti green) nettle soup layers of heat, acid, floral sweetness, and crunch. “By creating this dish, everybody is physically eating the post code,” he says. “They’re not going to forget the restaurant.” For this, and for many, many reasons, we’re sure he’s right.