Sat Bains looks like a rugby player.
He’s not just physically imposing: He’s actually physical. He’ll grab you in a bear hug and loudly share with you what’s on his mind, littering his monologue with expletives. He’s the kind of man who would make a good friend and a bad enemy.
Bains, 41, also happens to be one of the U.K.’s most sensitive chefs. He produces dishes of such delicacy that it’s difficult to square them with such a rumbustious character.
His Restaurant Sat Bains With Rooms placed No. 4 in the U.K. National Restaurant Awards in October. It’s located on the edge of an industrial estate in Nottingham, central England, and holds two Michelin stars.
Now, this English-born offspring of Punjabi parents who moved to the U.K. in the 1960s has released a cookbook and it’s predictably large. “Too Many Chiefs, Only One Indian” weighs three kilograms (6.6 pounds) and costs 75 pounds ($120). The introduction is by Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck.
Bains developed his love of food enjoying meals with his extended family, and went to catering college to meet girls.
“I started to read books by the great French chefs, (Auguste) Escoffier, Michel Roux, Pierre Koffmann, and I wanted to get into the trade,” Bains said in an interview.
He worked hard to achieve that goal, leaving his home in the English Midlands to work at Le Petit Blanc in Oxford and L’Escargot in London, before winning the Roux Scholarship, the premier award for young British chefs. His prize was training in France at the three-star Le Jardin des Sens, alongside Rene Redzepi, the Danish chef who went on to open Noma in Copenhagen.
A trip with Gordon Ramsay followed, to El Bulli, which held the title of World’s Best Restaurant before Noma. Bains has also traveled to Japan on a culinary scholarship, and you can see these experiences reflected in his dishes, which combine the modern technology pioneered by Ferran Adria at El Bulli with a Japanese aesthetic of purity and harmony.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything simple about the recipes in “Too Many Chiefs.” They’re aimed at professional chefs, are designed to feed 10 and many require the kind of equipment (Pacojet, Thermomix, etc.) that even the most skilled of home cooks may not possess.
The book is beautiful, with photos by John Arandhara-Blackwell, and the main buyers may be happy diners rather than food lovers looking for recipe ideas. It most closely resembles books Adria used to produce at El Bulli, which documented dishes more than they encouraged their reproduction.
The text, all in capital letters as if Bains was shouting, is as robust as its creator. Here are a couple of examples: “A CHEF SHOULD REALLY ONLY EVER BE JUDGED FOR THEIR TECHNICAL ABILITY.” And, “NO ONE KNOWS MY FOOD BETTER THAN ME, SO I CAN’T BE JUDGED ON IT. THAT’S NOT ARROGANT. THAT’S PURE HONESTY.”
Sometimes, the line between honesty, arrogance and aggression can be a thin one. Bains says a diner who described one of his dishes as disgusting was summoned to the kitchen and told “I’M NOT BEING FUNNY, BUT YOUR BLOUSE IS DISGUSTING.”
Bains is known for his robust response to criticism on TripAdvisor, telling an unhappy customer his group resembled a wake. “The only reason the staff stuck around was to make sure they were still breathing, as a death of grumpy customers is not something I want on my conscience,” Caterer and Hotelkeeper quoted him as saying.
Bains only serves tasting menus. For dinner, it’s 79 pounds for seven courses and 89 pounds for 10. When I dined there in October, the dishes included scallop curry (with lentil dahl and cumin yogurt); Cornish crab with avocado and sea vegetables (with pickled turnip and peanut brittle); duck “muesli” (with savory granola); and chocolate mousse (with cumin).
It’s modern British cooking with influences from France, the Nordic region, Spain, India and Japan, to name but a few of the places. It’s served beside a highway on the outskirts of a provincial English city, almost two hours from London by train, an unlikely setting for a meal of such creativity.
The dress code? Don’t wear a disgusting blouse.
Restaurant Sat Bains With Rooms, Lenton Lane, Nottingham, NG7 2SA. http://www.restaurantsatbains.com/ or +44-115-986-6566.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include James Russell on architecture and Mike Di Paola on conservation.