As is the case with all top chefs, Sat Bains' zeal and passion for what he does is infectious. And, as Marcus Janssen discovered, he also has a knack for turning unadventurous customers into game lovers.
Something that has always struck me about every successful chef I have ever come across, is their unstinting love for what they do. I think it is fair to say that none of them will have become chefs for the money or the perks, and that to succeed in the world of fine dining requires a level of dedication that would be alien to most of us. Gruellingly long hours are a given, heart attack-inducing stress levels are par for the course, and perfectionism in everything they do, every single day of their working lives, is simply part of the job description. They live, breathe, eat, sleep and dream menus, recipes, ingredients and garnishes, and everything else is secondary, including family and social commitments.
Sat Bains is no exception. Even after 15 years at the helm of his eponymous two Michelin-starred restaurant in Nottingham, it is clear that his life still revolves around food. “My aim has always been to have one of the very best restaurants in the UK, in Europe and, ultimately, the world. That may sound ambitious, but I am a firm believer that you can never take your foot off the gas,” he says.
“In this industry, it is so easy to drop the ball,” he continues. “You have got to strive to be better and better all the time, and you've got to continually ask yourself, how can we enhance the experience for our customers?” And it shows. As I follow Sat into his immaculate kitchen, we find three of his chefs animatedly huddled around an exquisite looking plate of food. “Our first grouse came in this week,” says head chef John Freeman, “and we have been experimenting with a few new recipes.” As I shovel a heaped forkful of grouse into my mouth, I am, quite literally, gob-smacked by the flavour and tenderness of the meat. “When you get good game,” says Sat, knowingly, “it is simply incomparable to anything else. That's why there is always great excitement in our kitchen at the start of the game season.”
Indeed, during the season, game takes precedent over all other meats on the menu. “We don't have an à la carte menu,” continues Sat, “only seven and ten-course taster menus, both of which feature game – so our customers don't have a choice; they will eat some game! So many people are surprised when they take their first mouthful of grouse and absolutely love it. We're not cajoling them, just taking them by the hand, leading them onto the moors, and broadening their horizons. In the end, they are so grateful. And we don't hold back – we will give them really rare pigeon or teal, or even tartar of hare fillet, and they love it!”
Sat firmly believes that some of the stronger flavours associated with game shouldn't be shied away from. “It is crucial that we do not lose touch with that legacy, that tradition of experiencing all of these great seasonal flavours. And there is no better way of celebrating the seasons than with game. That shift of season from summer to autumn is my favourite time of year. It is such an exciting time for chefs. I really want to celebrate game – it is wild, it is healthy and it is the true taste of the Great British countryside. And we always tell our customers that there might be lead shot in the bird, not for health and safety reasons, but because we want them to know where this bird has come from and have a clear understanding of the whole process, from moor to table.”
Learning to shoot
Sat's introduction to shooting came a few years ago when he was at Gleneagles with Claude Bosi and Tom Kerridge. “We all decided that, as we were all heading into our 40s, it was the perfect time to take up a new hobby! And, as chefs, what could be better than being able to head out and harvest some of the finest produce the country has to offer, ourselves?”
So, after starting off with some clays at Gleneagles, Tom, Claude and Sat have since moved onto game; Sat has three days booked this season. “And I can't wait!” he says with more than a hint of excitement. “I will actually be shooting with Brett Graham and Galton Blackiston in November, and Claude, Tom and I went to Cordoba in Argentina earlier this year to shoot doves. Wow, what an amazing experience! You obviously have to be ethical and selective, but because they are a major pest for the farmers out there, you can't shoot too many.
“But I practice a lot on clays,” he continues. “I try to get to Doveridge Clay Sports at least once a week and I really feel like I am improving. I now have my own gun, and I love the whole ritual of cleaning it afterwards. Indeed, I am so looking forward to learning about all of the etiquette, the rituals and traditions that are associated with game shooting in the UK. Simon Hadfield (from Hadfield Guns and Countrywear in Loughborough) has been my mentor. I wanted to have someone local who I can ask if I need to know anything, and Simon has kindly said that he will come and load for me on my first game day. I've got a lot to learn, but I am so excited about it. We went to Wales and did a fully simulated game day to get a feel for it.
“But I definitely see shooting as part of my future, a part of living in this area of the country where we are surrounded by beautiful countryside and so many wonderful shoots. Being a chef, you want to see the whole picture and know exactly where your key ingredients like grouse, partridge and pheasant come from. It's important. And I can't wait to put ‘Pheasant shot by the chef' onto my menu this year!”
Making the most of game
“When it comes to game, there are three key things to remember,” says Sat. “Firstly, don't hang it for too long. A few days for partridge, pheasant and grouse is plenty. The longer you hang it, the stronger the flavour will be. Secondly, don't overcook it. And finally, make sure you rest it afterwards. This allows the meat to relax and become more tender. It's not just the flavour that you want to make the most of, you want to get the best texture too.”
Sat also prefers to cook game on the bone. “We pot roast a lot of our gamebirds whole as this keeps them moist and allows you to infuse them with all of those wonderful flavours we associate with game – juniper, thyme, bacon, berries, pine etc. By using these flavours – all of which are in season at the same time as the game – we are only listening to nature. It is like one wonderful big coincidence that so many of these ingredients, that go together so well, are in season at the same time! The key is to listen to nature and not force things together that don't belong. Nature dictates the menu.
“This is an area in which cooking has changed in recent years,” he continues. “We used to tell our suppliers exactly what we wanted from them, but now we ring them up and say: “What have you got for us?” They send us the best of what's in season and we then make the most of those fantastic ingredients.
Another tip is to not overcomplicate things. As a chef, there comes a point when you realise that great food doesn't need to be complicated – just allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. If you have a beautiful partridge with a wonderful flavour, why would you overpower that with something else?”