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Sat Bains at UCFF: risks, restraint and the future of the industry

Sat Bains at UCFF: risks, restraint and the future of the industry

by Izzy Burton 06 October 2015

Where is the culinary industry going, and what needs to change to help it survive? Sat Bains tackled these questions and more when he took to the stage at the fourth annual Universal Cookery and Food Festival.

Izzy writes for Great British Chefs where she combines a lifetime love of food and tricolons.

While Kanye West was conspicuously absent from the event dubbed the ‘Glastonbury for chefs’, we were treated to a blast of NWA as Sat Bains danced onto the stage. ‘We were asked which song we wanted as our entrance music, and as a joke I said ‘Fuck the Police’,’ he explained to the laughing crowd. ‘I didn’t know that was actually coming on – sorry about that!’

Perched on higgledy-piggledy hay bales, for the audience this was the second cooking-demonstration-cum-TED-talk of the morning from the Universal Cookery and Food Festival's varied programme. With the fine dining side of the industry covered by, among others, Sat Bains and Kenny Atkinson, head chef at the newly Michelin-starred House of Tides, the rest of the programme ran the gamut from independent producers and premium suppliers to development chefs for some of the country’s most ubiquitous chains. The crowd, too, was equally mixed, with culinary students rubbing shoulders with chefs and experts from across the industry.

Sat Bain’s talk was on ‘graft, grime and glory’, a discussion on his own route into food and where he believed the industry was going. Charismatic and candid in equal measure, the chef was incredibly open about his own experiences as a young man (‘I loved the hours, I loved the fact that we were working when everyone else was playing, but we would then go and play while everyone else was in bed – and that’s where all the fun is!‘) and where he believed the future of the industry was going.

I know we’ve got to change, I know that. I can’t expect the way it was to be the future

While Sat Bains was addressing the audience, a bright young chef named Reuben from the Restaurant Sat Bains kitchen was preparing an autumnal plate of venison tartare. Bains stepped in to help plate up, adding suitably earthy flavours of ceps and bitter chocolate and explaining the thinking behind his serving style: ‘I hate presentation, I think it’s overrated. We try and serve our food the way we want you to eat it. With this tartare you’ve got to drag your spoon through it, and you taste everything the way the chef devised it. With everything arranged all over the plate there’s the chance for the person to eat it wrong, if that makes sense.’

The chef was fascinating on the topic of menu planning. With ninety percent of diners at Restaurant Sat Bains opting for the opulent ten course tasting menu (as opposed to the smaller seven course menu), balance is paramount. 'The one key ingredient is restraint,' said Bains. 'You want to be full but not uncomfortably stuffed – them days are gone!' Clearly, from the food served to the people preparing it, Sat Bains has a sharp eye on how the culinary world is evolving.

So, what is the future of the industry as he sees it? The expectation of chefs working punishing hours day in day out is, he believes, an outdated one: ‘I’m from the eighties, I’m used to an 80-90 hour week, that’s normal, I also come from an Asian background and the ethic is you work hard. My dad was an immigrant, he came over here to work hard and to make a better life for himself. That’s no longer the case – we’ve now got to work hard to create a better life for, I believe, the guys coming next.’

 
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The festival was held at Vallum, a working farm and foodie paradise in the beautiful Northumberland countryside
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Sat Bains' venison tartare, with roe deer, lichen, mushroom ketchup, smoked oil mayonnaise, venison fat, cocoa power and cep powder

The chef is true to his word about creating a better life within the industry, an endeavour which comes at great risk to himself; as of November of this year, Restaurant Sat Bains will start operating on a four day week. A shortage of young chefs in the industry has led what Bains refers to as ‘a buyer’s market’, with the power now in the hands of the applicants rather than the employers: ‘They can go to four restaurants, all two star levels, and there can be different reasons, they like the chef, they like the food, they like the location, but maybe the clincher will be three days off together.’ The appeal, he hopes, is the opportunity to ‘have time for another life’ outside work. ‘You can have a life with your partner, your friends … because one thing that the industry is notorious for is the lack of time for home life.’

Even with a restaurant as successful as Sat Bains', though, there are no guarantees. Tables might be booked up weeks in advance, but losing a day's service every week adds up to a significant dip in profits. Bains addresses this with characteristic honesty: 'Don’t get me wrong, I’m shitting myself because we don’t know if it’s going to work and we’re going to lose a lot of money. But, what if it works? What if it’s the way forward? I know we’ve got to change, I know that. I can’t expect the way it was to be the future.'

It's hard not to believe Sat Bains will be successful in his endeavour. Culinary reputation – not to mention loyal foodie followers – aside, the chef clearly has the requisite vision and drive to carry off the changes which, hopefully, will become a priority across the industry. The amount of people pushing for better standards within the culinary world has been growing over the last few years. With influential figures like Bains making changes for the better, the movement seem to be getting somewhere.

 
 
 

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