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Pylon produce: Sat Bains' urban kitchen garden

Pylon produce: Sat Bains' urban kitchen garden

Tom Shingler 23 June 2017

Being next to a motorway flyover on an industrial estate hasn't stopped Sat Bains from creating a little foodie paradise in the grounds of his two-Michelin-starred restaurant – complete with resident rabbits. Take a look at what he's built and how he's managed to eliminate almost all food waste with one very clever composter.

There’s something a little weird when you walk around the kitchen garden at Restaurant Sat Bains. It isn’t the unusual plants; it’s not even the rabbits hopping around your feet. After a few minutes, you realise it’s the constant background noise of cars zooming across the motorway above – the last thing you expect to hear whilst in the middle of such tranquil surroundings.

But it’s that contrast between an urban setting and a picture-perfect garden that Sat Bains loves so much. His restaurant is almost as famous for its unlikely location as it is for its food, and for the past eight years Sat has been gradually transforming the building’s garden from a patch of unkempt grass into a sweet shop of weird and wonderful herbs and vegetables. ‘We had a few things growing, but then we got a gardener called Ken Holland to come in and build some vertical beds on the walls and give everything a bit more structure,’ he explains. ‘After that came the greenhouses – we’ve got a growing greenhouse for herbs, and then a finishing one when they’re ready to harvest. We’ve now eliminated any transport of herbs which is great – they’re so easily damaged in transit and come packed in plastic or polystyrene, sweating away in the lorry. To be able to cut herbs to order in the kitchen is amazing.

‘We’re not trying to become self-sufficient and I don’t think we’ll ever aim to do that – but it just makes sense to plants the things we can grow like herbs and interesting ingredients. We’ve got wild oyster leaves, wild garlic, broad bean tops – the teardrop peas were given to me by Bruno Loubet when he visited.’

While many restaurants are now home to a kitchen garden – which can mean anything from a few herbs growing in a raised bed to something much more large-scale (chefs like Simon Rogan have their own farm) – I’ve never come across one that’s as focused on sustainability as Sat’s. Transporting produce (especially delicate ingredients like herbs) requires packaging; something the chef tries to minimise as much as possible. Food waste is a huge issue in the industry, too, but and that’s where Sat’s all-singing, all-dancing Closed Loop Organics composter comes into play. At first, it might not sound like the most interesting thing in the world, but it’s revolutionised how the kitchen works at Restaurant Sat Bains and saved the team a lot of money in the process.

‘The composter cooks all our food waste – including chicken and lamb bones – at 65°C for twenty-four hours and pulls all the water out,’ explains Sat. ‘You’re then left with this dry material than looks like soil which needs about three months to mature before it can be used as amazing compost that’s really rich in nutrients. It’s much faster than leaving it naturally and from a kitchen point of view it slashed our landfill costs from £20,000 a year to £4,000. Because we had the space, it seemed silly not to install it.’

With the composter taking care of food waste and the herb beds eliminating the need for transport and packaging, the kitchen garden makes sense from both an environmental and financial point of view. But as Sat walked from one raised bed to another, talking about how gardener Jo Gradwell planted wild garlic bulbs or the fact he can extend strawberry season by growing ten different varieties in vertical beds, it was obvious that the garden is more of a passion project than anything else. Especially when you notice the rabbits hopping around the grounds. ‘Amanda used to have rabbits as a kid so one day about ten years ago me and [head chef] John went to a pet shop and bought a bunny, a hutch and some hay and it all started from there,’ says Sat. ‘Now we’re on our fourth and they’re just great to have here – people love it.’

As the garden continues to grow, expand and establish itself, it’s becoming more and more important to what Sat and his team do in the kitchen. It’s nice for the diners, too – they can look out of the dining room and see a well-maintained garden, knowing they’re in safe hands. ‘We’re on an industrial estate with a massive pylon and motorway above us, but the building was originally an outbuilding on a farm in the 1900s. We’re not looking to take it back that far, but I just love the contrast of beautiful greenhouses full of plants and then a giant pylon above them. You can hear the traffic but you can hear birds singing too; we’ve had a swan in here, seen pheasants and thousands of rabbits from the nearby fields. I wanted to create something gastronomic in the middle of this urban landscape and I think we’re getting there. This is only our third year of doing everything properly so we’re still learning and building as we go, but we’re never going to grow all our own carrots or cabbages – the aim is to grow things that are high in flavour which we don’t need a lot of.’

Being able to walk around and look at the flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits in their natural state before they make their way to the kitchen is a bonus for any restaurant. But doing that while traffic roars in the background, knowing you’re in the middle of an industrial estate, is even better. It might be a bit unusual, but that’s what Sat wants. People come to the restaurant because the menu is something you can’t get anywhere else; it makes sense to ensure the setting is just as unique too.

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