Sat Bains knows first-hand what an amazing opportunity a scholarship can be for a young chef – winning the Roux Scholarship motivated him to take advantage of the chance he’d been awarded, working hard and eventually achieving his dream of opening his own restaurant.
Here, Sat tells us about his own career path, why young chefs shouldn’t rush success, and why the Andrew Fairlie Scholarship is important for Scotland’s hospitality industry.
Could you tell us a bit about your career background?
“My family are Sikhs from the Punjab, and I was born in Normanton, Derby, just after my parents migrated to the UK. I grew up in Derbyshire and went to Derby College, where I completed my City & Guilds qualifications.
“I got my first big break when I moved to Nottingham as head chef of Jesse’s Restaurant, which was on the site of Jesse Boot's first apothecary. But in all honesty, I was too young for the role, and after reading Marco Pierre White’s White Heat, which opened my eyes to a whole new world, I decided to recalibrate my career.
“In 1996, I took a role as chef de partie at Raymond Blanc’s first Le Petit Blanc brasserie in Oxford, before spending a brief period at the Michelin-starred L’Escargot. The following year, I returned to Nottingham as head chef of The Martins Arms in Colston Basset.
“In my next role – as head, and only, chef of the 20-seat restaurant in Derby’s Ashbourne Gallery – I entered the Roux Scholarship competition and was fortunate to win the 1999 scholarship despite it being my first attempt. By the time of the final, however, I was unemployed as the Ashbourne Gallery had been forced to close.
“My success securing the Roux Scholarship presented me with the opportunity to work at any three Michelin-starred property in the world and I chose to go to Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, France. Simultaneously, I was offered the chance to become head chef at Nottingham’s Hotel des Clos, which of course eventually became the two-Michelin-starred
Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms. This year, I celebrate 20 years at the property, and I love it. It’s been a phenomenal journey and I think I’m very lucky to have a job that doesn’t feel like a job - it’s a passion and a vocation.”
Can you remember the first menu you designed?
“It was while I was working at Jesse’s in Nottingham. I was 23, had just taken on my first head chef’s job and I was cooking everything to order. I remember serving leek and potato soup to order; it would take about 15 minutes to make but it was as fresh as anything and incredibly tasty. It was a great learning curve.”
What is your favourite thing about working in hospitality?
“I adore travelling and I love the fact that culture and food brings everyone together. If you can learn about other people’s cultures through food, it will broaden your mind. Often, I find that people with closed minds don’t love food – people who go to Spain and order a full English. For me, food carries a powerful message - it helps people to learn about different cultures and closes the gaps between them. It helps to prove that, deep down, we are all the same.”
What are the biggest challenges facing aspiring chefs today?
“One of the biggest challenges for young chefs is playing the long game – always look at your career in the long term. Social media brings a mixture of positives and negatives, but too many people want to be a hero overnight. I’m still striving to become a better chef; I hope that tomorrow, I will be a better chef than today.
“To young chefs I would say stop rushing, it’s not a race, and be careful what you wish for - you just might get it. Enjoy the journey, and make sure you take the time to imprint special moments on your mind – some people are in such a rush to succeed they don’t enjoy the process that leads to that success. Success lies in happiness, family, friendship, closeness… interestingly, it’s not about money.
“I’m lucky that I don’t have any voids in my life, and I’m at a stage where if we want to do something, we can do it. But if you have an unfulfilled career, you will be full of regrets. So just do the best you can, be in the moment, and realise you have potential every day – do not ignore the journey of a five-year plan. I’ve been in the same spot for 20 years so I can see how we have evolved and the lessons I’ve had to learn on the job. I love a challenge, I love challenging the team and I love making them work because that’s where their learning lies.”
What impact do you think the Andrew Fairlie Scholarship will have on Scotland’s hospitality sector?
“I think it will be really positive. When I took part in the Roux Scholarship 20 years ago, there were one or two chefs from Scotland who would take part, but not as many as there should have been. To have a scholarship based in Scotland for Scotland is brilliant and I’m very happy to be part of Andrew’s legacy. I knew him for 20 years – from the moment I won the Roux Scholarship – and he remained an important figure in my life. I only take part in a handful of competitions, and if I can pass on anything in his name, I would be honoured to do so.”
What three words would you use to describe a potential Andrew Fairlie scholar?
“Disciplined, knowledgeable and kind – three words that depict Andrew.”
Do you have any advice for applicants to the Andrew Fairlie Scholarship?
“Do your homework - look at the classics, look at techniques, study the masters, look at sauce-making, and hone your skills. Go the extra mile, do extra research and practice, practice, practice. If you want this scholarship to be a stepping stone for your career, use it, commit yourself and give yourself great potential like Andrew did when he won the Roux Scholarship in 1984. Everyone has the potential to be amazing.”
The Andrew Fairlie Scholarship is an incredible opportunity for aspiring chefs – you can find more details and apply for the scholarship here.