Michelin-starred chef Sat Bains talks to Sophie Morris about the heart-friendly meal plan full of flavour he devised after a ‘widowmaker’ attack nearly killed him

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Did you hear about the Michelin-starred chef who lost his appetite? You couldn’t make it up. But Sat Bains almost lost much more than his taste buds when he had a massive heart attack in March 2021, shortly after turning 50.

“I’m lucky to be here,” he tells i as he publishes a new cookbook, Eat to Your Heart’s Content, which shares recipes from the recovery diet he devised with friend and nutritionist Dr Neil Williams, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology and nutrition at Nottingham Trent University, and the first person he messaged from hospital.

“We deal with stress and emergencies in the kitchen every day. Oh, the souffl√©’s collapsed,” he jokes. “But you react quickly to get the job done. So it was: ‘OK, I’ve had a heart attack. What now?’” It was a long journey back to health after an artery rupture, known in medicine as the widowmaker, and Bains focused on what he put in his mouth. “Food is the key to everything,” he says. “But this isn’t a preachy diet book. I want people to understand that they can cook really good food at home [too]”. (While his eponymous two-Michelin starred Nottingham restaurant orders from the very best produce suppliers, Bains shops at supermarkets for his home cooking and went to Sainsbury’s every day to source ingredients for the cookbook.)

As a middle-aged male with South Asian parents, he had the markers for high cholesterol and already knew it was a problem. But Bains was also in incredible physical shape, having trained seriously since he was a teenager, and considered his high-protein and fat keto diet healthy. He was working out with his personal trainer when he felt pain that he assumed was muscular. “I didn’t think anything of it,” he remembers, “but during the course of the day I felt pain in my jaw, and then my eye socket, but not in my arm which I’d associate with something serious.

“Throughout the day, I felt more and more agitated, which is a strange feeling. I was uncomfortable and couldn’t get settled. I went out to the park but felt short of breath.” He decided to come home and sit down, but began to feel pain down his left arm. “At this point I thought it might be serious. I rang 111 and they said, ‘You’ve had a heart attack, we need to get you in.’” An angiogram revealed how grave the situation was. “The surgeon said I’d ruptured one artery and blocked nearly all of the others, so just two or three millilitres of blood were pumping through one artery.

“The doctors all said they were quite surprised I was still alive. The severity of the heart attack and the size of the clot ‘should have killed me that morning’.”

Bains was rushed into surgery. “They call it beating heart surgery because your heart is basically sitting on your chest,” he explains. “They cut you open, crack your bones, and open your chest. I lost 17kg (2st 9lb) from the trauma.”

Now, having recovered, he is stoical about the near-death experience, saying that at the time, aware he might not survive, he was grateful for having lived a “phenomenal life” with his wife and business partner, Amanda. Indeed, the recovery itself turned out to be much harder than his confrontation with mortality.

How was the hospital food he was given? “I’m not one to mock the NHS and the food budget they have, but I couldn’t understand it. Why were they giving me shit white bread? I couldn’t eat it. Surely it should have been eggs? I’d assumed it would be nutritious, but it was just about calorific value.”

Once he was discharged, Bains struggled to get his eating back on track. “I lost all my appetite.” This is one of the UK’s best chefs, a man with two Michelin stars, a former Roux scholar and Great British Menu finalist. His previous cookbook in 2012, Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian, has contributions from Heston Blumenthal and over 30 other fine-dining chefs.

But after the heart attack, he couldn’t face big meals so planned five smaller portions over the day. “Losing my appetite was very, very strange. I just couldn’t eat. I’ve not had that before, but from the trauma suffered through the surgery, your body’s out of kilter. I couldn’t walk; I normally walk 5km in 40 minutes but I couldn’t walk 1km in an hour.

“The thing that really saved me was bone broth. My head chef made me a chicken broth and I added seaweed to make it very high in umami. I ate salmon and scrambled eggs - a lean, protein-rich diet.”

Umami, known as the “fifth taste”, is a cornerstone of Bains’ cooking and his heart-healthy recipes. It is a savoury, salty, deep flavour which is a substitute for excessive salt. He still uses salt, but much less, using umami-rich anchovies, parmesan, fermented foods and splashes of soy instead.

Today his diet consists of lean protein, plenty of legumes, fruit and veg, and good fats such as avocados, olive oil and nuts. He loves eggs and considers them a superfood. Though Bains has been a chef for 25 years (and before that he cut his teeth in the family shop), he has learned new tricks such as how leaving a yolk runny gives us more nutrients, and that slicing raw cauliflower releases an antiinflammatory called sulforaphane.

Bains knew his co-author Dr Neil Williams could provide key nutritional insights for each recipe.

There are also plenty of healthysounding fish and vegetable dishes, as well as some Punjabi classics from Momma Bains. Bains isn’t against comfort eating, or some foods usually demonised by the heart health lobby. He still eats red meat, including steak but not as often as before, and goes for mince with 10 per cent fat.

For something sweet, the protein brownie bar is the same one Bains has made for his staff for years, to give them an energy hit around 9pm. Today he’s back to training as hard as ever, says his blood tests are healthy and that his fitness probably saved him. And his appetite has certainly returned. Bains also admits that he loves good wine, whisky and a cigar every now and then, but has learnt to savour everything and fully appreciate it.

“I’ll never forget watching Michel Roux Snr eat. He’d take a bite, put his knife and fork down, chew, savour, look around, have a sip of wine. That’s my fantasy, to be that in tune with beautiful flavours, and take the time to enjoy.”

‘Eat To Your Heart’s Content’ by Sat Bains (Kyle Books, ¬£26) is out on 18 January