Inspiration

Cooking up a storm with Tommy Banks

A lot can happen in a decade, just ask the Banks’ family.

Just over 10 years ago, Anne and Tom Banks took a leap into the unknown and bought The Black Swan in their home village of Oldstead, on the edge of the North York Moors National Park near Coxwold. It was a steep learning curve for the family having never worked in the hospitality sector before, however, with James (Anne and Tom’s eldest son) leading the front of house, the restaurant quickly gained a reputation for exquisite food and in 2012 was awarded a Michelin star.

A year later, Tommy, their youngest son, moved up to the position of Head Chef and the restaurant has not only continued to go strength to strength, but it has also gone in a completely unique direction too. With ample land surrounding them, the Banks’ decided to focus their attention on cultivating the majority of the produce they use in their cooking and has resulted in a truly inimitable menu.

Last year the Black Swan’s profile was raised even higher, when Tommy was selected as one of the three chefs to represent the North East in the BBC’s Great British Menu. Tommy was a resounding triumph, getting three dishes to the final shortlist and one to the banquet itself. We caught up with him earlier this month to find out more about this Yorkshire success story:

Last year you were very much one of the stars of the Great British Menu - can you talk us through how this experience came about?

They approach you to see if it’s something that you’re interested in and I had actually been approached the year before. What happens is they come out and film a little pilot with you where they might spend 45 minutes with you, which is then edited down to a minute or two film and is presented to a panel who make a final decision for the show. Last year for one reason or another I didn't get on, however, when they rang me up the next year and asked if I was interested again I said yes again. They came up again to do another film and this time the panel liked it and the rest is history.

The experience itself is great, I mean it is incredibly stressful and exhausting. Every chef I spoke to who had previously done it said that to me, and I think it's the case that a lot of chefs go into the show thinking "I work a lot of hours, how hard can it be?" but it's not the fact that it's long hours, it's the cooking under pressure whilst also speaking to a camera. I self-edit a lot - I don't blurt out the first thing that comes into my head as that probably isn't the best thing - so you're trying to cook these precise, perfect dishes whilst someone is interrogating you about it and at the same time you're trying to come across well and not like you're under too much pressure. So, it's a draining experience as you can't switch off. 

Were you surprised by how well the show went for you?

I think I was very insecure going into it. Here, at the Black Swan, I'm very comfortable in what I do but what I was most worried about is when people come here my food makes sense; you've already driven through the countryside for miles and you're preparing yourself for this experience you're going to have - which is all about the homegrown produce and the foraging and the quirky farming nature we have and it kind of works. I was worried about how that would transfer to a TV studio in Camden. I mean the two don't really compare do they! I was worried about whether my food was going to make sense down there. Then you worry about whether you have the ability to actually execute the skills that you want to show under pressure and under the circumstances. I definitely took it very seriously and I wasn't blasé about it at all.

So it was amazing to be successful and it was quite reassuring and a confidence boost. It makes you feel like you are justified in what you do; that other people like what you do. It made me think that what I do doesn't just work here but that it can work anywhere and it’s what people like so that was great for me.

How much more pressure is there going back into the Great British Menu kitchen given how well you did the first time?

They're filmed so far in advance that I was asked to film the new series before the old series had gone out, so I had no idea what the public reaction would be. All I had done was live the experience once which was absolutely exhausting and broke me a bit and I had no idea what it would be like on TV or anything like that. So, it was a little bit of a jump into the unknown again. 

Did I feel more pressure second time round? Absolutely not. Because if you're going to do something that you've never done before you have all these unanswered questions, some of them are really silly little things like "I wonder what sort of equipment they're going to have" and when they actually do something does it actually happen like that on TV. So, you've got a million and one questions that you're thinking about beforehand whereas if you've done something before you have a lot of the answers already so there's a lot less stress and it was definitely a big advantage going back. 

Is being on TV something you enjoyed and something you see yourself doing more of in the future?

Yeah, it is. It's a funny one, it's incredibly draining. Filming really is exhausting, but it's one of those things where you feel a lot of nervous energy and it's tiring but at the end of it you think "ahhh, I kind of enjoyed that!". Every week at the end of Great British Menu, I would feel great satisfaction from the week's filming.

It's also quite nice having someone bossing you around a bit, "go over there and do a shot of this" etc., and I miss it when it's all over. So, I think there will be more TV going forward hopefully. 

Yorkshire has more Michelin starred restaurants outside of London than anywhere else in the country, what do you think makes the county stand out as an area of culinary excellence? 

Firstly, I don't think it'll stay at six Michelin starred restaurants in Yorkshire for much longer as I think we'll get more. There's some really, really good restaurants in the county. I think having all the Michelin starred restaurants also makes all the other restaurants up their game as everyone wants to up the standard, it's a bit of a snowball effect really.

I have so many chef friends throughout Yorkshire that are doing great things so I'm hopeful there will be more stars coming Yorkshire's way soon. I'd like to see at least two or three more places get a star this year. 

I think we're lucky with produce also. If you think about how many times you go to London and you read a menu that says "Yorkshire rhubarb" or "Yorkshire venison, lamb" etc., and these menus are all showing off about the Yorkshire produce and then you wonder how many of our butchers are supplying meat to these places in London. So, I think we're at a big advantage, produce wise. We have great cities in the county but also a lot of great rural areas that have fantastic produce to take advantage of too. 

Are there any Yorkshire chefs that inspires you?

I wouldn't necessarily say inspiration, but you definitely learn things from people all the time. The way we've gone with the Black Swan has ploughed its own furrow in the last few years and it's quite individual but it's funny I think everybody you speak to you learn from. When it was Great British Menu, I was lucky because Michael O'Hare (from Michelin-starred restaurant The Man Behind The Curtain in Leeds) has been on it before so he would tell me straight up things to do and not do so that was a big help. 

What would you say is your favourite Yorkshire produce?

It has to be rhubarb doesn't it. I was literally just writing about Yorkshire rhubarb and I was sat looking at the history of it and it is such a Yorkshire thing. I quite like the fact that we're proud of it. Whereas everyone else in the country might be trying to grow it they can't get it to be quite as good as ours! 

I was talking to some Southern chef who was giving me grief about how it's "grim up north" and I told him that actually rhubarb originates from Siberia and you'll find that the high rainfall and cold conditions of Yorkshire makes for the perfect rhubarb! I think it's something as a county we can be very proud of.

We were messing around this year trying to make a little snack dish to have with your coffee. We tried to make a really, really refined Yorkshire curd tart with rhubarb in it - I loved it - I kept eating and eating and eating them. It didn't quite fit into our menu unfortunately but there's nothing more Yorkshire than having a cup of Yorkshire Tea with a rhubarb curd tart. It's perfect.

Do you get to eat out often and are there any Yorkshire restaurants that you rate highly?

Sometimes there's a notion that chefs can be quite critical of other people's restaurants but I just genuinely really enjoy eating out. 

There's loads of places, local to us there's The Hare just up the road at Scawton. They're doing really well and I know that they would dearly love to get a Michelin star which I think they deserve. Then there's the Star at Harome which is a great restaurant, where you can still have a good pint.

Going into York, I love Skosh that's opened fairly recently. They've just been so successful. Micklegate's not a place you would have historically associated with great dining but they have just done great there. It's a great concept that really works. Then there's Le Cochon Auvergne, run by a good friend of mine Josh. They're also doing a great job. 

There's so many places. Obviously I grew up around here and York so that's what I know best but I like Michael's place, The Man Behind The Curtain, in Leeds which is good fun and a real experience to boot to. 

In terms of the Black Swan itself, one thing the restaurant is well known for, is its ethos for growing & harvesting your own produce - how important is this to you and what difference do you think it makes to your dishes?

It's the single most important thing really. It's the whole DNA of the restaurant. It affects everything. People ask me this black and white question "is it really cost effective, what you're doing?" and it is almost an irrelevant question as that question doesn't really add up. The value of the ethos and people knowing what you do, not to mention the PR and interest it generates, is huge. People wouldn't know about us if we just cooked food and that was it. Also, I don't want for staff, people know about us and I have CVs sent through all the time and I think that is genuinely because they want to come and be part of the whole cycle of growing your own food and actually serving this food to the customer as well - it's got huge value. 

For me personally, it's more than that. When Adam (the former head chef) left, we had a Michelin star and I took over and retained the star, but the food that I was cooking felt borrowed, it certainly wasn't mine, it didn't have my identity. It was good, it was delicious, but it was all taken out of other people's cook books and there was none of my own individuality in it. At the time, I was a 24-year-old lad and didn't have much life experience to be able to come up with a full culinary experience. So, this was a real way for me to find my own feet. 

I remember doing an interview with one of your colleagues a couple of years back and the question came "you're 24 years old and you've got a Michelin star, that must be regarded as the pinnacle of a chef's career?" and I remember giving a standard answer but afterwards I thought "this can't be it, this can't be the pinnacle" and for a few days afterwards I thought "I'm not even that good at cooking, I'm not that original and there's so much more to come". So, I stepped back and had a think about what could I do that was original and what could I do that I would be happy in. I came up with this idea, met up with a grower and talked about setting up a garden here and then the idea was, as we're farmers here at the Black Swan, we should put this strict ethos on growing our own produce. We closed at lunchtimes, which was a terrible business decision financially, but it felt right and long term it has really worked out. 

What it did do, was make our dishes really difficult as you're restricted to what you're growing which is incredibly hard. You suddenly find you have a lot of one particular product, for instance you have to find three courses you can fit Jerusalem artichoke into and then that’s when you start getting really creative. Or you might find you've got twenty tonnes of beetroot so you start thinking how do I keep those preserved all year and you find a way of storing them for 12 months and a way of cooking them that's unique. But it is through putting these restrictions in place that you find a way of being creative and now I look at the menu and I'm truly happy with it. There's not a single dish on our menu that you can get anywhere else and I'm proud of it. I feel more justified in what we do now and I’ve never taken more pleasure out of it than I do now. So, when someone says, you’re a Michelin star chef now I think “yep, I feel good about that”.

Family are clearly another huge part of the Black Swan experience - can you explain how, in a bit more detail?

That's definitely the secret to our success, because you can't achieve anything without support. We've got such amazing staff too that have stayed for such a long time.

James, does a fantastic job and he's always backing me up. Then mum and dad have been major influences too. For instance, when I had this idea that I wanted to do this garden, dad made it happen. He made my dream a reality. I remember when I took a spade to the top of the garden, I went to dig and hit a rock so I moved to the side and went again and hit another one and dad went "ahhh, actually I think it is an old quarry, this" and I thought we can't grow here. However, he spent a fortnight bringing in 650 tonnes of top soil from the farm when we finished harvest and then built all the terracing of the farm. My dad in particular is a very handy bloke who makes all the ideas a reality. In the restaurant, he built the tables which are completely unique. We're lucky that we're a family and we can do it and we're also lucky that we've got the farm and the facilities to be able to achieve things that city-based restaurants wouldn't be able to think of doing.

The support from them is amazing, when I was doing Great British Menu, we were also building this open-kitchen up here and true to our style we were running close to the deadline with it and I remember as our first guests were coming upstairs there was a drill on the side and I moved it out the way and said "good evening, welcome to the restaurant!". Then the next day I went down to Great British Menu and my dad was making some props for the fish dish that I eventually won with and he hadn't had time due to building the open kitchen so my dad and brother stayed up until 4/5am making these boards for this fish dish. I finished service around midnight and went to help and they said "no, you need to get yourself to bed as you've got a busy week" and they both pulled an all-nighter to make it happen and then my dad drove me down with all my stuff to London. Obviously I then won with that dish and without that incredible amount of support it would not have been achievable at all. 

Outside of work what do you like to get up to?

It's a 7-day business this, we open every night and you can't turn it off and back on again. So, it does become quite a constant thing and you do find that every day you're involved in it.

I'm finding more and more that I'm getting old too quick. These last few weeks I've been listening to quite a lot of Mozart actually and Sundays are usually a day I take off and do things like dog walking and eating too much food and drinking too much beer!

In terms of Yorkshire, do you have a favourite part to explore?

One of my favourite places is Lake Gormire. I remember being in Sydney a few years ago and I saw this Welcome to Yorkshire banner on the side of a bus or on a billboard with a stunning lake Gormire image on it and I thought "that's about a mile from my house and I'm the other side of the world looking at it now!". The White Horse at Kilburn and up on Sutton Bank and all around there I really love.

I also love York. Such a beautiful city all year that's great for wandering around. 

Finally, anything else of the horizon? 

I've just been on Saturday Kitchen (on 1st April) for the first time and that was a great experience.

I'm also working on a book, that's a bit of a labour of love for me, I'm really quite enjoying that. I thought it would be really difficult to write but once I actually got going, I actually really loved it. The difficult thing is finding the time and space away from everyone else to focus on it, but then it’s just getting down all the musings that are in your head onto paper. It's a recipe book with lots of anecdotes in it and should be out next year. 

Generally we're working to make the restaurant loads better. When the business is busy it's very difficult to improve and invest but I've got a Head Chef now, a good Yorkshire lad, who's heading up the kitchen which has freed up some more time to think and develop the restaurant in a creative way. I've also moved one of our other chefs, who has worked for me for a couple of years, to the position of development chef with another kitchen, which will give us space where we can write the book, potentially do TV stuff and also to create new, exciting dishes and really, really refine what we're doing.

I know the Black Swan is now moving it's eleventh year but it feels like we're at the start of the journey and I want to make something truly special.

To find out more about The Black Swan at Oldstead, head to their website: www.blackswanoldstead.co.uk