Tommy Banks - the Yorkshire chef heading the world's best rated restaurant
PUBLISHED: 11:35 08 December 2017 | UPDATED: 12:14 08 December 2017
Yorkshire Life Chef of the Year Tommy Banks talks Michelin stars, debut cook books and beetroot steaks
When the Black Swan at Oldstead was named the world’s best rated restaurant, knocking Spain’s Martin Berasategui off the top spot and pushing Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons into second place, chef Tommy Banks thought ‘yeah, lovely, right let’s move on’.
He wasn’t being dismissive or flippant, and it wasn’t that he didn’t care; he just thought that no one else would be interested in the goings-on at a small family restaurant in the middle of nowhere – beautiful North Yorkshire nowhere, but nowhere nonetheless. He was, of course, very wrong indeed.
The next morning there were camera crews in the car park, journalists knocking on the door, plaintive emails from the BBC and more bookings than the Black Swan’s phone system could cope with. Oh, and the story was trending hard, pushing Donald Trump into second place (imagine his spittle-lipped fury) and the Queen into third (imagine her not giving two hoots as she pootled about with the corgis).
‘I knew about the TripAdvisor thing a week in advance and honestly didn’t think it would be a big thing,’ said Tommy. ‘It’s fantastic when someone appreciate what you do, but you can’t afford to take it too seriously. I mean, it’s silly really isn’t it because what we do is so subjective. It wasn’t until we had a car park full of journalists that I knew it really was a big deal.’
To be honest, it’s a miracle they found the place at all. Tucked away in the North York Moors National Park off a winding country road with barely enough room for two cows to pass comfortably without locking horns, the Black Swan doesn’t exactly boldly announce itself. The former drovers’ inn sits modestly back from the road, a pretty but unobtrusive building in a pretty but unobtrusive village.
Anne and Tom Banks bought the pub in 2006 after running a successful B&B at their nearby farm, and put their sons, James and Tommy, then just 17 and 18, in charge. At the time, Tommy wanted to be a professional cricketer (as every good Yorkshireman does at some point in his life) and had little to no interest in cooking.
‘They’ve always been entrepreneurial and have a great eye for detail but, frankly, I still have no real idea why my parents bought this place,’ he said. ‘They showed amazing confidence in me and James – amazing but completely misplaced.’
As if to prove that boys will indeed be boys, Tommy and James played harder than they worked, partying in the bar with their mates and, while not exactly trashing the place, then not exactly covering themselves with glory either.
‘James had worked in the industry before, but neither of us really had a clue what we were doing,’ said Tommy, with what you soon discover is his customary honesty. ‘We just wanted to have fun.’
Sadly, the fun wasn’t to last. Tommy’s beloved grandad died – ‘he lived next door and we’d always been very close’ – and his stress levels began to soar as a result of grief, the pressures of running a dining pub and his 24/7 frenzied lifestyle.
‘I worked all through Christmas and, when we closed in January, I went to bed and basically didn’t want to get up again,’ he said. ‘I was eventually hospitalised and officially diagnosed with a serious disease that pretty much knocked me off my feet for the next 18 months.’
He was suffering from ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition that left him facing three major surgeries, months of repeated hospitalisation and the gloomy prospect of ending his teenage years wearing a colostomy bag.
‘Can you imagine that?’ he said. ‘I was knackered, severely underweight and had a colostomy bag – all at 18. It really dented my confidence and self-esteem.’
His enforced time away from the kitchen, however, gave him the space he needed to get his head together while his body recovered. He read piles of cookery books and watched endless TV food shows, igniting a spark of inspiration that would one day explode in spectacular fashion.
But not quite yet. First, he had to learn his trade as sous chef to the Black Swan’s head chef Adam Jackson. He learned quickly and together they started creating dishes that drew local attention, then regional and national plaudits and, finally, brought them under the gimlet gaze of the Michelin Guide.
The Black Swan’s first Michelin star saw them ditch their dual fine dining/pub grub menu in favour of a tasting menu. No one questioned the obvious talent of the kitchen team until, in 2013, Adam left to set up his own place and then suddenly everyone was asking ‘will Tommy keep the star?’.
‘I worked 16 hours a day, every day, from June (when Adam left) to October when Michelin’s decision was announced,’ he said.
At 24, he became the youngest ever Michelin-star chef. Cue the fireworks, popping champagne corks and dancing girls – except Tommy wasn’t happy; in fact, he admits to feeling something of a fraud.
‘It was a big deal in the industry, but I didn’t feel happy about it, not really. I had intentionally stripped the menu of all Adam’s dishes because I wanted the star to be mine, but I still didn’t have an original thought in my head. I was doing what 99 per cent of chefs do; borrowing the best bits from other chefs and restaurants. I wasn’t using my own intellect at all.’
So, what do you do at times of crisis? You go home. You return to your roots.
As a boy, Tommy’s parents farmed Aberdeen Angus cattle before moving into arable crops. By looking back, he suddenly saw the future – a future powered by Yorkshire fruit and veggies, homegrown on the two-and-a-half-acre plot around the restaurant and extra land a little way down the road at his parents’ farm.
‘I started completely afresh, going back to my own heritage, my farming roots,’ he explained. ‘I thought back to my grandad’s veg that he used to grow and how he would try to make it last all year. That’s when I decided to grow and forage all my own produce. It forces you to plan ahead, to think creatively and look for new and interesting ways to preserve veg to use outside its short growing season. By setting these quite strict boundaries, I actually felt more creative freedom.’
His signature dish (‘I hate it that I’ve got a signature dish – something that’s got to be on your menu all the time can quickly become very boring’) is made with crapaudine beetroot, a large, gnarly, toad-skin-like variety, which he slices into meaty steaks and cooks low and slow in beef fat for four or five hours until it’s rich and deeply savoury with just a subtle hint of the ruby vegetable’s innate sweetness.
‘Treated properly, beetroots can keep for a whole year,’ said Tommy. ‘That’s where I part ways with the “eat seasonal” brigade. I don’t just want to eat beetroot and other produce in season; I want to grow them and then preserve them so we can have them all year round.’
His passion for preserving is at the heart of his debut cook book, Roots, due out next spring. In it, he divides the year into three seasons: the hunger gap (January-June); the time of abundance (July-September); and the preserving season (October-December), aiming to help us stock our kitchens all year round.
A book inevitably means press junkets and public appearances, taking Tommy out of the kitchen. But this is something he’s slowly become accustomed to after making it to the finale of BBC Two’s Great British Menu for two years running (pan-frying 80 portions of turbot with pickled strawberries in a lawn-green chive sauce at Wimbledon this summer), retaining his Michelin star yet again and achieving numerous awards and titles, including our own chef of the year moniker. All of which means less time in the kitchen and more time on the road.
‘I have an amazing team and a great head chef who, if I’m honest, runs the kitchen much better than me,’ he said. ‘The food has never been better and, because of his skills, it means I can be even more creative and even more uncompromising.
‘For me, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. Have you seen St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the way the interior is covered in these tiny little gold squares? It would have been much easier to cover it with massive gold slabs, but it wouldn’t have been as impressive. I love it that someone decided to take what was probably an extra 15 years to make something so mind-blowingly beautiful it will be admired forever.’
Of his many and varied achievements (made all the more impressive when you realise he’s not even 30 yet), Tommy is most proud of the way he’s got his life back on track after a decade of 24/7 work, prioritising his three-year-old son, his parents, his brother, his girlfriend and his friends again above all else.
‘I take every Sunday off so I can spend time with them,’ he said. ‘Granted, I might just fall asleep on the sofa after lunch and a couple of pints in the pub, but it’s still an opportunity to relax and reconnect. After ten years of working seven days a week, always teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, I’ve never felt better.’
Looking to the future, there’s talk of another restaurant, perhaps in York, business partnerships, more TV work and fantastical plans to transform the Black Swan from a dining destination into a culinary journey (our lips are sealed for now but, brace yourselves, you’re in for a deliciously wild ride).
For now, however, Christmas is at the forefront of Tommy’s mind. Last year, he had his first festive break for ten years and is very much looking forward to it again.
‘My girlfriend’s mum makes these amazing honey sausages,’ he said. ‘People moan about turkey and sprouts, but I love them. And don’t get me started on bread sauce – I could happily eat a whole loaf of it.’