Tommy Banks | "I think the Roots philosophy is timeless"

Tommy Banks | "I think the Roots philosophy is timeless"

To get to Tommy Banks’ Black Swan restaurant in Oldstead requires something of an expedition. From the nearest station, my taxi bumps and splashes for 10 miles along narrow country lanes, deep into the rugged countryside of the North Yorkshire Moors.

And yet, such is its renown that diners from all over the UK and abroad are beating a path to the door of this family-run, 400-year-old former drovers’ inn. Last year, to add to its Michelin star, the restaurant was pronounced the world’s best by TripAdvisor. Its 27-year-old chef and co-owner, Tommy Banks, is also now a familiar face to
millions, having twice won through to the finale of BBC2’s "Great British Menu" with his extraordinarily original cooking. Now Banks is publishing his first book, Roots: Recipes Celebrating Nature, Seasons and the Land, and it’s one of the most truly distinctive cookbook débuts I can remember. Fully embracing his philosophy of eating off the land, it majors on ingredients grown in the kitchen garden, or foraged from the fields and woods around his Yorkshire home. His recipes, each inspired by a "root" ingredient, range from the deliciously simple—Pickled Onions, Roast Celery Soup—to the frankly mystical—Blue Cheese with Spruce and Fir, Jerusalem Artichoke Fudge, and Raw Deer, Beer and Woodland Gear.

Banks greets me in his chef whites in the downstairs bar where a welcoming fire blazes, and the unusual names of the cocktails on the chalkboard signal that this is a restaurant with a difference. I reluctantly decline a "Bedstraw Martinez" (a martini with woodruff, a foraged herb with antiseptic properties, which was traditionally used for animal bedding) and we talk over coffee and mint tea instead.

Tommy Banks is a local farmer’s son. Having previously run a B&B business on their working farm, his parents, Anne and Tom, bought the Black Swan in 2006 and ran it with their elder son James. Tommy, however, wasn’t interested. "I basically saw working in the pub as a way of being able to leave school and have a bit of a job washing pots and waiting tables so I could get drunk with my friends and play cricket", Banks tells me.

© Andrew Hayes-Watkins

Then he fell seriously ill with ulcerative colitis, enduring several major operations and long spells in hospital. "As a young, macho farmer’s lad, it knocked me for six. I had a colostomy bag when I was 18. Not something that anybody wants but imagine the insecurities for a young man. I’d just lost my grandfather as well who was a big part of my life, so I was pretty upset with the world. And that’s when my interest in food really happened." On his sickbed, Banks began devouring cookbooks in a bid to educate himself about food. By the time he had recovered, a hungrily ambitious young man had emerged.

By then the 2008 recession was biting, and the Black Swan wasn’t doing well. "Everyone was doing two-for-one deals and steak nights to try and drag customers in. We did that too, but it really doesn’t work in the middle of nowhere— would you drive all the way out here for a cheap meal?" It was reading a comment in Marco Pierre White’s autobiography about making your restaurant so damn good that people would come from miles around which convinced Banks that the pub had to become a destination. An ambitious new chef was recruited, and they set to creating food inspired by that of Michelin-starred restaurants. In 2011 the Black Swan gained its own Michelin star. Two years later, the chef left. By dint of working seven-day weeks, Banks regained the award within four months, hitting the headlines as the youngest Michelin-starred chef in the country. "Which was brilliant, but I felt like a fraud. I didn’t think I was a great cook, and all the dishes were sort of stolen. One day a journalist said to me, ‘24 years old and you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career’. And I felt the blood drain away from my face. I thought: this can’t be the pinnacle of my career".

Home-grown success

Banks realised that the identity of a successful restaurant has to come from the chef’s own experiences. "At first I thought, well, I grew up just down there, and I haven’t been anywhere!" But then it dawned on him that his roots were precisely the personality the restaurant needed. The pub closed for lunchtime service to give time for the creation of a two-acre garden. Then the Black Swan was reborn as a restaurant with rooms, its menu created from produce grown in the garden, on the Banks family farm, and foraged from the local countryside. The Black Swan team is now 46-strong, and Banks credits his staff with the sustained teamwork it has taken to build its reputation.

He cheerfully admits that the extent of his writing experience prior to penning Roots had been "kitchen prep lists scrawled in marker pens". But nevertheless, Banks had very determined ideas about what his first cookbook should be. "I’d been approached by several publishers to do a Black Swan cookbook. And for a long time, I didn’t want to because my ideas on food were moving forward so fast it would have been out of date as soon as it was published. But then came a point where I thought, lots of people are interested in what I have to say, so why not?"

Even so, Banks still wasn’t keen on the idea of a Black Swan "restaurant" cookbook, feeling that it would be ephemeral. Roots was also born out of his frustration with so-called seasonal cookbooks. "For example, I’d look at the spring recipes and go: I can’t cook any of this, because none of it is actually spring produce. Not here in Yorkshire." From this evolved his notion of three rather than four cooking seasons, based on the actual availability of locally grown produce. The "Time of Abundance" is from May to August, when the challenge is to use up the large quantity of produce then in season, followed by "The Preserving Season" from October to December when as much as possible must be preserved and stored for the barren months ahead. "The Hunger Gap" from January to May is the most challenging period, when ingredients preserved and stored from the previous year are used, along with some foraged new growth.

Original as this concept is, not all publishers got it. "One told me: ‘Tommy, I think you’re a bit naïve. You seem to want to do a preserving book, a foraging book, a growing book, a cookbook and tell all these stories as well’. And I was like: ‘Well, exactly, it’ll be interesting then, won’t it?’ We were at absolute loggerheads. And they also wanted to shoot the book in a London studio, which would have given it none of the feel of the Black Swan whatsoever. The point of Roots is that it has identity".

Banks credits Orion’s Seven Dials and editor Olivia Morris with understanding the Roots principle from the outset. The book—cannily acquired before the TripAdvisor accolade—was evocatively shot on location by Andrew Hayes-Watkins.

In 2018, more TV appearances beckon, and perhaps a second restaurant. But what are Tommy Banks’ hopes for his first cookbook? "The book is aimed at everybody. A professional chef can pick this book up and find intricate recipes, knowledge and techniques in it. But there are also plenty of recipes that are totally achievable at home. I really like the idea of people following them, but also building a larder of ingredients they then use to make their own food. I think the Roots philosophy is timeless".