Tommy Banks, chef owner, The Black Swan at Oldstead

The Staff Canteen

The Black Swan at Oldstead is pretty much self-sufficient and at the helm of this Michelin-starred restaurant tucked away in the North Yorkshire countryside is head chef and owner, Tommy Banks.

He has taken ‘grow your own’ to the next level and with no formal training he has developed a cooking style based on his love of the land. All of his ingredients are grown in the restaurant’s two acre kitchen garden which is maintained by himself and his chefs; an important part of his need to feel connected to his food.

The Staff Canteen took a trip up north to talk to Tommy about the challenge of growing by day and cooking by night, finding his niche and how important it is to the business to retain that Michelin star.

Black Swan
The Black Swan at Oldstead

How do you go about creating and maintaining a two acre kitchen garden?

We employed Ken Holland as a consultant, he’s a specialist grower from Northumberland. He supplies top restaurants like Sat Bains, Aiden Byrne, Tom Kitchen – I met him because I wanted to get into specialist vegetable growing and I didn’t have enough knowledge. I didn’t want to employ gardeners because I felt it would be too far removed – I wanted the chefs to actually grow it themselves and then there would be a real connection to the food.

Monday to Friday we only open for dinner service, all on a tasting menu, it means we have all day to forage, get the veg, clean everything, prepare it and it gives us the freedom to cook exactly what we have that day. We can change the menu daily and some days there can be three or four vegetarian dishes if we have amazing vegetables – you just have to work with what you’ve got. When you’ve invested that much time and money into growing things you just loath the thought of buying anything.

Do you enjoy the challenge of not always knowing what you have to work with?

It massively promotes your creativity. Talking to other chefs they will sit and brainstorm for hours – we have no choice, when something comes you have to use it and you have to find a dish for it. Some chefs might think it takes weeks to develop a dish and we shouldn’t be able to keep pulling out awesome dishes, they would be right to an extent but for us half of the cooking is in the growing.

Has the goal always been to be completely self-sufficient?

Heather, honey and flowers
Heather, honey and flowers

From the garden we are pretty much self-sufficient. In the future I would like livestock but for now when it comes to meat I have a close relationship with the farmers who are on our doorstep. For example three years ago I spoke to one of the local farmers who had bought Wagyu sperm from Japan.

He was doing really good pedigree Aberdeen Angus and using the sperm he made Wagyu Angus crosses – three years down the line we had a big strapping lad out in the field, I’d sit having a beer on a night looking at him planning my menu!

Things like that are so important to me now, that anal need to have sown the seed and watch it grow. Or the beast, seeing it every day, knowing where it has been slaughtered and who slaughtered it. Then we cut it up ourselves and age it ourselves.

I feel I have to have this connection to what we are doing and that gives me the confidence in the food to do exactly what we want.

Rising stars/restaurants of the future:   
  • Michael O'Hare, The Man Behind The Curtain, Leeds
  • James Cross, Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside
  • Josh Overington, Le Cochon Aveugle, York
  • James Close, The Raby Hunt, Darlington
  • Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides, Newcastle
  Guilty Pleasures:  Marmite! I love the stuff. I actually cook with it too!                   Top 5 Restaurants:
  1. The Ledbury, London
  2. Esquire, Brisbane, Australia
  3. Guy Savoy, Paris
  4. Noma, Copenhagen
  5. Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

Is it fair to say you fell into this industry as a result of your parents buying The Black Swan nine years ago?

It was a convenient excuse for me to leave school, I wasn’t that into the hospitality industry initially. It was just a good laugh, having a pub when you were 17 and all the parties and lock-ins. I used to wait on, wash pots and do a bit of everything. A few chefs left and at the time we were just doing pub food so my dad bought me the cheapest chefs jacket and cheapest set of knives out of Nisbets and said ‘you’re going to be working in the kitchen now’. That’s how I started and now I’ve really developed a passion for it.

You’ve come a long way since then.

Well I didn’t even know what a Michelin star was! I didn’t really have an interest in food but sometimes I think the most interesting places grow organically like that. We were rubbish when we first started, not even a good pub and even since taking over as head chef things have completely changed. A year ago I didn’t have the same passion for ingredients as I have now and in a year’s time the food will probably have changed again – I like that as it feels limitless. I have no interest in opening anything anywhere else as there is so much more we can do here.

It was Adam Jackson who achieved the Michelin star originally, as you’ve had no formal training would you say he taught you how to be a chef?

I guess so. He came on board around the time the recession hit and we were trying to get people to come here. When we first started we were just a gastro pub but there are a lot of them in the countryside and with the recession pubs started doing offers like two for ones - we couldn’t compete with that. Why would people drive out here for a cheap meal? So we went to a different end of the market and tried to make ourselves a real destination restaurant – it’s progressed from there every year.

So you’ve been learning on the job then really?

Langoustine, courgette and cucumber
Langoustine, courgette and cucumber

Initially yes but since I’ve become head chef I’ve started afresh. It’s difficult for a young guy to be in charge, you might have been sous chef and the best chef on every section but it isn’t your food. That’s a massive step when it suddenly becomes yours. When you actually have to create your own dishes, menus and be original that’s when it changes. When I first took over as head chef we had a star and I had to try and retain it – that was massive pressure! It shouldn’t be your first thought when you take over but it’s always going to be in the back of your mind. I knew with this location and the style of business that it is, we wouldn’t be able to operate without a Michelin star.

You were just 24 when you took over as head chef, how hard was it to create original dishes and bring your own style into the food?

I felt I had good techniques, a sound knowledge and I knew what I was doing – it was more originality that I thought would be a problem. You find that with a lot of young chefs, you look at the menu and they look odd. You think ‘what’s this guy about?’ because there are bits pulled from everywhere. I hadn’t really been anywhere else and I knew I didn’t want to continue doing the same food, I wanted my own style and so I think for the first couple of months the menu was a bit confused.

The Black Swan at Oldstead
The Black Swan at Oldstead

We kept the star which was great but the dishes I felt were a very classical and a bit borrowed – I knew I needed to cook my own food.

So two years on what is your style?

The food is very simple. My background is farming. My parents were farmers, I grew up on a farm and I know all about wild food, growing and I have good knowledge of meat and different cattle breeds. I realised that’s how I had to lead it with my philosophies.

We needed to start growing our own, having proper relationships with producers – I just wanted a real relationship with the land.

We’ve spent so much time on the ingredients and grown them ourselves so I know the peas we have are the best peas, you can’t really get any better than that.

The lady next door has duck eggs so duck egg and peas is one of the dishes on the nine course menu. It’s simple but I’m so confident in the ingredients and that has become my style.

You found your niche then?

Yes and very quickly – just by stripping it right back to raw emotions and saying ‘what do I really like?’ I think it’s very easy in surroundings like this, inspiration comes very quickly and I think I would find it very difficult to cook in a city. Walking the land every day you notice the changes in season daily. 

Tommy Banks
Tommy Banks

The Michelin Guide is due out this month, are you feeling confident?

The first year I was obviously very nervous but last year I was fairly confident because I knew we had pushed on from when we retained the star, I’d have been very disappointed to lose it knowing we had pushed on to a much better place. This year we have 100% our own produce, I think the food is better because it’s fresher and that’s the key. I don’t get really nervous until the night before!

Do you think it’s harder to get and retain a star as a northern restaurant?

No. I think maybe it’s harder to get initially noticed but I think they are pretty on it. I think if you deserve a star then you will get one, to say it’s harder up here would be picking at excuses really. There are some really good places up here now and it will be interesting to see if that theory is true this year.

What would you say to people who might think growing your own and foraging is just the fashionable thing to do at the moment?

It has become very fashionable but nobody has a garden like ours, with the chefs actually growing it themselves. It’s great that it’s a fashionable thing and hopefully it will continue – growing your own vegetables is surely never going to go out of fashion because it’s the right thing to do.

Although your menu changes regularly do you have a favourite dish?

chicken, onions and lovage
chicken, onions and lovage

Probably the Douglas fir dessert. The forest above The Black Swan is full of Douglas fir, I was walking through it after it had just rained on a warm day and the smell of the steam was so citrusy I wanted to recreate that. 

So we made a dessert and infused a vodka which we pair with it, it’s served using dry ice which can sometimes be a bit naff but the smell that comes from it just recreates that moment for me which is great because it’s another connection with the food. It’s also born out of necessity because when it comes to the winter doing dessert for us can be a challenge.

We use a lot of savoury items in desserts but Douglas fir being an evergreen we can pick it all year round and put it on the menu in June, December, March - it doesn’t matter.  

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd November 2018

Tommy Banks, chef owner, The Black Swan at Oldstead