James Banks, Manager/Owner, The Black Swan at Oldstead

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th January 2016
The Black Swan at Oldstead has had a great start to 2016 and is currently the only restaurant in Yorkshire and the North East to hold the highly sought combination of 4 AA Rosettes and a Michelin star. Many people will be aware of head chef and owner Tommy Banks but playing an equal part in the restaurant's success is his brother James who focuses on front of house. The pair took on this quaint village pub aged just 19 and 17 but they have transformed it into a popular destination for foodies and they show no signs of slowing down. The Staff Canteen spoke to James about keeping it in the family, getting rid of all branded drinks and creating his own and why he actively promotes personality in his staff. james banks 4 rosettes low resIt’s been an exciting start to the year, first a refurb and then receiving four rosettes! The restaurant was very old fashioned, so we’ve replaced the old décor and the aim is to have almost living walls using plants and produce from the garden. We want everything to tie together but the big thing is the open kitchen within the restaurant. It will be great for chefs to see the journey of their dish completed - they planted seeds, nurtured plants, harvested, prepped and now they will be able to complete the final step and see the guests enjoying their food. It’s a big thing in terms of service as well and will completely change the structure, so it's really exciting! And to be awarded 4 rosettes from the AA is almost the icing on the cake – it's a massive pat on the back for all the staff here who work really hard and thoroughly deserve it! To be honest we have been so busy with the re-furb that we haven't had time to think about it, so when we saw the announcement on twitter it was a really nice surprise. The chefs do tend to take the lime light, are you happy take a step back and let that happen? It is a team effort but of course Tommy takes the limelight, I’m shyer than he is and he’s a bit of a show off! But we are one team both the kitchen and front of house – our team has grown massively over the last year as we’ve expanded. And we all work together in terms of development and running services in a seven day operation, although Tommy gets the headlines it’s not just about one person.M6kg05L1LWghDQ9ZGpqYtANiMgKRjbELC1vH-D7Qp_o low res

>>> Read: Tommy Banks, head chef/owner, The Black Swan at Oldstead

Saying that, what’s it like working alongside your brother? We get on most of the time! No, it’s good because you can actually get straight to the point without worrying about upsetting each other. Working with family means you can just say it like it is. And are you both on the same page? Definitely, most people know as a business we’ve had a change in direction in the last three or four years towards something which is more natural to us. At the end of the day we are farmers, from this village and we are promoting ingredients which we have grown ourselves. It’s now a massive growing operation and we are trying to have some originality, not only in the food but in the drinks as well.
Top 5 Service ExperiencesLe Manoir (Oxford) - We arrived feeling pretty nervous as we had our baby daughter with us - they set us at ease straight away and even made 5 different flavoured purees for her to eat - ridiculous levels of attention to detail. • Ledbury (London) - with a table of 5 guys from the trade - service was immaculate, but they adapted to a more informal style for us and with plenty of banter - a really memorable evening. • Noma (Copenhagen) - relaxed, informal and inspiring experience - chefs serving and explaining dishes - they even asked if we wanted a break in the middle of the meal for a beer.... • House of Tides (Newcastle) - Fantastic building, atmosphere and food. Front of house were really friendly, very knowledgeable and those who served us were real Geordies who seemed to almost echo Kenny and Abi's personality. • Vennel's (Masham) - Tiny restaurant run by husband and wife team - great place to chill out and eat great food - they make you feel like you are being welcomed into their house. Top 5 Drinks • Cartology 2012, Albeit Vineyards (Western Cape, South Africa) • Duck Broth with 100yo Madeira (at Clove Club, London) • Mumbai Martini (at Benares, London) • Guinness (at the factory in Dublin) • Smoked Old Fashioned (at Lockwoods in Ripon)
So your drinks are made using your own produce too? We have scrapped bought in soft drinks and made a range of homemade ones. For example we make a lemonade with fresh apple marigold from the garden, iced tea using elderflower cordial that we made last summer – those type of things. The self-sufficient ethos runs throughout the restaurant then? Very much so. It would be such a shame to have amazing food with the story of sowing it, to looking after it, to producing it and putting it on a plate and then serving it with bog standard Coca Cola and Schweppes – it wouldn’t quite work. james banks quote Obviously this is a family business but did you always want to be in the hospitality industry? I fell into it really – I think it’s fair to say neither of us enjoyed school, we come from a farming background and I worked in a couple of local pubs, I enjoyed working behind the bar and the banter. Then this place came up, it was very rundown and we bought it at the right time. We were all equal partners from the start so our parents obviously had some faith in us, whether it was foolish or not I don’t know as we were 19 and 17 at the time! The stuff we were knocking out then wasn’t that great, it has definitely evolved. Did it always have rooms or is that something you have introduced? It had six basic box rooms and we converted them into four bigger ones which we wanted to be five star, top end so we became a destination. Last year we took a listed Georgian house two doors down so we have added another five rooms. It means we have nine tables in the restaurant which is ideal as we used to have quiet winter nights, now it’s a bit more consistent. IMG_2202 low resWould you say you’ve learned the ropes here then? We’ve learned by employing good staff which is a ridiculous way round of doing it. Most people go to work at top places and learn in someone else's business before risking their own money. We’ve learned from our staff, from eating out, reading – just trying things. We don’t find ourselves restricted in any classical way in the kitchen and in terms of service, we are willing to try new things and be creative. It’s a positive thing, when you come here you see things you wouldn’t see elsewhere. You mentioned the ethos and how it runs through the restaurant, talk us through your drinks and how you develop them. We have some great cocktails and it’s about having a seasonality to everything and using things when they are at their best. That’s easy in the summer so we have fruit cocktails and herbal things which are fresh out of the garden but this time of year is a lot harder. There’s not much growing, we have a few things growing in the poly tunnels but we also try to preserve ingredients from the summer when they are abundant. Did you come up with cocktails through trial and error? We actively encourage everyone to come up with ideas. We have a huge larder and Tommy will have fermenting vegetables and pickled bits and pieces plus we have hundreds of different liqueurs. You start off with simple things like sloe gin then you become more adventurous. We started off with the challenge that we wanted to stop buying brands in so instead of Pernod/Sambuca we have the fennel schnapps, instead of Amaretto we wanted to make something out of meadow sweet, chicory root or woodruff.james quote 2 It’s got to the stage where we’ve forgotten about replacing them and we just do whatever we want to do now. What’s the feedback on these alternative drinks? People who are coming here have usually sought us out (there is very little passing trade), they’ve read up on us and they know what we do before they come. They are generally willing to try things and I think that’s part of the skill of front of house, when someone comes in and asks for a lime and soda, you say ‘sorry we don’t have that but we do have all these other wonderful things why don’t you try them?’. I think often people walk through the door and feel a little bit nervous that they have just walked into what they think is a fancy, formal, Michelin-starred restaurant. We are not that, we are a little pub run by a family who grow their own food – it’s our job to set them at ease. People are not just coming for a meal they are coming for an experience and it starts as soon as they walk through the door. How do you train your staff to project that informal, relaxed atmosphere? I don’t think it is training, I think it’s natural. We actively promote personality in the staff, which is hard because you have less control over what’s going on but we have great staff. I love them to express their personality because that’s what it is all about. We’ve got to a level where it’s not just about cooking food anymore it has a personality behind it. We know who we are, we have an identity and people know exactly what they are getting when they come here. MDap59S0SOhhVa6fNDpxmr1Ii48iPzywT_s2xQeNokUYou have stopped all lunch services apart from Sundays to allow more time for development, what has that involved so far? The wine list. It’s inspired by an OS map and the idea behind it is how things are unique to a location. It folds out as map would but it’s your wine list. It’s a scanned copy of a hundred year old map of the area so Byland Abbey is on there and our parents farm is on there too. We’ve gone from having quite a big wine list of 250 bins to 40 reds and 40 whites. It’s been a hard process but before it was quite old fashioned and unnecessary, now it’s focused on small producers, with interesting wines who have a similar ethos to us and are from unusual regions. We will be selling every wine on the list by the glass even the expensive ones, we have some of the best wines in the world on there and you can try a little glass of them. We offer a wine package which we have put a lot of thought into and we think it goes really well, but this way the customer can also make their own up. It’s about making it more accessible and fun. So what’s next for The Black Swan? This business is constantly evolving, we have been going nearly ten years but we still feel like we are quite young in our development. The garden is only two years old and probably a third of the produce we are growing isn’t mature yet. It’s just about development, we don’t have big plans to take on other sites – this one takes enough running!  

In these challenging times…

…the hospitality landscape has dramatically changed in the last two months, and with that our advertising revenues have all but expired, significantly impacting our business. Despite having to furlough a large portion of our staff, we are still delivering the valuable content and honest information, which hundreds of thousands of you come to The Staff Canteen for. We believe we have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience. 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.

Your financial support means we remain independent and open to all. We were launched by a chef and remain the voice of chefs and other hospitality professionals.

We need your support to keep delivering the products and content that you love, giving you the platform to share opinions and inspiration. Every contribution whether big or small, means so much.
Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th January 2016

James Banks, Manager/Owner, The Black Swan at Oldstead