He may be the less famous big brother of Michelin-starred wonder boy Tommy Banks, but James Banks is making a name for himself, as Catherine Scott discovers. Pictures by Simon Hulme.
It can’t be easy having a little brother in the limelight. But James Banks really doesn’t mind kid brother Tommy getting all the attention. “I love being able to walk into the bar and just have a drink like anyone else,” he says. “Celebrity brings with it the downside as well as the up.” Over the last few years Tommy Banks’ star has been in the ascendancy. The youngest ever UK Michelin-starred chef, winner of The Great British Menu two years on the bounce and even getting to cook in the famous Long Room at his beloved Lord’s.
But Banks has always been quick to point out that his success, and the success of the Black Swan at Oldstead and more recently Roots in York, is very much a family effort and none more so than by big brother James.
James was just 19 when his parents bought the village pub. He’d been working as a barman at the nearby White Swan at Ampleforth.
“I thought I knew it all,” he admits with a smile.
Adam Jackson was put in charge and helped lead the young team to achieve its Michelin star. But when Jackson left, Tommy was suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
“Looking back it was a good thing,” recalls James. “Tommy was ready to step up but we had to decide whether we were just going to continue doing things the way Adam had done them, or did we want to do something else, to create a USP for the Black Swan. We had to ask ourselves ‘who are we and what do we want to do?’ We were a farming family and we decided that we wanted to grow as much of the produce used in the restaurant as possible.”
Ever since then the food at the Black Swan and more latterly at Roots has been in tune with the season but not the seasons as you know them traditionally.
Instead the Banks’ year is divided into three: the Preservation Season, the Hunger Gap and the Time of Abundance, and Tommy’s food reflects this.
And it’s not just the food. James is now taking the Banks’ ethos with food and translating it into the drinks, particularly the cocktails.
“I always had fun playing around the ingredients and had a fascination with creating new flavours or recreating old ones from things we grow on the farm at Oldstead, or that we forage locally,” says James who is no happier than when experimenting with concoctions in the garden shed.
“Cocktails are growing in popularity but they are so full of sugar and lemon juice. Acidity is one of the hardest things to replicate. Most cocktails have lemon juice added to bring that acidity but we don’t grow lemons, so we have experimented with lots of other ingredients,” says James.
“We use products like rhubarb juice, vinegar or cooking apple juice – all ingredients that are produced on the farm. If we are going to be true to our concept then we shouldn’t be using gallons of lemon juice.”
He adds that they even use artichokes which are naturally very sweet and can be used as a natural sweetener.
Having gone to school with Abbie Neilson, co-founder of Cooper King distillery, it just seemed natural for the two old friends to put their talents together to create something unique.
Following extensive trial distillations, the first spirit was created using flavoursome marigold flowers grown in the Black Swan’s kitchen garden, which are picked, delivered to the distillery and vacuum-distilled on the same day.
Newer flavours include Lemon Verbena, Fennel Pollen and Chicory Root, all grown and picked in the kitchen garden.
More recently, James has added vermouth to the collection. It’s a more complicated process, but James has surpassed his own expectations and created three great products with real depth of flavour and layers of complexity which can be tweaked from drink to drink if desired.
The vermouth-making process started by making individual tinctures that were made at different strength percentages and infused for different time periods. This meant James had to taste results from around 75 individual experiments. Once they found the desired flavour for every ingredient, they then proceeded to blend certain flavours together with either a “base” of red or white wine. “There are no artificial colourings but for me it isn’t about how the drink looks, it’s about how it tastes. Taste is everything and the fact that everything comes from the land.”
The majority of the drinks that they sell are their own, produced on the farm, but they do work with a few local suppliers and producers who have the same provincial approach as them, and a good story.
The vodka they use as a base for their drinks is sourced locally from Priory Vodka, based between Tadcaster and Wetherby, where they use their own potatoes. They produce bespoke collaboration beers using farm produce together with Bad Seed Brewery near Malton and Magic Rock Brewing in Huddersfield.
And now, in conjunction with Cooper King, James is aiming to launch his ready-made, natural cocktails to the retail sector hopefully later this year.
“The idea is for people to be able to have our unique pre-bottled cocktails at home,” he says, clearly excited about the new direction for the Oldstead family.
“I really think there is a demand out there for something like this, which isn’t full of sugar and is seasonal.”
The father of two young children, aged seven and five, James splits his time between Oldstead and York, although he says the most important thing is to build a team that believes in the Banks family ethos, and who can operate without either brother having to be hands on 100 per cent of the time.
One of the key members of the team is Matt Lockwood who went into partnership with the Banks after running his own restaurant for a number of years in Ripon, when they opened Roots.
James admits that initially he was sceptical about the merits of opening a second restaurant. “I didn’t want to water down what we had at the Black Swan as it just isn’t possible to be in two places at once,” he says.
“But when Matthew agreed to come on board, I realised that it could really work. It was hard work getting Roots ready as we did it all ourselves – dad project managed it and I do feel that the end result is the better for it, but at the time it was pretty stressful and we didn’t get much sleep.”
Like his brother, James believes in surrounding himself with good people and looking after them. “I want people to enjoy their work and to help them grow and develop.”
But what is it like working with your younger brother? “We get on pretty well most of the time. When you work with your family you can disagree on something during service and then it is forgotten about as soon as it’s over.”