After a rollercoaster 12 months, 28-year-old Michelin-starred chef and Great British Menu winner Tommy Banks talks to Catherine Scott. Pictures by Simon Hulme.
Tommy Banks is much in demand. Whether it’s appearing on daytime television promoting his new book and mentoring contestants on MasterChef to hosting celebrity supper clubs and modelling menswear for an ad campaign, the Yorkshire Michelin-starred chef is hot property.
All this while running the family restaurant with rooms the Black Swan at Oldstead, named the best restaurant in the world by Tripadvisor last year, and developing plans to open a second establishment in York city centre.
Banks is riding the crest of wave which just 18 months ago would have seemed like a dream.
“What people don’t realise is that we have had one successful year out of 11,” says the 28-year-old self-taught chef.
“Even after we got the Michelin star things were very difficult. We are pretty isolated out here and we really, really struggled. We had to run everything on a shoestring to survive.”
It is hard to imagine that now, with weekend tables sold out six months in advance and rooms in scarce supply. But this is no overnight sensation.
As a teenager Banks suffered from the debilitating disease ulcerative colitis which meant he spent a year with a colostomy bag and had three major operations by the age of 20, including one to remove his colon.
Some of his journey from teenager to Michelin-starred chef is revealed in Roots, his new book published this week.
“I wanted to write a book that summed up what we do here at the Black Swan and why,” explains Banks who left school with few qualifications.
“All I had wanted to be was a cricketer but my illness put paid to that. But I became determined to make something of myself, so I decided to work all hours to make the restaurant a success.
“I had spent a lot of my convalescence confined to my room reading cookbooks and watching cookery programmes and had over that time developed a new passion for food. I believe that sometimes you need a setback to make you realise your calling in life. I think the illness defined my character, giving me the resilience needed to be successful as a young chef.”
Just before he fell ill, Banks’s parents (affectionately known as TB and AB) who were farmers, had bought the rundown village pub to save it from closure and a young Tommy worked in the kitchen with brother James front of house.
Banks was made head chef when Adam Jackson left having gained the Black Swan a Michelin star in 2011. But this meant the young chef had the difficult task of retaining the star and was forced to rely heavily on recipes from cook books.
But he must have done something right as not only did he retain the Michelin star, Tommy Banks became the youngest British holder of the culinary accolade aged just 24.
“Of course it was a relief to retain the star but I felt a bit of a fraud as it really wasn’t my cooking.”
It was another turning point for Banks who set about creating his own style. Being a farmer’s son, he turned to the land for his inspiration and has never looked back as chronicled in Roots. The family farm and the two-acre garden at the back of the restaurant, provide the majority of produce.
Although the reputation of the young chef and restaurant grew, times were still hard.
“We had planned to close for a day to have a staff party to celebrate our tenth anniversary, but in the end we just couldn’t afford it so we had to cancel and try to fill the tables.”
In fact Banks admits that his decision to take part in the BBC’s Great British Menu was a make or break time for the Black Swan. “A friend suggested going on the programme as a way of increasing business. And even though it was a risk, I realised that it was a good way to get our name out there and hopefully improve business.”
The only thing that stood in his way was winning.
“I just had to win. I practised and practised those dishes until I knew that I would get one through to the banquet. I had to. So much was riding on it.”
The hard work paid off and Banks won through, but due to delays he was asked to do a second series before the first was even broadcast and he could see whether his gamble had paid off.
“I didn’t know what to do. It had nearly killed me the first time, but I decided that I really needed to give it another go.” He won again.
When the Great British Menu was eventually shown on television, Banks became an overnight sensation and the phones at the Black Swan rang hot at last.
Last year ‘the small village pub’ was voted best restaurant in the world on Tripadvisor.
The result was an explosion in interest from across the world which caught Banks and his staff by surprise, blocking their phone lines and crashing their emails.
“We took 1,200 bookings in one day and constant requests from film crews from Japan, China, Spain, Norway and beyond.”
As well as giving him, his family and his staff the financial security, it has also given Banks the ability to invest in the Black Swan and also develop his plans for a second restaurant.
“I don’t like saying ‘no’ to people, but we are off the beaten track at Oldstead and we are expensive and so we thought it would be good to open somewhere that more people could go. It will have the same ethos at the Black Swan and we will grow the vegetables at Oldstead and buy a van to transport it to York, but it will be a bit more accessible.”
He has found time to write and promote his first cookery book Roots which is published this week.
The Bankses recently took the unusual decision of making the Black Swan a ticket-only venue, one of about six high-end restaurants in the UK to introduce such a system aimed at reducing no-shows which, he says, are crippling the industry particularly independent restaurants.
“We have a maximum of 50 covers here and we need to fill 30 covers before we break even. Weekends are when the profit is made, if suddenly you get a table of ten cancel and you can’t fill it then you risk making a loss. For smaller restaurants the margins are even tighter.”
But this grounded Yorkshireman tries makes sure he has time away from business when possible to spend time with his family and his girlfriend, Charlotte, who he says has been a massive support.
“The success of the Black Swan isn’t just down to me, it is a family and team effort.”
Roots by Tommy Banks is published by Seven Dials (part of Orion Books) £25. For a selection of recipes see Page 38.