Chef Tommy among the culinary elite - aged just 24

Tommy Banks with a signature dish at  The  Black Swan at Oldstead near Thirsk
Tommy Banks with a signature dish at The Black Swan at Oldstead near Thirsk
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WHEN Tommy Banks began cooking at his family’s pub and restaurant, his only experience was washing pots and a brief encounter with his school Food Technology classes - from which he had been banned for being “a little bit disruptive”.

Fast forward a few years, however, and the 24-year-old causing a stir among foodies from his North Yorkshire kitchen where he is believed to be the youngest Michelin starred chef in Britain.

Tommy Banks with a signature dish at  The  Black Swan at Oldstead near Thirsk

Tommy Banks with a signature dish at The Black Swan at Oldstead near Thirsk

Mr Banks’ menu has just been shortlisted for this year’s Catey Awards, building on a success story which saw him retain a prestigious Michelin star for the Black Swan at Oldstead, between Thirsk and Helmsley, within months of taking charge last year.

Yet the chef, who has no formal training, was not always so enthusiastic about food - his first love was sport.

His farming parents, Anne and Tom, bought the rundown pub in 2006 and set about transforming it with eldest son, James, handling front of house and Tommy working in the kitchen.

The then teenager was not even sure that cooking was for him - but a combination of the recession and serious illness was to make up his mind.

“The recession came and people started struggling,” said Mr Banks. “Where we are geographically, we are sort of in the middle of nowhere, so people would not travel here for a two-for-one steak meal. We had a choice to make: we would have to go cheap or hit the top end of the market and try to become a real destination place.”

Around about the same time he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which eventually saw him undergo three major operations in nine months and spend a lot of time away from work.

“It’s quite grounding for a young man to get a disease like that,” he said. “I had a lot of time away from work. Having everything taken away from you makes you realise how much you really want it. At that point I really wanted to do something and be successful. I was fed up of lying in bed and being off work - it’s a pretty unsociable disease - so I decided that when I got better from this I was really going to do something.

“Up to that point I was thinking that I didn’t really want to be a chef. It helped me to grow up really.”

Mr Banks returned to work just eight days after his first operation.

He returned to work with renewed vigour, re-tuning the Black Swan’s menu from pub food to a more refined offering. And as he regained his physical strength, so the restaurant flourished.

Although not formally trained, Mr Banks learned his craft in some of the country’s finest kitchens - working unpaid alongside more experienced chefs in London’s Michelin starred eateries and spending a week in Raymond Blanc’s famed Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons restaurant in Oxfordshire.

The Black Swan, which also has three AA rosettes, won a Michelin star three years ago under a different head chef - something Mr Banks was keen to retain on his watch.

He took over the role last June - just four months before the Michelin Guide was due to be released.

“There was a bit of pressure to keep the star because when there’s a change of chef, people think the standards might slip,” he said. “We have a great group of lads though who are all really keen.

“For any chef taking over a Michelin starred restaurant and trying to keep a star is massive pressure.”

“Even today we are working on two new dishes” said Mr Banks, who is no stranger to 16-hour days. “Two of the brigade are working on one dish we might put on next week.”