Great British Menu's Tommy Banks goes back to his roots

Tommy Banks is excited. We are in the garden of the Black Swan at Oldstead, the Michelin-starred pub owned by his mum and dad and run by Tommy and his big brother James.

Tommy Banks, head chef at the Black Swan at Oldstead. Picture by Gerard Binks

Armed with a gardening fork, he is about to get the first glimpse of an unusual south American vegetable called occa that he and friend Alex Smith have spent the last year cultivating, with not a little help from Tommy’s dad, Tom.

“This time of year is challenging. It is pretty easy to grow things in the summer, the winter becomes a completely different matter,” admits Tommy, who brought grown men to tears during his appearance on the BBC’s Great British Menu when he created a dessert inspired by his late grandfather.

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It is the garden which Tommy credits for making the Black Swan what it is today.

Tommy Banks harvesting produce from the gardens behind the Black Swan, Olstead.

“The garden gave us our identity,” says Tommy who took over as head chef when Adam Jackson left, with help from fellow chef Nick Brown.

“When Adam left we immediately changed the entire menu, but we lacked confidence,” says the self-taught chef.

“I was taking ideas from recipe books and from dishes I had eaten. The food was good and we retained the Michelin star but it was really hard work and I felt a bit of a fraud. We would kill ourselves spending three days making a sauce because we would over-complicate things. It takes confidence just to put a few ingredients on a plate and let them speak for themselves. But we were both shattered and I suddenly realised that although I wasn’t cooking Adam’s food I definitely wasn’t cooking mine.”

Coming from a farming family – dad Tom and mum Anne own the 160-acre arable farm next door to the Black Swan – Tommy turned to the one thing he was confident about.

Tommy Banks harvesting produce from the gardens behind the Black Swan, Olstead.

“I didn’t have a food background but I did have a farming background. Not only did we want to grow our own produce, we wanted to use it all – not just its prime use. By using it all it makes you more creative. It is the entire ethos behind what we do here.”

He cites a recent example where Alex’s celery crop seemed to have failed.

“Something had happened to the celery crop which made it hollow inside. But then Alex suggested making oil out of it and then using the roots, as it is the same family as celeriac. It was great, from a failed crop we used the entire thing. We don’t believe in waste, and it shows that you have to listen to others, it is a collaborative process.” There are 30 people employed at the Black Swan which now also has rooms. Growing your own veg is a labour-intensive process but one Tommy believes is worth the price.

“Where else can you go and eat sweetcorn just as it is harvested? We send staff out whatever the weather to pick the sweetcorn, shave it and then put some brown butter on it. You won’t get anything fresher. It is only a mouthful but people rave about it.”

The same goes for the brussels sprouts.

“I hate throwing anything away and I was keen to find something to do with the sprout leaves, they are perfect for using like a taco.”

Tommy blanches the leaves and then uses them to wrap a partridge breast, with sage and onion from the garden which is then rolled into the most incredible tiny morsel.

“I like to mess with people’s heads a bit,” he grins. “I wanted to create Christmas Dinner in one mouthful and I think we have succeeded.” The Black Swan only offers a 14 course tasting menu, aside from a lunch service on Saturdays.

This year, in anticipation of the increase in exposure from the Great British Menu, the interior of the Black Swan got a makeover.

“We still had all the dark furniture my parents had bought off eBay when we started out ten years ago,” says Tommy. “We decided the time was right to change the interior.”

The dining room now includes a small serving kitchen where guests can see Tommy, Nick, and the other chefs at work.

The legs of the new tables were welded on the farm to look like the roots of trees, to symbolise the Black Swan’s journey and the restaurant’s ethos. The wooden chairs were made bespoke for them too.

Tommy likes to use local tradespeople where possible. The distinctive crockery showcased on the Great British Menu is made by Jane Schaffer, a potter from York.

The decision to take part in the Great British Menu was a timely one for Tommy.

“The last ten years have been a very hard slog. I started out in the kitchen at the age of 16 and spent 10 years working up to 80 hours a week to build up the business. It was going well, but to take it to the next level we needed the exposure that a show like the Great British Menu could give us.”

It was a risk, he admits, but he took advice from friends and former winners Michael O’Hare and Kenny Atkinson.

“I did have reservations about taking part. You have no control over the editing and you never quite know how you are going to come across. I was very nervous, but once I got used to it I really loved it, although it was one of the most exhausting things I have ever taken part in.

“So long as you understand that above all else it is a television programme and you go out to do your best and enjoy the process then you will be fine. Although there is nowhere to hide if you make a mistake.”

It was a gamble that paid off as Tommy not only won the regional heat, three of his dishes were shortlisted for the final banquet held at The Palace of Westminster to honour Britain’s heroes and heroines.

In the end it was his mackerel fish course which he got to cook for 60 people at the banquet, which came as something of a surprise.

“The dish didn’t go down all that well in the regional heat and so I changed it. The night before my dad and brother were up until 4am making the props and then drove me down to London.”

The dish Tommy had hoped would be chosen was his very personal dessert inspired by his own hero, his late grandfather.

Entitled ‘My Great Briton’, it was a Douglas Fir parfait, with lemon verbena gel, white chocolate tuile and a ewe’s milk yoghurt sorbet. It was paired with a Douglas Fir sour cocktail and a prop which featured a recording of his grandfather’s voice talking about the Kilburn White Horse – which his grandad was responsible for maintaining and which dominates the landscape where Tommy grew up and still lives.

“I was really close to my grandad who looked after the White Horse. It was really emotional, it was the first time I had heard his voice since he died. He was a massive part of my life. I never really got over losing him, it was awful, I was about 18 at the time. Doing that gave me a bit of closure and I felt like I had given something back. It is a really tasty dessert as well.

“The production crew really worked on it though, they kept asking me how I felt when he died, but it made good television.”

It also led to an army of fans for the 27-year-old chef, who became an overnight sensation on social media.

“There were a lot of people saying very nice things about me, and also some weirdos. But on the whole people were really nice although it was very strange to have so much attention.”

While they thought the programme would lead to an upturn in business, nothing quite prepared them for what actually happened.

“We had a new website made as we thought the traffic would increase but it was incredible. We used to get 1,500 hits a week then suddenly at 7.45pm when the programme was going out we got 11,000.”

Trade also improved, with an immediate doubling in the number of covers they were doing.

Tommy maintains that the success of the Black Swan is not solely down to him.

“There are 30 of us working here and everyone is important to making what we do here work.”

The success brought about by the programme means that the Bankses can now invest further in the future of the Black Swan.

Nick has just been made development chef and a new development kitchen is planned.

“I want the Black Swan to keep moving forward,” says Tommy. “I want the restaurant to keep developing even when I’m not here and we are really lucky with the staff we have.”

After the success of the Great British Menu Tommy is also personally in great demand. Unsurprisingly he has had a number of approaches from television companies and, although he is keen to do more television, it has to be the right thing.

“I am very clear about the type of programme I want to make,” he says. “I am also writing a book, not just recipes, but about what we have created here and what we continue to create.”

Success has also meant that Tommy can start to reassess his work-life balance.

He has a two-year-old son, Freddie. He and his family live in one half of the farm house, his parents live in the other half. His brother James and family live in the same village.

While I am talking to Tommy, his mum and dad come in with Alex to measure up for the Christmas tree in the Black Swan’s dining room. Buying the village pub back in 2006 was not only a shrewd investment by this couple, it was an investment in their sons, which they have paid back in spades.

Such is their success this year that they have decided to close over Christmas.

“It will be the first Christmas I have had off in ten years,” says Tommy – although he will still be cooking as he is in charge of the family Christmas dinner.

“I think I’ll be cooking a big rib of beef. I love tasting menus but you can’t beat a good roast, with lots of roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings of course.” What else?