I’VE STILL GOT SO MUCH TO LEARN
LAUREN TAYLOR MEETS MICHELIN STAR CHEF TOMMY BANKS AS HE PUBLISHES HIS FIRST COOKBOOK, ROOTS
FOR a chef who became Britain’s youngest to earn a Michelin star at the age of 24, and triumphed twice on BBC2’s Great British Menu, Tommy Banks is remarkably self-effacing.
“I’ve still got so much to learn,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a particularly advanced cook.”
Many would disagree. Tommy runs the Black Swan in Oldstead, North Yorkshire, where he’s been from the age of 17 (his parents own the pub), and became head chef in 2013, retaining the star it had won under previous head chef, Adam Jackson. But he felt fraudulent, as if the dishes weren’t his.
Fast forward five years and Tommy has gained a name for himself for his own inventive combinations – he prefers the term “making it all up as I go along” to ‘self-taught’ – using local produce and displaying them as though exquisite pieces of art on the plate.
The Black Swan was voted the world’s best restaurant on TripAdvisor in October 2017 and, now, it’s always packed.
“Do people achieve things and manage to bask in it? I don’t know if I’m different,” he wonders, on the publication of his first cookbook, Roots.
“Whenever I achieve something, there’s also something else we’ve got to do.”
Perhaps his feet are firmly on the ground because it hasn’t always been easy.
“Running a business in a rural place is really tough, it struggled,” he admits. Aged 18, Tommy also became very ill with ulcerative colitis, had surgery and spent a year recovering.
“Winning Great British Menu was massive for my selfconfidence. Before that, I thought what I was doing was good, but no one else had really (experienced) it, because we were this tiny restaurant and we were quite quiet,” says the 28-year-old.
He also admits that he was “petrified and extremely anxious” going into the show, and how odd it was to be recognised afterwards.
Now he’s on the other side of things, after this year’s MasterChef finalists spent a day cooking with him.
Tommy grew up on the farm his family still run in the “idyllic” rural North York Moors.
As a result, his food is completely dictated by what’s grown on the farm, so humble British (or more specifically, Yorkshire) veg always takes centre stage, whether it’s a beetroot steak cooked in beef fat, a mainstay at the Black Swan, or in desserts like celery leaf parfait.
Any meat he uses won’t be farmed far away either.
“My menus are designed around what we’ve got coming in,” Tommy says.
“I’d never approach it like, ‘I want to do a duck dish’. It’s more like, ‘I’ve got celeriac, what are we going to do with it this year?”’
The book is a real celebration of nature and his homeland.
“Everything I’ve done over the last 10 years is documented in there, everything I’ve learned and come up with.”
It’s true – Roots covers everything from simple family recipes, like his grandma’s apple cake, to advanced cooking techniques where you’ll need a water bath and a vacuum seal to recreate some of the dishes from his Michelin star restaurant.
He also wants to dispel some of the misconceptions around ‘seasonal’ eating. “When I started growing produce, I realised there aren’t really four seasons in the UK from a culinary perspective, because we literally have nothing ready in January to April, and most of May, depending on the weather.”
Roots reflects the farming seasons and is split into three sections – the hunger gap (January to May), time of abundance (June to September) and the preserving season (October to December).
The hunger gap (the “most challenging” of the seasons) is a time for humble onions and wild garlic to really shine, as well as jerusalem artichokes, Yorkshire rhubarb (“the best in the world”) and some foraged ingredients most won’t have cooked with before – spruce, lovage and fir.
The first five months of the year also inspire his dishes that play with savoury and sweet – think artichoke fudge or scallops in rhubarb juice.
The easy-to-make John Dory with young vegetables and lemon verbena stock, meanwhile, is perfect for summer – the season of plenty.
The tail-end of the year, with its earthy, irony veg like celeriac (seriously underrated according to Tommy) and beetroot, is the time for preserving by fermenting or ‘clamping’, a process common during war rationing where tops are removed, roots buried in soil and kept in a cold, dry, dark place.
As for what’s next for the young chef, Tommy says: “I’d certainly like to do more TV.”
If you want to try his food without the Michelin star prices, he’s also announced a second restaurant opening this summer, Roots York, which will have a “fun, informal” feel.
■ Roots by Tommy Banks is published by Seven Dials, priced £25.
Tommy foraging for ingredients