The humble chef going back to his roots for food ideas
Yorkshire’s Tommy Banks is only 28 but already has a Michelin star and two Great British Menu titles. As he releases his first book, he tells Lauren Taylor how he comes up with his wonderfully unique dishes
For a chef who became the youngest in Britain to earn a Michelin star, at the age of 24, and twice triumphed on BBC Two show 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. Banks runs the Black Swan in Oldstead, north Yorkshire, where he’s been from the age of 17 (his parents own the pub). He 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 Banks has gained a name for himself with his own inventive combinations — he prefers the phrase “making it all up as I go along” to ‘self-taught’ — using local produce and displaying them on the plate as though they were exquisite pieces of art.
The Black Swan was voted the world’s best restaurant on TripAdvisor in October 2017. These days, it’s always packed.
“Do people achieve things and manage to bask in it? I don’t know if I’m different,” Tommy wonders on the publication of his first cookbook, Roots. “Whenever I achieve something, there’s also something else 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, Banks also became very ill with ulcerative colitis, had surgery and spent a year recovering. “Winning Great British Menu was massive for my self-confidence. 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, who admits he was “petrified and extremely anxious” going into the show and says it was odd to be recognised afterwards.
Now he’s on the other side of things — this year’s MasterChef finalists spent a day cooking with him.
The book is a 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,” he says. And it’s true — Roots is so comprehensive it covers
everything from simple family recipes, like his grandma’s apple cake, to cooking techniques where you’ ll need a water bath and a vacuum seal to recreate some of the dishes on his Michelin star menu.
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.”
It’s only natural then that his cookbook reflects the farming seasons rather than the four seasons we all know. It’s split into three sections — the hunger gap (January to May), time of abundance (June to September) and the preserving season (October to December).
So what’s next for the young chef? “I’d certainly like to do more TV,” he says. And if you want to try his food without the Michelin star prices, he’s just announced a second restaurant opening this summer, Roots York.
Roots, by Tommy Banks, published by Seven Dials, £25