the good life
The menu at the Michelin-starred Black Swan in Yorkshire is dictated by what is grown in its garden (providing the pigeons don’t get to it first). By Amy Bryant. Photographs by India Hobson
At the end of last month tommy Banks was on our television screens frantically pan-frying turbo tin the kitchen of the All england tennis Club. eighty portions, cooked at the last minute and served with pickled strawberries and a lawn-green chive sauce, to feed Wimbledon’s great and good in the finale of BBC two’s Great British
Menu. It’s the second year running that a Banks dish has won a place at the endof-series banquet, and this time the 28-year-old was primed for the demands of filming. ‘You know you’re going to be pulled aside to talk to t he camera while your cream is boiling over,’ he says. thankfully the cream survived, the pressure was manageable and the process was ‘a whole lot of fun’.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Banks is adept at overcoming adversity. A troubling Michel in star, a debilitating illness, unpredictable crops and a huge batch of bras sic as ravaged by local birds have all played their part in the story of this young chef who has made a success of growing almost everything he cook sat his family’ s restaurant in north Yorkshire.
the opening of the Black Swan, a pretty drovers’ inn at the heart of the even-prettier village of oldstead, had all the makings of ‘a Gordon Ramsay Kitchen night mare’, Banks tells me. having taken over the pub in 2006 (a step up from their previous B&B), his parents put him and his brother, James, in charge. Aged 17 and 18, Banks recalls, ‘We had no idea what we were doing, and would just invite our mates round to get drunk.’ After a floundering start and struggles with kitchen staff, Banks was put into the kitchen to work under the head chef. ‘My dad said, “Well you’ll just have to cook.”’ for the aspiring professional cricketer, who had absolutely no experience of cooking, being a restaurant chef was not par t of the plan. But neither was being struck with ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition that saw him undergo major surgery three times and spend the best part of a year in and out of hospital. ‘I was very low, but determined to make something of myself, so I decided to work all hours to make the restaurant a success.’
this involved building the Black Swan up to be a‘ special-occasion,
The opening of the restaurant had all the makings of a ‘Gordon Ramsay Kitchen Nightmare’
destination place’, simply because ‘no one would come all the way out here just for a nice pub ’. The food it served, wit h Banks as sous-chef, was classic and French-inspired (‘ tasty but boring ’); with it, The Black Swan won a Michelin star, but Banks was then faced with the challenge of retaining it after the head chef left to open his own restaurant. He succeeded and, at 24, became‘ the youngest Michel in-star chef by accident. Totally by accident.’
To hear Banks speak candidly of his embarrassment, of having ‘supposedly reached the pinnacle’ of his career yet feeling that he wasn’t ‘pioneering in any way, or doing anything amazing or new’, brings home just how much he and his team have achieved over the past four years. For behind The Black Swan are two-and-a-half acres of land on which almost all of the restaurant’ s fruit and vegetables are grown, and just down the road is his parents’ farm where back-up beetroot, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes are drilled–the produce of Banks’ own Yorkshire story, instead of an adopted cuisine. Tom and Anne Banks had kept Aberdeen Angus cattle when the children were little, then moved into arab le crops .‘ I thought, “Where should I get my ideas from ?” My only roots were in farming.’
Banks shows me the burgeoning terraces of carrots, ra dishes, turnips and fennel, topped by asparagus and tailed by straw berries just blushing into colour .‘ Saying we’d try to cook only with things that we’d grown or foraged for here promoted creativity. Suddenly you’ve got a whole field of Jerusalem artichokes and not much else, so they have to become desserts, too .’ A vegetable fudge, sweet and earthy and not unlike salted caramel, was the answer to that curveball. Elsewhere, fruit, herbs and even weeds are made into alcohol, concentrated rhubarb juice and acidic-tasting wood sorrel replace lemon and lime, and the local spruce is churned into butter or used as barbecue skewers for fat, juicy langoustines. Beetroot is a particularly prized crop, especially the tape red, gnarled, to ad-skin-like crap audi ne variety that The Black Swan team hoe by hand, store clamped in straw, and cook in beef fat for four hours until
wizened, sweet and smoky – ‘just like a steak’. On Banks’ 12-course evening tasting menu (the only other option is a shorter no-choice menu on Saturday lunchtimes), meat is not off-limits; it’s just that with, say, 1,500 celeriac carefully planned to last over two months, the vegetable has to be the linchpin to each dish, and ‘protein comes second’.
Inventiveness has been crucial in other areas of the business, too. With a power-draining dishwasher causing lights to flicker and ovens to fail, a generator was installed, whose waste heat was converted to warm the garden’ s polytunnel. The restaurant’s plates and bowls are made to order by a ceramicist in York; the oak tables, their legs echoing tangled roots, were crafted by a join er who works with two other tradesmen full-time on the pub and its guest rooms. ‘Whether it’s plastering or putting up staircases,’ Banks explains, ‘we do everything in-house.’
The entire team, Banks takes pains to emphasise, is responsible for t he success of The Black Swan. And as for the pigeons who decimated a winter’s worth of newly planted cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts? ‘Revenge of the bras sic a’ went on the restaurant’s menu, with the bird taking a starring role. As with much of his Yorkshire tale, Banks ‘had the last laugh’.
Below Banks and his team spend as much time in the garden as they do in the kitchen
Below The decor of The Black Swan, a former drovers’ inn, is in keeping with its Yorkshire heritage