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The Other Banksy

The youngest British Michelin Starred chef, the face of the best restaurant in the world and a new restaurant, called Roots set to open in York. You could say it’s all coming up Tommy Banks. But despite this, the North Yorkshire chef has his feet firmly on the ground. We caught up with him to talk about food tech, new restaurants and why there are better things to forage than chickweed…

Hi Tommy, What’ve you been up to today?
[Speaking on the phone] Where are you? Are you in a bathroom or something? It sounds very echoey. It sounds like you’re talking to me from a bathtub.

Afraid not Tommy, I’m just in quite a big room. I’ll open a window. That’s better. What have you been up to today?
We’re opening Roots our new restaurant in just over a week’s time, so I’m literally just walking out of the building now to find a quiet space because it’s still a little bit serious with machinery going on and stuff like that. We’ve just been planning the first couple of nights on the menu and how it’s going to work and unpacking endless amounts of equipment. It’s beautiful [here] actually, just sat by the River Ouse.

I read somewhere that you got kicked out of food tech when you were in school, is this true?
I mean yeah, I wasn’t an out and out bad lad. I just found it hard to concentrate really, a bit hyperactive.

What would you do with food tech if you were in charge of the curriculum now?
I think you just need to modernise it. I remember doing it at school and you were never making anything particularly interesting, were you? I don’t think you’re ever going to catch the children’s imagination with a pitta bread pizza or fruit salad. I think I would make it a bit more aspirational, but also, teach people practical skills. I reckon I would treat it more like a life skills class. Imagine if you’d been taught how to cook ten basic meals for when you left school, but also how to shop for them as well, learning about food and how to buy it and what things cost. What specific things you need to buy. But also how to kit out your kitchen and things like that. As a young person and you’ve got to feed yourself, you’re not going to go home and make scones for nourishment, are you?

Definitely not. I also read that as the credit crunch was taking hold, you and your family were faced with a massive decision at The Black Swan. 2 for 1 pub grub or something entirely different. Do you remember this crossroads vividly?
Yeah, it was a very tough time. During that whole credit crunch, people just drew the purse strings didn’t they. The news was doom and gloom, restaurants were closing every single day and actually, I do remember it vividly because we did advertise locally the two-for-one steak nights and all those sorts of things, but in reality you’re just extending the inevitable if you do something like that. At the time, I was actually reading Marco Pierre White’s autobiography and he was talking about when he opened a restaurant in Wandsworth Common in the late 80s when there was a recession. He was worried about whether people would come all the way out to Wandsworth for an expensive meal and maybe he should put his prices down? But someone said to him, in a recession, put your prices up. Because the very bargain basement will probably survive and the top of the market survives. The people who’re spending money at the top of the market are spending money regardless of the recession.

We realized we needed to make this a real destination, so that people will come for their birthday or their anniversary and even though people are tightening their purse strings, they’re going to spend money on their birthday or their anniversary. People who are recession-proof I suppose. That was the thinking. The thing at the time though was we didn’t know how to do a better restaurant. The theory came before the actual practical ability, but that was the aim and we managed to survive so I think it worked.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you never had a traditional culinary education. What was your alternative education? What were your references?
I think it was twofold. We had a chef called Adam Jackson who was the Head Chef at The Black Swan for a few years and I worked under him, so I did learn the basics and the practical skills, but after he left and I retained the Michelin star in 2013, at that point I was literally cooking classical food that I’d seen in cookbooks and on TV and at other restaurants, like a lot of restaurants do. It was at that point that I had just turned 24 and I was getting a lot of press for being the youngest person to get a star at the time and I felt quite fraudulent. I thought I was getting hailed as some sort of genius, but in reality, all I’d done was just replicate what other people had done before me. And that was the real starting point really. We started again. I started the garden at that point, and a lot of foraging. And the idea was we’d only cook with things that we’d only grown in Oldstead and that was a real turning point because it forced us into a new cuisine.

Who was your inspiration?
I took a lot of inspiration from a lot of the Scandinavian restaurants who do similar things, Noma is really inspiring, and that was the real start of a new cuisine for us. People talk about not really having any formal training and things like that, because they look at the style of food we do and the techniques we use and they ask ‘how did you come up with that? Nobody does that.’ That was the real start of originality. That didn’t come from anything other than me and a couple of other guys who have worked with us for a long time just experimenting, trying things out and being brave.

Tell me about foraging. How do you know what you’re doing?
I grew up in the countryside and my family are farmers, so I already had a good base knowledge of what you could eat and what you couldn’t.

Yeah, but how do you know you’re picking something good as opposed to something crap like grass or nettles?
Nettles are alright! They’re quite good. I think it’s the culinary application of it. It’s alright knowing what it is, but how do you make it delicious? Foraging has become very fashionable, but some of the foraged products aren’t actually tasty. People put chickweed on their menu and things like that and I’m like, well it’s not as nice as… rocket, or any other type of lettuce. Why don’t you just use… lettuce? I think the skill is finding something you can forage, but it has to be absolutely delicious. So elderflower is a really good example. It’s a mainstream product in terms of something you can forage. Go into any bar in the country and they’ll have an elderflower drink. But it tastes phenomenal. I think if you find something like that, you think ‘wow, there’s so many uses I could do with this.’ It doesn’t just have to be a sweet thing I put in a drink, I can use it with savoury as well. Then you find the next thing and you apply the same kind of logic as well.

Meadowsweet flowers for example. They have this amazing almond flavour. Well, let’s try do the same things we do with elderflower to meadowsweet and then you start building this portfolio. Pineapple Mayweed is an amazing weed which grows in our garden and it tastes like pineapple. So you’re thinking, why don’t we treat this like a pineapple? So we made rum out of pineapple mayweed and then rum and pineapple mayweed cocktails. Very quickly within a year or so, we had a portfolio of loads of different dishes and products and things we could make from foraged bits, that we could then make dishes from. I think it’s just about exploring really. Starting with one thing, moving on and knowing when something’s a fad. Sometimes you go out, you eat something, and you go ‘actually, it’s a lot of effort, and it’s kind of cool, but it’s not actually very tasty.’ The golden rule is it has to taste good.

When you were crowned as the youngest ever British Michelin Starred chef at the age of 24, for your work at The Black Swan, how did that feel? Were you bricking it a bit?
You have to take things in your stride I think. When I was the youngest Michelin chef and that, I actually felt a little bit embarrassed. Obviously it was good, we’re doing good food and we got a good accolade for it, but I felt as a chef not particularly experienced and my food probably wasn’t that original. At that point, I was very conscious that people were judging me and expecting something amazing from me and I was thinking about whether I could actually deliver that and certainly feeling a little bit insecure. I think I’m a lot more mature and balanced now.

What about Tripadvisor’s best restaurant in the world 2017?
The best restaurant in the world thing last year was a great accolade because, there’s all sorts of accolades, but this one was particularly good because it was actually taking into account reviews of people that had actually eaten in the restaurant. And I was like, that is an amazing thing and a huge pat on the back to the whole team. It tends to be me who gets the credit for everything, but in reality there’s like 50 people who work at The Black Swan and I’m just one cog in the machine really.

I think things like that, you have to be very balanced and calm about it. How do you work out what the best restaurant in the world is? It’s such a subjective thing. It’s almost a bit of a nonsense. You know, they have this list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, but it’s total nonsense. For one person, the pub or the curry house at the end of the road is their favourite restaurant. I just thought the best way to approach it was, don’t take yourself too seriously and to think of it as a massive pat on the back for the consistency of the restaurant. But if you start over-thinking it, you’re going to give yourself nightmares. We were obviously doing a decent job before, so we’ll keep doing the same thing and try and make it better. Definitely don’t worry what people think or say about your restaurant because there’s no time for that.

Do you think being out in the countryside helps with keeping calm?
I think it has been advantageous in loads of ways. Firstly, I think being out in the middle of nowhere means people that come to the restaurant really desperately want to plan a trip. They plan time off work. They plan a train or a car journey. They plan an overnight stay. So you’re really invested in going out for this meal. You’ve researched the restaurant, understand what it’s all about and you want to be a part of it. I think that’s why we have such a positive customer response. I think that has been a positive.

Is it difficult trying to make a restaurant out in the middle of nowhere work?
Getting publicity in the first place is difficult. Luckily it has come to a point now where we get so much publicity because of the awards we’ve won. In terms of keeping grounded and that, it’s nice because most days you see the people you work with and the customers that come in. That’s quite nice and it keeps you in your bubble. The other thing is, I don’t think the Tripadvisor award certainly, would have been as big a deal if it was a restaurant in Mayfair. It’s almost expected. The reason that it was such a big story, internationally as well, was because it was an old pub in the middle of nowhere, a place nobody has ever heard of in rural North Yorkshire. If it was in New York, or Central London, it would have been expected. It was such a ‘what the heck?’ It’s not in New York, London, Dubai, Singapore or wherever, it’s in rural North Yorkshire. That was why it was such a great story and really the secret to our success.

For years and years, it was hard to get people to come out to The Black Swan because we were in the middle of nowhere and we didn’t have much of a reputation and suddenly, after a decade of trying, it has flipped on its head and actually become the USP which we needed. I had mates all over the world, like South Africa, New Zealand, America, Asia and everywhere and they were like, I’ve just seen you on the news.

What about the location itself? What is it like working there?
In terms of the actual location, I’ve grown up here. In fact, it’s funny doing these interviews because it just sounds like I’m a loser that has never left home. I have such a fond connection with the land, that I couldn’t be anywhere else. We’re opening our second restaurant now after 12 years, and it’s in York, and it takes me about forty minutes to get to the restaurant and I don’t want to be any further than that. It’s really important to me to be close to home. It’s the inspiration behind all the food and that’s very important to me. It’s great, it’s the place I used to hang out as a kid, going to smoke and drink as a teenager. Suddenly, you’re now using these locations to gather these ingredients for your restaurant.

Your new restaurant 40 minutes away is called Roots. What can we expect from it?
It’s fairly different. The Black Swan is our baby really. It’s this beautiful tasting-menu-only restaurant where the food is seriously refined. With Roots, there’s been a massive amount of work that has gone into the building and it’s a beautiful space and a really lovely place to sit down and eat. That’s what I want to come through with the food. It’s inspired by the same ethos as The Black Swan with foraged things, preserved things, but it’s slightly more informal because it’s sharing food. Almost like a tapas style and you order what you want to eat and share it.

Are there similarities with The Black Swan?
The food quality is the same sort of techniques that we use at The Black Swan. I want it to be a very good restaurant and stand alone. There’s one dish which crosses both restaurants and after that it has got its own food. We’ve been working for three or four months this summer, developing all the dishes. So there’s been a lot of thought behind the concept, but also, all summer long I have had a team of chefs working on foraging and preserving all the produce from The Black Swan garden and the land around. We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of preserved products that we’re then going to serve throughout the winter.

You’ve got a book out of the same name too… How does that tie into the restaurant?
Roots has this very unique ethos. The Black Swan can change its menu every day and be whatever it wants to be, whereas Roots follows the three seasons of my cookbook. From now until the end of the year, we have a menu called the preserving season. Then for the first five months of the year, we have a menu called the hunger gap and throughout that time we serve exclusively products we have harvested and preserved from the following summer. We have this whole team of people creating this massive portfolio of ingredients to then cook with throughout the winter, then the middle months of the year, like the beautiful summer we’re just coming to the end of now, we’re just going to cook totally fresh produce. We’ll have a van of produce coming from the farm every day. It’s pretty unique in that sense. Most of all its got to be absolutely delicious. That’s my only thing really.

Do you think chefs can be a bit too, fiddly?
Chefs muck around with food so much and we like to refine things and make them look really great, but the thing is – I want you to taste things and just go ‘pfft. Wow.’ One of the things we’ve got at The Black Swan is people eat things and they go, I’d have that again. And the beautiful thing about Roots is, you can have it again. Just have another one mate. Whereas The Black Swan it’s a curated tasting menu. You have one dish and you have another dish and it’s all rolled into one. They fit together in sequence. Whereas at Roots, if you want another one…

Just have another one mate.

Words by Davey BRETT
Image Credits by Jack FINNIGAN