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At the Pass with Tommy Banks

Tommy Banks, chef & owner of Roots (York) and the Michelin-starred Black Swan at Oldstead, discusses the many faces of sustainability in the food and drinks industry

words by Tommy BANKS

As a species, we have to accept that our very presence has an impact. It’s our responsibility to offset that impact wherever we can. Now, as an industry that’s literally based around the celebration of consumption, the food and drinks industry, by and large, is no paragon of eco-friendliness. But here at Roots and The Black Swan at Oldstead, we’re doing what we can. And with a focus on balance, compromise and respect, I’d say we’re getting better at it everyday. 

Balance, for us, is a question of managing scale. Having a small farm means we’re able to cut down on the use of any intensive, industrialised machinery, along with any excess delivery mileage and its strain on the environment. On a creative front, our modest farm also allows for some all-important seasonality when it comes to the subject of menu development, too. Obviously, the bigger the scale of your enterprise, the more machinery is required to maintain it.  But we’re not looking to feed an entire population at The Black Swan and Roots. We’re happy with our own small patch of land and we welcome those that come to visit us. 

Compromise is an inevitable component of sustainability, too. The Black Swan at Oldstead, along with our farm, are so isolated that it doesn’t actually receive three-phase electricity. Instead, it runs on a diesel generator. So it’s important to make sure we look for ways to maximise the generator’s efficiency. To that end, the hot water run-off can be used to heat both the rooms at The Black Swan and our Polytunnel when it’s needed from February through to May. 

We live in an age when more and more consumers are clued into the fact that good food costs more than just money: it comes with a certain ecological price tag, too. With that in mind, it’s important to respect that product, whatever it is, and to use every bit of it that you can. We’re lucky in the sense that our chefs are a thrifty lot by nature. So whether we’re talking about meat, fish or crops, you can be sure that we’re getting everything out of a product that we possibly can.

Of course, respect goes so much further that how we source and use our produce at both Roots and The Black Swan; it runs through every fibre of our restaurants. Respect for your staff, their wellbeing, and the sustainability of their working conditions is always a huge priority. We’re more wary than ever of the dangers of burnout and the general pressures of the food and drink industry. Thankfully, we’re seeing a new generation of workers being ushered in who understand that busy isn’t always better. They want – and deserve – the time and the means to explore other interests and other passions while they make a living. 

This is a facet of sustainability that I think is all-too-often overlooked in our industry, and one we look to address wherever possible. At both Roots and The Black Swan at Oldstead, our chefs work a maximum of four days a week, without a split-shift in sight.
We also make sure that our chefs never go hungry on shift. While this isn’t always so great for the waistline, it’s wonderful for the soul. People will always resist change, however. You’ll always catch the old guard waxing lyrical about how you’re downright lazy if you’re not walking uphill both ways to put in your 80 hours a week. But thankfully, we’re seeing newer, healthier working philosophies finding their way into restaurants, and we couldn’t be happier
about it.

That idea of respect and its role in our ongoing quest for sustainability is just as important when it comes to those we’re serving, too. Particularly when it comes to the question of reservations, no-shows and cancellations. Cancelled bookings can cost us around £100,000 in staff wages, lost revenue and wasted produce over the course of a year. While the lost revenue is something only other restaurants can relate to, I’m sure we can all appreciate the severity of wasted food. 

To offset this, we enforce a deposit system. Admittedly, it’s not always a popular system amongst guests, but it’s something we feel pretty strongly about. So, in the interest of deterring sudden cancellations – or even worse still –  the cardinal sin of booking multiple restaurants so that you can decide later (a faux pas of the highest order), we think we can safely consider deposits to fall under the necessary compromises mentioned above.

So, like I said, sustainability comes down to balance, compromise and respect. We owe our lands and our staff a lot; they’re the keys to our success and we want to see them both flourish. So doing our part wherever possible to look after both of them is a real priority for us. We’d like to think we’re doing our best at both, but we’re never ones to shy away from the challenge of striving for better. TB