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On the Pass with Tommy Banks

The field of play might be a little different, but according to Tommy Banks, there’s a fair bit of common ground between playing cricket and working in a kitchen

words by Tommy BANKS

I’ll make no bones of the fact that I love sports. In truth, I’m sure most people do, in some way or another. Even those with no real interest in sports will probably admit to some appreciation of its foundations, or at least relate to some of the principles they put forward: integrity, camaraderie, discipline and excellence are all things we aspire to, and any respect for those elements will tie you to the core values of sport, in some way. And even if you don’t go in for those sorts of things, there’s still the sheer escapist charm of it all. Despite our penchant for screaming at screens and criticising plays with some feigned, professional knowledge you’ve somehow just acquired, the truth is that sports render us utterly powerless. We have no control over how things will play out, so there’s no choice but to sit back (or lean forward, eagerly) and enjoy the ride. There’s a lovely freedom to that.

Looking back, the summer just gone was an incredible time to be a cricket fan (and if there’s one thing you’re going to glean from this, it’s that I’m very much a cricket fan). We had both the World Cup and the Ashes. I was at the Cricket World Cup Final when England won on the final bowl. And while I wasn’t at Headingley, I watched intently as Ben Stokes, by some miracle, practically won the test singlehandedly. That’s the true beauty of cricket, I think; the unpredictability of it all. There’s always the potential for uproar and upset, a means of disrupting the status quo. Nothing is ever really a given. Everything is possible.

Test Cricket is, well, exactly that. It’s the ultimate test. It may not be so bad standing outside all day here in the UK, but imagine doing it in Australia in 40 degree heat with 40,000 Aussies on your back. Or in India, with the heat and humidity wearing you down while you contend with some of the world’s best spin bowlers. It’s a real grind and the pressure is constantly on. You can play well for 4.5 days and then one silly mistake could cost you the whole thing. It’s exhilarating stuff, and I think that – for the most part – it’s possible to draw a number of parallels between cricket and working in the kitchen.

I played at a fairly high league cricket level between the ages of 14 and 19, often with guys twice my age. I’d say I’ve learned an awful lot from the principles of cricket (and gleaned a fair few life lessons from the time spent in the pub after games, too). Much like restaurant work, cricket is a team sport that nevertheless relies on the skill and prowess of the individual. Each and every person in the kitchen – as on the field – has a real responsibility not just to themselves, but to their entire team. When batting, for example, you take on some serious responsibility. If you struggle under the pressure, the next person is going to have to double down even harder. So it’s down to you to fight for the next person as much as for yourself. I’d say that applies perfectly to life in the restaurant kitchen. Ultimately, success in cricket is a question of having a bunch of uniquely-skilled and like-minded individuals performing to the highest standard possible. I feel pretty lucky to have been able to carry that said same ethos into the kitchens at Roots and The Black Swan. 

There’s some serious room for self-expression in both fields, too. All the truly great cricketers are a little unorthodox, and I think the same goes for chefs. Granted, unlike cricket, great food is entirely subjective, so that adds another layer of complexity to the whole thing. Just think of the team at El Bulli years back. Those guys were the first to offer multi-course menus (sounds pretty standard now, but it was revolutionary at the time). They were doing some truly groundbreaking (and downright weird) work: Taking a carrot, turning it into juice and then serving it as spaghetti, that sort of thing. Mind bending, envelope pushing stuff.

One of the major lessons I’ve taken away from my time playing cricket is that you can’t coach or train any one person the same way, because you’ll lose that unorthodox edge. You risk losing exactly what it is that makes that person unique. But if you nurture ambition, and find a way to make it work for the betterment of the entire team, then you just might turn your key players into game changers. TB