Like many in the hospitality industry, times have been tough. But global pandemic aside, there’s always room for success, as Michelin star chef, Tommy Banks has proven.
I guess what is so refreshing about Tommy’s story is that natural growth from family business – their first foray into the world of hospitality in 2006 – to his prestigious presence in the foodie world, serving globally recognised cuisine from a humble spot in Oldstead, an unassuming village in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire.
The Black Swan at Oldstead is a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms, set in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It started as a family project having farmed the land surrounding the pub for many years. Tommy’s parents bought the site when he was young, running it as a B&B with no huge ambitions for its food.
As you’d expect, his parents Tom and Anne nurtured their own produce growing in the grounds; and as the garden grew, so did Tommy’s skills in the kitchen. It was a natural process, and it’s so wonderful to see the family flourish from farmers to regional, national and now global food icons.
After appearances on BBC Two’s Great British Menu and becoming Britain’s youngest Michelin-starred chef at just 24-years-old, it’s safe to say that Tommy is a familiar face to many. But the beauty of this story is that the restaurant’s success and growth is rooted in family life – tradition mixed with a modern, earthy exuberance. It just works. That, and its dedication to the county it lives in. Glorious Yorkshire.
There’s a real sense of homegrown creativity here, a celebration of plant to plate dining, using the abundance of fresh, seasonal produce found in the three-acre kitchen garden.
Now, the 31-year-old is focusing on building the business. It’s about nurturing guests, getting the best of seasonal produce and pivoting to succeed in a post-pandemic world.
Given the recent challenges faced, the restaurant’s most recent award was an obvious boost. The Black Swan at Oldstead has been awarded Tripadvisor’s best fine dining restaurant in the UK and the fourth best in the world. What a way to return to business!
“It was a real surprise actually, but a great one,” Tommy smiles.
“Accolades and awards have been so far from our thoughts with everything that has gone on in 2020, but it’s been a great surprise and really nice to give the news to the team just a week before the reopening.”
The restaurant is not only built on a family unit, but it’s also built on the principles of team spirit. Its success is very much a group effort.
“I see the Black Swan as a co-operative of minds,” he explains.
“We have great people working here; some real characters with tremendous talent, and it’s their coming together that creates something special and leads to such rewards.
We want our guests to feel part of it and experience it with us. It’s not just a job for us, it’s a lifestyle.”
So after some time away from the busy kitchen and the restaurant floor, this award was the motivation the whole team needed to bounce back.
“We were devastated when we had to close both restaurants back in March. We had to think quickly to find a means of continuing to support our customers and suppliers, but also reach our guests in a way that was totally safe.
“We started a nationwide food box business called Made in Oldstead, which has been amazing and helped us to support everyone we care about, with employees moving over from the restaurants to work on this.”
Alongside that, business is back on track at The Black Swan and its sister site, Roots in York; and for Tommy and his team, it’s about keeping safe, doing what they do best and welcoming customers with open arms.
“At the moment it’s more about consolidation – we’ve opened both our restaurants and are happy with how that has gone.
“The key priority right now is of course keeping everyone safe. Our main pivot was Made in Oldstead – it was a huge challenge setting up a totally new business from scratch during a global pandemic, but it has led to great things and we’re excited for what we have planned next. It feels great to have emerged from lockdown with an additional business, and one that we hope will continue to thrive.”
Another reason for success is of course the tight knit community behind the business. The family force. Generations of Banks have been farming the land surrounding The Black Swan, so taking on the restaurant was the perfect opportunity to showcase everything they do when it comes to proper Yorkshire produce.
“My parents, my brother and I all have different roles within the business, but the work is done by a much bigger team.
“I head up the cooking and have definitely become the face of the business, while my parents look after the farm, which is obviously integral to everything we do here.
“My brother James is a sommelier and works on the drinks side of things. He has also been the driving force behind setting up Made in Oldstead over the lockdown period.
“My business partner, Matt Lockwood at Roots in York, is key to everything we do across the businesses and has worked tirelessly on Made in Oldstead over the last few months.
“Then there is a much wider team who we now call family. We’re lucky enough to have such great, passionate and talented people working with us. It makes all the difference.”
Take any ingredient and the kitchen team has had a hand in its sowing, nurturing, picking, tasting, prepping and cooking. There’s definitely a lot of food love in Tommy’s kitchen, and much of that comes down to his familiarity with plant to plate dining, from a young age growing up on the farm.
“My route into food was slightly different to many chefs,” he explains.
“I didn’t have any formal training in the kitchen. I come from an agriculture background having grown up on a farm, so it’s the farm aspect that forms the DNA of everything we do across the business. Our ethos of growing, foraging and preserving things is integral to everything we do.
“Here in Oldstead, we literally have zero food miles. Produce from the farm on our doorstep at The Black Swan is brought into the restaurant and in the summer it’s literally picked fresh at 5pm before being put onto the plate.”
Tommy took that concept, which worked so well in his rural restaurant, and gave it a contemporary city twist. York was the obvious spot for his next venture – taking the farm-grown ingredients and serving it up in a sleek new location.
Roots opened its doors in September 2018 and adopts a fresh new ethos, with a menu reflecting the three key growing groups found in his cookbook ‘Roots’; The Hunger Gap – the beginning of the year when produce is at a minimum, The Time of Abundance – the summer season when things are growing gloriously, and The Preservation Season – as autumn rolls back around and foraged foods can be enjoyed.
To put it simply, the dishes change with the foodie calendar as the availability of ingredients come and go. The menu is a real honest celebration of the seasons, and it works oh-so well.
“It’s coming up to two years since we opened Roots in York, the second of our restaurants.
“It’s been amazing to have a restaurant in the city and to bring our ethos and ingredients to a new audience – and a completely new environment.
“We wanted to make it slightly more accessible for customers, certainly in terms of location. While we started the business as a small plates restaurant, we’ve pivoted a bit since the pandemic and turned it into one that offers shorter tasting menus.
It has been a big change but it’s enabled us to bring even more of the amazing produce that we’ve grown on the farm to the restaurant.”
York’s food scene is something of a celebration. Whether it’s a mid-shopping trip bottle of wine over tapas, a swanky fine-dining restaurant, or a cosy cafe to rest the legs after a day of sightseeing, there’s a certain buzz about the city, and as the business continued to grow and gain recognition, it was a market Tommy was keen to tap into.
“York is a buzzy city with a thriving independent food scene, which is helped by how accessible it is to people across the country. It’s great to be a part of this community – and with it being just 20 miles from us in Oldstead, it’s our home city.
“Before we took it on, Roots was a pub which hadn’t had a lot of love over the years – similar in a way to what The Black Swan was. It’s been great to restore a building and give it a new chapter in its life, just like we do with ingredients when we preserve and serve them to celebrate them in all their glory.”
Whether it’s foraging on the farm, living it up in the city, or appearing on big name TV shows, everything Tommy, his family and his businesses do are centred around the place they call home. Good old Yorkshire.
It’s all about the produce at Tommy’s restaurants, and when it’s not the home-grown stuff nurtured by his close-knit team on site, it’s carefully-selected goods from local suppliers who share the same principles.
“The key to getting the best of the region’s produce onto our menus is forging strong and lasting relationships with our suppliers,” Tommy explains.
“We grow so much of what we serve across our businesses, but what we don’t grow we source elsewhere from a select few suppliers. These are more often than not family-run businesses too, with whom we share the same passion, ethos and opinions when it comes to food.”
As we delve deep into the darker seasons, Tommy talks through the ingredients feeding thier way onto the restaurant’s autumn/winter menus.
“Autumn into winter is one of my favourite times of year as we have a whole new set of ingredients to work with,” he explains.
“We’ll have squashes ready in October and our crapaudine beetroots are looking great – these form one of our signature dishes.
“October will be a big month for Made in Oldstead as we’re launching all of our Christmas packages.
“Made in Oldstead is so different to our other businesses – you have to plan so far ahead and so much has to go into the development of every dish to ensure that it travels well but is also still ultra-seasonal. I can’t wait to see the final product. Keep your eyes peeled.”
Restaurant and farm life is in his DNA. It’s what makes him tick and it’s what he loves most, but when he does steal some time away for himself, his head remains in the food world.
“I’m a bit biased, but there really are so many amazing places on our doorstep, so I try to get out and explore as much as I can when I’m not working,” he says.
“I love the White Horse at Kilburn and Lake Gormire – they’re two very special places for me – but no day out is complete without a bite to eat in one of the region’s many great restaurants.
“A restaurant I really love in the North East is House of Tides by Kenny Atkinson – he’s a good friend of mine and has been a mentor to me over the years.
“What I love about the North East is that it’s the perfect place for hospitality as the people are just so incredibly friendly and hospitable. When you go to House of Tides in Newcastle you’re really well looked after and made to feel like one of the team. No one goes there and has a bad time.”
And when he’s venturing further afield…
“One of my favourite places to visit has to be Moor Hall over in Lancashire. Chef Patron Mark Birchall is doing amazing things over there. It’s such a beautiful place.
“I also love Ynshir in Wales. It’s such a special place and Gareth Ward has taken the restaurant experience to a whole new level – he even has an on-site DJ!”
“Further afield, I had an amazing trip to California last year. We ate at some incredible restaurants, but there was one pizza place in San Francisco which really stood out for me. Pizza del Popolo – a really cool, bustling place serving delicious sourdough pizzas. There really is nothing better.
“Food aside, I absolutely love cricket. Lord’s Cricket Ground is the mecca of sport for me. I can’t wait to visit again when it reopens next year.
“But you’ll mainly find me either in our own restaurants or out eating somewhere. I genuinely love food and eating. I’m a greedy pig to be honest, and when food is delicious, I just can’t get enough of it.”