Tommy Banks: farmer, forager, chef

by Tom Shingler30 May 2019

Cooking is just one part of the operation at The Black Swan at Oldstead – actually growing and picking the ingredients takes just as much effort. Tom Shingler spends the day with Tommy Banks to see how important the family farm and local area is to the dishes served at the Michelin-starred restaurant. Photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Most chefs will tell you that cooking professionally isn’t just a job – it’s a lifestyle. Long unsociable hours and intense working environments mean it’s often a sheer love for food that make the downsides worth it. Of course, there are plenty of upsides too; once you’ve put the hours in and mastered the craft you can start getting creative, coming up with original dish ideas and watch diners swoon over plates of food that you’ve prepared. But for Tommy Banks, the Michelin-starred chef at the helm of The Black Swan at Oldstead in Yorkshire, it seems running one of the best kitchens in the UK simply isn’t enough. By focusing on produce and ingredients from his family farm, he’s not just cooking the food – he’s planting, growing, harvesting and transporting it, too.

‘If a chef wants to put a pea dish on the menu, they’ll ring up their supplier every week and order in a few kilos of peas,’ he explains. ‘For us, we need to think about that dish in January, work out how many we’ll need during the season and sow the right number of seeds. Then you’ve got to think about rotations, so not all the peas are ready to harvest at the same time, and the sheer space needed to grow them – we planted 1.2km of pea plants this year just so we'll have enough for both The Black Swan and Roots [Tommy’s second restaurant in York] in the summer, which together can use up to eighty kilos of peas a week when they’re in season.’

What Tommy’s doing isn’t your run-of-the-mill kitchen garden set-up; this is full-scale farming. He, his team and his family plan months (if not years) in advance, ensuring they have, say, 6,000 onions ready to harvest in the summer just for one dish that’s going on at The Black Swan for a few months. He reckons he serves around 50,000 covers across his two restaurants every year, which means he’ll need to grow 50,000 Crapaudine beetroots if he’s to offer everyone his signature dish of beetroot cooked in beef fat. ‘It’s so far removed from just ordering ingredients in, and it takes a lot to get your head around.’

At the Banks family farm, thirty acres is set aside purely to grow vegetables for Tommy’s restaurants. On top of that, there’s a two-acre garden round the back of The Black Swan complete with polytunnels for things like tomatoes, bronze fennel and herbs, plus an orchard (‘although that won’t be producing fruit for another few years,’ says Tommy). There are also plans to rear livestock.

‘When I was growing up on the farm we had Aberdeen Angus cattle, but after BSE and foot and mouth we stopped all that around fifteen years ago. We have about 100 acres of grass pasture which we don’t grow anything on, so we’re looking at getting some rare-breed cows, sheep and pigs which we can then use for some really special dishes. It’s impossible to be entirely self-sustainable when it comes to meat, and to be honest I don’t think we could do it better than our supplier R&J Butchers in Ripon, but to have our own meat as well as fruit and veg on the menu is the dream. I’d really like it if we could offer guests who spend the night in one of our rooms a breakfast where the sausages, bacon and black pudding all come from our own pigs.’

Putting such an emphasis on what the farm grows has had a huge impact on Tommy’s cooking. It’s gone from a three-acre patch where the family would grow the odd crop as a bit of an experiment to a giant operation which has become the foundation of The Black Swan’s tasting menu. With the opening of Roots in 2018 production jumped massively, and the Banks family are now growing five times the amount they were just twelve months ago. ‘Initially, it was a case of using whatever we could grow, but now it’s more about thinking about what we want in advance, and then making sure we plant it at the right time so it’s there when we need it. Doing this has defined our food – we’ve got a dessert made with potato and chicory root on the menu here, which would be pretty leftfield in most restaurants, but those are two of our staples. I think we’ve just organically fallen down a path of cooking which revolves what we grow or forage, and how we preserve that for the rest of the year. I’m sure if me or my head chef Will had trained at a two-star restaurant then we’d be making terrines and all that – everyone’s influenced by how they learn.’

The sheer amount of planning, organisation and work that goes into everything from thinking about dishes to planting and harvesting the ingredients needed to make them is mind-boggling, and that’s before you throw in variables like bad weather. Of course, Tommy has his parents Tom and Anne on hand to look after the day-to-day operation of the farm, plus a fantastic team both in and out of the kitchen to ensure things run smoothly, but the fact that he’s spearheaded a style of cooking which doesn’t just rely on ringing up a supplier for ingredients is what makes a meal at The Black Swan unlike any other.

The wild side

Take a look at the menu at The Black Swan and, depending on the time of year, you’ll see things like wild garlic, woodruff and wood sorrel cropping up in dishes. Rather than buying them in, however, Tommy and his kitchen team – you guessed it – take to the countryside surrounding the restaurant and pick their own.

‘Chefs will pay £100 per kilo for wood sorrel, or £20 a kilo for wild garlic. We’re very lucky that we can just go out and get it right here, along with things like spruce tips, elderflower, woodruff and meadowsweet. That doesn’t mean we forage a huge variety of ingredients – we tend to just focus on a handful of different things and pick a lot of them. I’ve seen things like chickweed on menus, which costs about £30 a kilo. We could go out and pick loads of that, but I think it tastes like shit. People put it on their menus because it’s cool to have foraged stuff on them, but why not just use rocket instead? It's perfectly nice. Foraging has become very trendy, but as with all fads I think only the best of them stick around. I think things like wild garlic, woodruff and sorrel are here to stay, but not chickweed. It’s the same as molecular gastronomy – we might have moved on from having foams on everything, but loads of good things came out of that movement which we now use daily.’

Whether he’s planning what to plant on the farm, out with his kitchen team foraging for leaves or on the pass checking each plate is up to scratch, one thing’s for sure – Tommy likes doing things a little bit differently to the average chef. Perhaps it’s down to his lack of formal training, learning on the job when his parents first bought The Black Swan when he was a teenager. He’s less hands-on than he used to be, spending his time planning, organising and managing instead (‘although don’t get me wrong – on a sunny day I love getting out and doing some farm work’), but the food that makes The Black Swan such a destination restaurant is undoubtedly his. The headspace you need to just think about planning dishes months in advance, then sowing, growing, harvesting and processing the ingredients before they even touch a pan is vast, and would certainly have most chefs break out in a sweat before reaching for the phone to call up the nearest veg supplier. But you can’t argue with the results – after all, for a piece of beetroot cooked in beef fat to become a signature dish, you need a pretty special beetroot.

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