20 Minutes with Tommy: ‘When you are up in the middle of nowhere, you always think that everyone else is better than you’

Knocking tentatively on the imposing front door of Roots, I waited nervously and tried not to dwell too much on the very likely prospect of tripping up the stairs in front of the famous Tommy Banks. After walking into the stylish restaurant and probably looking more like an excited fangirl than the cool and collected professional I was envisioning, I headed over to the kitchen to say hello. Tommy looked relaxed in his denim jacket as he chatted to the kitchen team, and his warm and friendly persona instantly put me at ease as we caught-up over the tedious morning traffic (nightmare!). We then grabbed a flat white before heading upstairs to the private dining room where we chatted about his journey to becoming an award-winning chef, and the inspiration behind the opening of his second restaurant, Roots.

Where did it all begin for you and the family business? 

My family bought The Black Swan at Oldstead in 2006 and I don’t really know why as my mum and dad were farmers at the time, but it became the family business. They had run a bed and breakfast previously, but that was about the extent of their hospitality knowledge, so we just bought the local pub and that was that!

So, were you involved in the business from a young age? 

My brother and I weren’t bad lads, but we both left school without any qualifications as we just weren’t very academically minded. Personally, I never wanted to be involved in the business as my dream was to be a professional cricketer of all things, I just used to help with the washing up and carrying plates around and that was about it.

What inspired you to become a chef? 

I never wanted to be a chef at all actually! when I was 18 I got very ill with a disease called Ulscerative Colitis. It left me pretty much bed-ridden and I had to have three major operations in 18 months. At that time, all my friends had gone to uni and I was very ill with low self-esteem and no qualifications. I was quite angry with the world and how the cards had been dealt as all I wanted to do was to play cricket and that dream had been taken away from me. After I started to get better, I just wanted to throw myself into something and food seemed to be it. 

And how did you move into cooking? Did you learn at the restaurant? 

I learnt at The Black Swan. We had some chefs who I worked under and our head chef was Adam Jackson who is now at The Park restaurant in York. He was the head chef for a few years and I was his sous chef, and then he left, and I took over. It was around 2007/2008 when I started working in the kitchen, and then the Credit Crunch hit so running a pub became near-impossible and so we had to try and do something different.

What did you want to do differently? 

In a recession or like the time we are entering into this year, the bottom and the very top of the market survives, however, the middle of the market really struggles and that is where you don’t want to be. We thought that we are in the middle of nowhere and we can’t just do cheap discount pub things because nobody is ever going to travel for that. So, we decided to try and make the best restaurant we could, without any idea really of how we were going to do it. We tried to make it as good as we could, but there were a lot of years where it was a struggle, a real struggle. 

And how old were you when The Black Swan was awarded the Michelin Star? You were quite young, weren’t you?

Yes I was 24 I think.

Did you notice an increase in trade at the restaurant when you achieved the star? 

A little bit. It’s funny, Michelin and accolades like that are great as you do need a lot of buzz about you to fill a restaurant, but no, It wasn’t until I did television that the I found the restaurant got busy. You need to reach that really big audience and especially because Oldstead is out in the middle of nowhere. It’s quite a specialist thing that we are doing, so we need quite big levels of publicity to actually fill the restaurant!

How did you find the experience of taking over as the head chef when Adam Jackson left?

In 2011 we won a Michelin star, and then Adam left in 2013. I then changed the way we did everything, including the menu and the food, because I wanted to do it my way. It was a very stressful time because if I had not retained the star then we probably would have gone bust. But I kept it, and the star was enough to keep our little business going. 

At this point, when I was head chef, I had three other guys in the kitchen with me, and now we have a brigade of eighteen at The Black Swan. 

Oh my gosh that’s loads, how do you fit 18 people in a kitchen?! 

Well they get three days off a week, and they are not all in there at the same time! I think that this is just an indication of how the business has grown. We did struggle in the early days, I used to work six days a week at The Black Swan, first thing in the morning until the last thing at night and it was hard, but when I did Great British Menu everything changed. 

In what ways did things change? 

We got busy, so we then employed more staff and we haven’t ever looked back since.

You’ve been on the Great British Menu twice. Had you done anything similar before?

No, not at all. I was very nervous, but I believe a lot in preparation and I think that I was very well practiced. The thing with competitions is that if you practice and prepare yourself more than the other person, the chances are that you will probably win. I was very meticulous in my planning and the creatively designing dishes that fitted the briefs. Creatively I probably have more strength than actual execution. 

‘Creative Talent’ 

Ha-ha yes creative talent, but not actual precision!

How did you feel cooking in such a competitive environment? 

It was an amazing experience. The other thing is, when you are up in the middle of nowhere, you begin to measure your own ability and you always think that everyone else is probably better than you. When you are put in an environment cooking with other people and you realise that you are at the same level as everyone else, that is quite a nice feeling.

How do you find working together with your family and running a business at the same time? 

It’s good. We would have never achieved anything that we have achieved without family.

We did everything ourselves in the early days as we couldn’t afford to do otherwise because we had no money. But now we do everything ourselves because it’s our brand identity. For example, this table we are sat at, my dad made (the private dining table). It is really interesting because doing everything ourselves was born out of necessity, but it has now become our trademark. 

On the Great British Menu, my family were massively supportive and sometimes my brother and dad would be working through the night to finish off a prop. They would turn around and tell me to go get some sleep and to leave them to it as I would be competing the next day. For me, family is really important, but equally it does have its moments!

At what point did you start thinking about opening another restaurant? 

I think it was in the back of my mind for quite a long time. It was interesting because I was really pushing it and my dad was always keen, but my mum was really cautious and my brother even more so. I was quite keen to open another one because of the farm. We grow all of our own produce and we want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but when you have one fine dining tasting menu restaurant like The Black Swan, it is impossible to use everything through just one outlet. Opening a second restaurant allows us to fully embrace the relationship we wanted to have with the farming. 

That’s a great idea. So how did you turn your ideas into a reality so to speak?

It’s classic that you do an interview with people, and they are always asking when and where you are going to open your next restaurant. I kind of let my guard down one day when we were cooking at Wilderness festival. I was doing a podcast with Laura from Olive magazine, and she asked if I would be opening a second restaurant, I said we would be looking to open one in the future, but I didn’t want to put a time limit on it. She then asked where it would be, and I said that the only place it where it would be is in York as that is our home city and it is a sensible distance between the two places. 

I thought that was that, and then the next week there were exclusive headlines saying: ‘Tommy Banks is Opening Restaurant in York’. The local papers and everyone just ran with it, and I was getting asked about it all the time. We didn’t have a site, and we hadn’t even really thought about it as a concept! However, what that press did was encourage people to get in touch with us and start offering their properties. Suddenly, we got offered a property that had sat derelict for 18 months and wasn’t even on the market. We bought Roots in April 2018 and got it open by September which was a real push.

Wow, that is a quick turnaround!

A project on this scale just swallows all of your money, so we had to get it open. It was a real push, and we even had to work through the night for a couple of weeks, but we had an awesome team of builders with us who we know well, and we hit the ground running.  

How did you find it once the doors where open?

From day one it was fully booked but we did have quite a few of the front of house and kitchen team come over from The Black Swan. All the team and I had to learn very quickly, and as much as you think you know, it is a challenge to open a new place. The guys have had to knuckle down and they have done really well. 

What would you say inspired the small-plates style of food?

I wanted to do something different. When you have one restaurant and open another, people are going to compare the two, so I was never going to do a tasting style menu. This concept of eating is something that I personally enjoy. I went to Copenhagen a couple of years ago and there were a lot of restaurants out there with a very similar attitude towards small-plate dining. Christian Puglisi is a chef that I really like, he was the sous chef at Noma at one point, and now owns his own restaurant called Relae in Copenhagen. It’s also about being able to have a style of food that is fluid enough to fit around the produce of the farm.

How would you describe the menu at Roots? 

So, the concept of the restaurant was born around the book that I wrote called Roots. I split spring, summer and autumn into three food seasons which are the Preservation Season, the Hunger Gap and the Time of Abundance. We are in the Hunger Gap at the moment so the majority of the produce in the restaurants has been preserved from last season and we store it in specially designed shipping containers on the farm. This time of year, we are serving a lot of fermented, pickled, and dried produce created from the year before, and then in the summer, it is going to be ultra-fresh with a lot more vegetables. It’s a very true extension of our philosophy towards food which I don’t think can be put into a category; it’s just what we do. 

What would you say is the biggest challenge is that you have faced so far in your career?

Every day has got its challenges. But I think it would have to be The Black Swan in the early days. It is very difficult to run a restaurant with no financial backing, out in the middle of nowhere, and on shoe-string budget for ten years, that was the real challenge. 

Have you got anywhere in mind that you would like to go and eat at in the near future?

Well, there are two places I want to go and visit. One is Moor Hall in Lancashire with Mark Birchall and the other is Ynishir Hall in Wales with Gareth Ward, a few of our staff have been and eaten there and said how good it is, so I really want to go!

So, what’s next for you guys then?

It’s been a period of consolidation at the moment because last year I was very busy with publishing the book for April, and I did a lot of TV work in the summer. What I’ve tried to do for the last six months is to work in the restaurants and push them forward as that is the most important thing. Other than that, there are a couple of new books in the pipeline that will need writing up, and I will be doing bits of TV work.

Tommy Banks, 4.2.19

York Talks would like to thank Tommy Banks for sharing his Food Story and wish him all the best with his future plans!

This material is not to be produced, copied or cited without the prior permission of the York Talks blog.

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