Tommy Bank's life reads like a novel. Growing up in the tiny village of Oldstead in North Yorkshire, he passed the local pub every day not knowing that, some years later, he would be creating its much-lauded menu and the Black Swan would be named the world’s best-rated restaurant.
Throughout his childhood, the Black Swan had been largely unsuccessful and it wasn’t until 2006 – when Tommy’s parents, Anne and Tom, bought it and started a business with Tommy and his older brother, James – that its fortunes changed.
It was something of a gamble – the family business was farming, although Anne and Tom did run a B&B at the farm while the boys were growing up.
“I’d be leaving for school in the morning,” says Tommy, “and my parents would be frantically doing the breakfast service. Everything was cooked on our AGA. It was deﬁnitely the focal point of the kitchen and the food was great. My mum baked amazing cakes and cooked for us all the time. I cooked bits and bobs and used to lean against it a lot.”
In 2017, in the annual TripAdvisor Awards, the Black Swan was named the world’s best restaurant, followed by Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire in second place.
It’s unlikely Tommy ever imagined the restaurant being awarded a Michelin star, either during childhood or in the early days at the Black Swan. Early on, the signs weren’t good.
“Initially I wasn’t even interested in cooking,” he says. “I just wanted to work to get a bit of money so I could play sport as much as possible. But then chefs left and we needed someone to start working in the kitchen. I'm a massive cricket fan, so it's cricket first and then the cooking, but cricket doesn't pay the wages. If I'd have been a little bit better and in a different life, I'd have definitely liked to have been cricketer."
I catch him early in the morning as he’s out foraging for ingredients with his beloved cocker spaniel, Penelope.
“This time of year the menu is mainly made up of things we preserved from last year. I’m foraging for wild garlic and then driving over to a friend of ours who has a freeze dryer so we’ll have garlic for the rest of the year.”
It’s this practical philosophy of growing and ﬁnding food when it’s naturally available and preserving it for the winter months that is at the heart of Tommy’s food philosophy. It’s the foundation the Black Swan is built on and it is the structure he’s used to create his ﬁrst book, Roots.
Tommy, 29, had been thinking about writing a book for a while but wanted to do something different. Once he came up with the idea of a book made up of three seasons rather than four he knew that was what he wanted to write.
“I wanted a book that really embraced the struggles we have in the north of England to grow things and be seasonal chefs. Once I realised that, Roots came together very easily,” he says.
“So many cookbooks are really ﬂowery, with spring, summer, autumn and winter. In spring they’ll have lovely peas, but it’s not very real. This year we won’t have anything until about June or July. It’s nice to be able to make the point that even though it might be a lovely summer’s day, we don’t have any produce ready and it’s great to focus quite heavily on preserving food.
“The three seasons I look at are the hunger gap, when we’re waiting for stuff to grow, the time of abundance, which is the summertime when you can cook straight from the garden, and the ﬁnal time I call the preserving season. It’s when we get everything harvested and preserved for the hunger gap.
“Right now we still have chest freezers full of damson plums and we dry things so we can populate a menu with delicious food we’ve managed to preserve. The book is celebratory too – it looks at dishes inspired by our ingredients.”
ON THE FARM
Unusually, Tommy has never left the village in which he grew up and still lives on the farm. “The pub literally backs on to the farm where we all still live, albeit now in separate houses,” he says.
When they took over the Black Swan they started out serving pub food, but soon found they wanted to do something a bit more original. With their background in farming, it made sense to set up a big garden at the back of the Black Swan and, around the same time, Tommy began foraging.
“The menu became hyper-seasonal using things we could grow and forage ourselves,” he says.
It hasn’t been an entirely easy ride. Just one year after the pub opened, Tommy became very ill with ulcerative colitis. He had three major operations and couldn’t work for a long period of time. He spent his convalescence conﬁned to his room and passed the time reading cookbooks and watching cookery programmes. It ignited a passion for food and when he went back to the pub it was with a new fervour.
The 2008 recession was a tough time for the family. Business at the pub dropped off and it wasn’t making any money. It became clear that just running a nice pub wouldn’t work and the family made the decision to try to make the Black Swan a destination restaurant. Although they say they had no real plan at the time, something worked – the business slowly grew and Tommy says that while they were never really busy, with every tweak the business prospered. It was at this point Tommy felt he needed more direction and he decided to go back to farming.
On the restaurant being awarded a Michelin star, Tommy is characteristically down to earth. “It was great kudos,” he says. “But the high point for me was when we began getting recognition and having a full restaurant. When you have a Monday night in the middle of February and the restaurant is full, that’s the thing that makes me most proud.”
Working with one’s family can be tricky, but it obviously works for the Bankses.
“We have little disagreements every now and then, but I don’t think we’d have achieved anything like we have without being a family business. We back each other up. This morning I’m going in as we have new dishes on the menu and my parents are going to meet a builder at the site of a new restaurant in York we are opening later in the year.”
Tommy’s brother, James, who is two years older, is also a major part of the business. He’s been running the front of house since the start and is the wine expert. Tommy is keen to point out that much of the success is down to the great team he works with.
“We also have members of staff who have been with us such a long time – they’re practically family as well. I think sometimes with restaurants people see the head chef’s name and think they do it all. There are absolutely loads of people doing stuff and I’m just one of them! We’ve had one pub for so long that it’s now time to expand into a different place. It’s been a few years in the planning so I’m dying to get it sorted.
“The ethos of everything we do will always be about the way we cook, but the Black Swan has a tasting menu only and it’s quite small, so gets
booked really quickly. The new place will be more sharing and small plates, so slightly more informal I suppose. We have 350 covers a week at the Black Swan and that’s nice, but it feels as if it would be nice to cook for some more people. Another reason it’s great is that we have so many amazing staff that have been with us for years, so it’s nice to give them space to express themselves and push on.”
This year has been tough in terms of the weather. As I’m talking to Tommy he’s standing in a ﬁeld which is totally waterlogged and is worrying that they won’t be able to sow anything this year.
We’ve had so much snow that has melted and waterlogged the ground and then so much rain. All the land around here is saturated, so it’s going to be a really hard year,” he says.
It’s this connection with the environment that makes Roots a wonderful book. It’s refreshing to read a cookery book that has a really honest approach. You get to see the struggles as well as the triumphs.
TALENT FOR TV
The journey is all important to Tommy and it’s something he says makes working in TV so exciting. He’s twice won the Great British Menu and is a regular on Saturday Kitchen and Masterchef.
“I enjoy the journey of a television programme. Mentoring people on Masterchef is amazing as they’ve stepped away from their day-to-day jobs. One was an airline pilot, one was a bank manager and they start out and you think, over this period, you’ve really learned how to cook. I experienced that too and I learned a lot about myself while doing the Great British Menu. I love the way TV can provide a place for people to express themselves and make careers.”
The future for Tommy looks exciting: as well as the new restaurant, he’s thinking about another book and there’s more TV work on the way (under wraps for the time being). But right now he’s going to keep foraging, especially as Penelope is getting impatient to start walking again.
"She's the sweetest little dog with the roundest brown eyes," he says. "So she can pretty much get anything she wants."