THE WORLD’S BEST FOOD BANK
It was voted the best restaurant in the world, so what makes the Black Swan in Oldstead so special? We headed to the Yorkshire culinary hotspot to meet head chef Tommy Banks and find out how he’s coping with the adulation that comes with such a title.
There’s ‘off the beaten track’, then there’s Tommy Banks’ version of a remote, rural, award-winning restaurant and one is a country mile further than the other.
Making it to Oldstead is a journey in itself, and that’s before a gastronomical tour around engaging, dynamic, inspiring food commences. That’s because – with this secluded spot situated at the foothills of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park – the signposting is insufficient, the lanes are windy, and their passing points suggest it would be beneficial for most diners to discover this picturesque cottage escape on foot.
Of course, throwing obstacles in the way is second nature to head chef Tommy Banks.
The Yorkshireman is amicable, open and has humility down to a fine art, but in making everyone around him feel at ease, he can’t help but make life more difficult for himself.
“I’ve always said I never wanted to get to the end point the easy way,” he begins, before hastily adding, “In fact, I’ve never wanted to get to the end point at all!”
That’s because cuisine and restaurateuring, for the 26-year-old, is the ultimate voyage, one that he finds fulfilling, challenging and, in no unreasonable way, largely stressful. “I think it’s one of those things you set yourself up for. Yes, we’ve been through things that have
been incredibly tough; but at the same time I couldn’t live a life that didn’t throw challenges at me, and I think a lot of us want to live like that.
“For me, I just choose the confines of a rural cottage kitchen in which to fret about what might or might not be around the corner!”
What seems certain about the future is there will be another wave of national and international acclaim, after the Oldstead restaurant sauntered, almost apologetically, to the top of Trip Advisor’s global restaurant review ratings. The result – The Black Swan is the best fine dining experience in the world.
That’s not a bad achievement for a chef who had to learn his craft from scratch.
“Yes, it’s been a long road,” he admits. “From taking over the running of a restaurant handed to myself and my brother by my parents, to having my Michelin-starred chef decide to explore other avenues, there have been challenges along the way.
“And while I like to think these are the rewards, we’re by no means finished. The challenges are always there; they just change slightly from time to time!”
Banks’ craft for cuisine goes well beyond his Slow-cooked Crapaudine Beetroot Steak signature dish. Through Langoustine with Caramelised Whey and Venison with Smoked Sloe, there is the talent and ingenuity that saw him achieve his own Michelin star after wiping from the menu all the dishes that had previously won the award under previous head chef Adam Jackson.
“It wasn’t that there was bitterness over him leaving – we all have to fulfil our ambitions.
But to have a star based on a menu devised by someone no longer present in the kitchen felt a bit wrong; I felt like a fraud.
“I knew pretty quickly I would have to devise my own menu and put all that hard work in for myself. But I did, and it worked, and if anything, it felt like more of an achievement to retain the star than it did to win it in the first place.”
Add in four AA rosettes, plus stylish accommodation space, and the popularity of the quaint 16th century bolthole has
created its own problems. Film crews are commonplace, Banks finds himself entertaining media enquiries, and bookings now span several months in advance – that’s good going given that a meal there can
easily run into the high three figures.
“It is a supply and demand thing, and of course there is always the option to do this somewhere else,” he admits. “We want to take our great food out to a wider audience, but at the same time I have a little three-yearold boy at home, a girlfriend who wants to see me and a great group of friends and family.
“I also don’t want to go back to almost having a nervous breakdown or making myself ill from exhaustion. I’ve done that and it wasn’t pleasant, so whatever move I make next it will be at a casual pace.”
And with that, Banks says his pleasantries, wraps up our interview and scampers off to another media engagement. That thing about ‘casual pace’ may need some work.