On the farm with Tommy Banks (2023)

by Tom Shingler30. May 2019

Cooking is just part of the operation at The Black Swan in Oldstead; In fact, growing crops and gathering ingredients require the same amount of effort. Tom Shingler spends the day with Tommy Banks to see how important the family farm and setting are to the dishes served at the Michelin-starred restaurant. Photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins.

Tom Schindler

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was Editor of Great British Chefs until 2021 and first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Schindler

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was Editor of Great British Chefs until 2021 and first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Most chefs will tell you that professional cooking isn't just a job, it's a lifestyle. Long, unsociable hours and intense work environments mean it's often a sheer love of food that makes the downsides worth it. Of course there are also many advantages; Once you've put in the hours and mastered the craft, you can start getting creative, coming up with original meal ideas and watching the guests swoon over the plates of food you've prepared. But forTommy-Banken, the chef with a Michelin star at the topThe Black Swan in OldsteadHaving one of Britain's finest kitchens doesn't seem like enough in Yorkshire. Focusing on produce and ingredients from her family farm, she not only cooks the food but also plants, grows, harvests and transports it.

“If a chef wants to put a pea dish on the menu, they call their supplier every week and order a few kilos of peas,” he explains. “For us, in January we need to think about this dish, figure out how many we need during the season and plant the right amount of seeds. Then you have to think about rotations so that not all peas are ready to be harvested at the same time and the large space needed to grow them - we planted 1.2km of pea plants this year just to have enough for both The Black Swan as well as having Roots [Tommy's second York restaurant] in the summer, which combined can use up to eighty kilos of peas a week when they're in season.'

What Tommy does isn't set up your ordinary kitchen garden; this is agriculture on a large scale. He and his team and family plan months (if not years) in advance, making sure that in the summer, say, 6,000 onions are ready to be harvested for just one dish to be cooked at The Black Swan for a few months. He estimates that he serves around 50,000 tapas a year in his two restaurants, which means he needs to grow 50,000 Crapaudine beets if he wants to serve everyone his signature dish of beetroot cooked in beef fat. "It's far from just asking for ingredients, and it takes a lot to understand."

As well as the farm, behind The Black Swan there is an 'orchard' which is actually a two acre plot of land growing crops such as bronze fennel, herbs and strawberries.

There are also polythene tunnels, kept warm by excess heat from the restaurant's generator and used to grow more specialized ingredients, such as lemons.

The team is even experimenting with peach and apricot trees that require hand pollination with brushes.

All tomatoes also begin life in the poly tunnels before being planted to provide both The Black Swan and Roots with everything they need.

On the Banks family farm, 30 acres are set aside exclusively for growing vegetables for Tommy's restaurants. Additionally, there's a two-acre garden surrounding the back of The Black Swan, complete with plastic tunnels for things like tomatoes, bronze fennel and herbs, and a vegetable garden (although that won't bear fruit in a few years' time," says Tommy). Animal husbandry is also planned.

“When I was a boy on the farm we had Aberdeen Angus cattle, but after BSE and foot and mouth disease we stopped about fifteen years ago. We have about 100 acres of pasture land that we don't grow anything on, so we're looking for rare breed cows, sheep and pigs to use in some really special dishes. Being completely self-sufficient when it comes to meat is impossible, and honestly I don't think we can do any better than our supplier R&J Butchers in Ripon, but having our own meat and fruit and veg on the menu can a dream. I would be happy if we could offer our overnight guests a breakfast where the sausages, bacon and black pudding come from our own pigs.”

The farm itself houses larger crops that are constantly rotated, such as onions, potatoes, zucchini, and beans.

Tommy plans to bring cattle to the farm's 100-acre grass pastures so he can start serving his own meat.

Beetroot simmered in beef fat, arguably Tommy's most famous dish, tastes so good because the Crapaudine variety is grown on the farm.

The farm is growing five times more produce for Tommy's restaurants than last year, growing from 3 acres to 30 acres in just five years.

The emphasis on what grows on the farm had a huge impact on Tommy's cooking. It has grown from a three-acre property where the family grew a rare crop as a small experiment, to a massive operation that has become the basis of The Black Swan's tasting menu. With the opening of Roots in 2018, production skyrocketed and the Banks family is now growing at five times the rate it was 12 months ago. “Initially it was about using whatever we could grow, but now it's more about thinking ahead of time about what we want and then making sure we plant it at the right time so it's there when we do need it. That defined our food: we have a potato and chicory root dessert on the menu that would be pretty much neglected in most restaurants, but these are two of our staples. I think we just organically fell into a cooking path that revolves around what we grow or forage and how we store it for the rest of the year. I'm sure if my chef Will or I had learned at a two star restaurant we would be making terrines and stuff - everyone is influenced by how they learn.”

The sheer amount of planning, organization, and work that goes into everything from planning the dishes to planting and harvesting the ingredients needed to prepare them is mind-boggling, and that's before you add in variables like inclement weather. Of course Tommy has his parents Tom and Anne on hand to take care of the day to day running of the farm and a fantastic team in and out of the kitchen to ensure everything runs smoothly but the fact that there is a style of cooking that that's not It's not just calling up an ingredient supplier that makes a meal at The Black Swan so special.

the wild side

In addition to growing produce on the farm, Tommy and the crew collect a variety of different leaves from the forest around Oldstead.

Take a look at The Black Swan's menu and, depending on the season, you'll find things like wild garlic, woodruff and sorrel on the dishes. Instead of buying them, Tommy and his kitchen crew, you guessed it, go into the field around the restaurant and pick out their own.

“Cooks pay £100 per kilo for sorrel or £20 per kilo for wild garlic. We're very fortunate to be able to get it here, along with things like Spruce Crown, Elderflower, Woodruff, and Meadowsweet. That doesn't mean we look for a variety of ingredients: we focus on a handful of different things and choose many of them. I've seen things like Chickweed on menus, which is around £30 a kilo. We could go and pick up some of these, but I think they taste crappy. People put it on their menu because it's great to have things to look out for, but why not use rockets instead? It's perfectly nice. Foraging has become very fashionable, but as with all fads, I believe only the best stay. I think things like wild garlic, woodruff and sorrel are here to stay, but chickweed is not. It's the same as molecular gastronomy: we might run out of foams at all, but there have been a lot of good things that have come out of that movement that we now use on a daily basis."

Sorrel grows in abundance and finds its way into dishes like Tommy's raw venison tartare.

Woodruff also plays an important role in your cooking, as it is often preserved in syrup and liqueur so that it can be on the menu all year round.

When we visited, it was wild garlic season, and the forest floor was completely covered with the stuff.

Tommy doesn't look for food just for the sake of it; You focus on five or six leaves that you think taste the best and select a large number of these to place heavily on the menu

Back in the kitchen, the ingredients collected are served fresh or preserved for use later in the year.

Whether he's planning what to grow on the farm, going leaf-hunting with his kitchen crew, or making sure every dish is spot-on, one thing is certain: Tommy likes to do things a little differently than the average chef. Perhaps it's due to his lack of formal education, which he learned on the job when his parents first bought The Black Swan as a teenager. He's less hands-on than he used to be, spending his time planning, organizing, and managing ("don't get me wrong, I like to go out and do a bit of farm work on a sunny day") rather than eating. That's what The Black Swan does without a doubt a restaurant destination for you. The headspace it takes to think about planning dishes months in advance and then planting, growing, harvesting, and processing the ingredients before they hit the pan is enormous and would surely make most cooks sweat bring providers before they reach the limit. But there's no arguing about the results: For a piece of beetroot cooked in beef fat to become a signature dish, you need a very special beetroot.

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