Inside Tommy Banks' The Black Swan, voted best in the world by Tripadvisor

Amy Bryant
The good life: The menu at the Michelin-starred Black Swan in Yorkshire - including the creative cocktail list - is dictated by what is grown in its garden (providing the pigeons don’t get to it first) - India Hobson

The Black Swan at Oldstead, North Yorkshire has been named the world’s best rated restaurant, followed by Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in New Milton, Oxfordshire in second place, according to the annual TripAdvisor awards announced on Wednesday, October 11.

It marks the first time a UK restaurant has topped the world category since the awards began in 2012, and ends the two year reign of Martín Berasategui in Spain which had held the title since 2015. This  piece was originally published on July 20, 2017.

At the end of last month Tommy Banks was on our television screens frantically pan-frying turbot in the kitchen of the All England Tennis Club. Eighty portions, cooked at the last minute and served with pickled strawberries and a lawn-green chive sauce, to feed Wimbledon’s great and good in the finale of BBC Two’s Great British Menu.

It’s the second year running that a Banks dish has won a place at the end-of-series banquet, and this time the  28-year-old was primed for the demands of filming. 'You know you’re going to be pulled aside to talk to the camera while your cream is boiling over,’ he says. Thankfully the cream survived, the pressure was manageable and the process was 'a whole lot of fun’.

Head chef Tommy Banks Credit: India Hobson

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Banks is adept at overcoming adversity. A troubling Michelin star, a debilitating illness, unpredictable crops and a huge batch of brassicas ravaged by local birds have all played their part in the story of this young chef who has made a success of growing almost everything he cooks at his family’s restaurant in North Yorkshire.

The opening of The Black Swan, a pretty drovers’ inn at the heart of the even-prettier village of Oldstead, had all the makings of 'a Gordon Ramsay Kitchen Nightmare’, Banks tells me. Having taken over the pub in 2006 (a step up from their previous B&B), his parents put him and his brother, James, in charge. Aged 17 and 18, Banks recalls, 'We had no idea what we were doing, and would just invite our mates round to get drunk.’

The Black Swan, a former drovers’ inn, is in keeping with its Yorkshire heritage   Credit: India Hobson

After a floundering start and struggles with kitchen staff, Banks was put into the kitchen to work under the head chef. 'My dad said, “Well you’ll just have to cook.”’ For the aspiring professional cricketer, who had absolutely no experience of cooking, being a restaurant chef was not part of the plan.

But neither was being struck with ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition that saw him undergo major surgery three times and spend the best part of  a year in and out of hospital. 'I was very low, but determined to make something of myself, so I decided to work all hours to make the restaurant a success.’  This involved building The Black Swan up to be a 'special-occasion, destination place’, simply because 'no one would come all the way out here just for a nice pub’.

Fruit and vegetables feature in the artwork on the walls Credit: India Hobson

The food it served, with Banks as sous-chef, was classic and French-inspired ('tasty but boring’); with it, The Black Swan won a Michelin star, but Banks was then faced with the challenge of retaining it after the head chef left to open his own restaurant. He succeeded and, at 24, became 'the youngest Michelin-star chef by accident. Totally by accident.’ 

RECIPE | The Black Swan's rhubarb and lemon thyme sour

To hear Banks speak candidly of his embarrassment, of having 'supposedly reached the pinnacle’ of his career yet feeling that he wasn’t 'pioneering in any way, or doing anything amazing or new’, brings home just how much he and his team have achieved over the past four years.

For behind The Black Swan are two-and-a-half acres of land on which almost all of the restaurant’s fruit and vegetables are grown, and just down the road is his parents’ farm where back-up beetroot, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes are drilled – the produce of Banks’ own Yorkshire story, instead of an adopted cuisine.

Banks and his team spend as much time in the garden as they do in the kitchen  Credit: India Hobson

Tom and Anne Banks had kept Aberdeen Angus cattle when the children were little, then moved into arable crops. 'I thought, “Where should I get my ideas from?” My only roots were in farming.’ 

Banks shows me the burgeoning terraces of carrots, radishes, turnips and fennel, topped by asparagus and tailed by strawberries just blushing into colour. 'Saying we’d try to cook only with things that we’d grown or foraged for here promoted creativity. Suddenly you’ve got a whole field of Jerusalem artichokes and not much else, so they have to become desserts, too.’ A vegetable fudge, sweet and earthy and not unlike salted caramel, was the answer to that curveball.

Almost all of the fruit and vegetables consumed at The Black Swan are grown there, too Credit: India Hobson

Elsewhere, fruit, herbs and even weeds are made into alcohol, concentrated rhubarb juice and acidic-tasting wood  sorrel replace lemon and lime, and the local spruce is churned into butter or used as barbecue skewers for fat, juicy langoustines.

One of the many flavoured alcohols made at the restaurant Credit: India Hobson

Beetroot is a particularly prized crop, especially the tapered, gnarled, toad-skin-like crapaudine variety that The Black Swan team hoe by hand, store clamped in straw, and cook in beef fat for four hours until wizened, sweet and smoky – 'just like a steak’.

On Banks’ 12-course evening tasting menu (the only other option is  a shorter no-choice menu on Saturday lunchtimes), meat is not off-limits; it’s just that with, say, 1,500 celeriac carefully planned to last over two months, the vegetable has to be the linchpin to each dish, and 'protein comes second’.  

RECIPE | The Black Swan's cucumber and mint tonic

Inventiveness has been crucial in other areas of the business, too. With a power-draining dishwasher causing lights to flicker and ovens to fail, a generator was installed, whose waste heat was converted to warm the garden’s polytunnel.

The polytunnels are heated using waste heat produced by the restaurant’s generator Credit: India Hobson

The restaurant’s plates and bowls are made to order by a ceramicist in York; the oak tables, their legs  echoing tangled roots, were crafted by a joiner who works with two other tradesmen full-time on the pub and its guest rooms. 'Whether it’s plastering or putting up staircases,’ Banks explains, 'we do everything in-house.’ 

The entire team, Banks takes pains to emphasise, is responsible for the  success of The Black Swan. And as for the pigeons who decimated a winter’s worth of newly planted cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts? 'Revenge of the brassica’ went on the restaurant’s menu, with the bird taking a starring role. As with much of his Yorkshire tale, Banks 'had the last laugh’.

The Black Swan at Oldstead, York, North Yorkshire YO61 4BL (01347 868387)

Recipes from The Black Swan

Lamb salad kebabs

Credit: India Hobson

SERVES

4

INGREDIENTS

  • 100g Maldon salt
  • 50g demerara sugar
  • 20g mint, rosemary and/or lovage leaves in varying proportions
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 large boneless lamb breast (600-700g)
  • 2 large onions oil, for greasing
  • 450g full-fat yogurt, preferably sheep’s-milk
  • 2 cos or romaine lettuces
  • 1 cucumber
  • 60ml white wine
  • 60ml white wine vinegar
  • 60g caster sugar

METHOD

  1. Combine the salt, demerara sugar, herbs, garlic and peppercorns in a jug blender and blitz together until the mixture is very fine. 
  2. Cut away any reddish top skin from the lamb breast and, using your hands, rub the meat all over with the curing mixture. Place on a tray, cover with cling film and set in the fridge for one hour. 
  3. Preheat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2.
  4. Rinse the lamb thoroughly under a cold tap and pat dry with a clean tea towel.
  5. Peel the onions and slice them into rounds about 5mm thick. Pile them up in a lightly-oiled roasting tin.
  6. Lay the lamb, fat side up, on top  of the onions. Lightly oil and score the fat side, then seal the tin very tightly with two layers of kitchen foil. Cook in the oven for about three hours, or until the lamb is very tender. 
  7. Meanwhile, place the yogurt in a bowl lined with  a clean J-cloth, tie up the corners of the cloth with string and suspend the yogurt over the bowl for about two hours. This should yield about 200ml of liquid whey (don’t discard it – you can use this to make the cocktail above), and the yogurt in the cloth will thicken considerably. Scrape the yogurt into a fresh bowl, whisk in salt and pepper to taste and keep in the fridge. 
  8. After the lamb has been cooking for three hours, turn up the heat to 180C/gas mark 4, remove the foil and allow the fat to rend and brown for another 20 minutes or so. Set the lamb aside, covered, to rest and cool for about  30 minutes. 
  9. Separate the lettuces into leaves, wash and drain well. Finely shred the smaller inner leaves and keep the larger ones for serving the lamb in.
  10. Peel, halve and deseed the cucumber, and cut it into 3mm slices. Place half of them in a bowl, toss with about a teaspoon of fine salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Keep the remaining fresh cucumber covered in the fridge until ready to serve.
  11. Boil the wine, vinegar and caster sugar together until the sugar has dissolved, to make a simple pickling liquor. Rinse the salted cucumber well in cold water, drain well, and place in a fresh bowl. Pour over the hot pickling liquor and set aside to cool.
  12. To serve, pull the lamb and onions into shreds using either clean hands or two forks. Dress with the juices from the roasting tin. 
  13. Spread a generous dollop  of the yogurt inside a larger lettuce leaf and fill with some of the lamb, shredded lettuce and the pickled and fresh cucumber. 

 

Garden-rhubarb caramel crumble with thyme ice cream

Credit: India Hobson

SERVES

4

INGREDIENTS

For the ice cream

  • 280ml whole milk
  • 220ml double cream
  • 5g fresh thyme
  • 70g caster sugar
  • 7 egg yolks

For the rhubarb crumble

  • 500g peeled green garden rhubarb
  • 120g caster sugar
  • 70g buckwheat
  • 1 tsp neutral oil (for example, grapeseed)
  • 50ml liquid glucose
  • 65g butter
  • 50ml double cream

METHOD

  1. Combine the milk, cream and thyme in a saucepan and gently bring it almost to the boil. Cling film the pan and set it aside for 30 minutes to infuse.
  2. Strain the mixture through a sieve to remove the thyme, place the liquid in a fresh pan and bring gently to the boil once more. 
  3. Meanwhile, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks in a mixing bowl until pale and fluffy.
  4. When the thyme-infused cream boils again, pour it on to the egg mixture, whisking constantly, until it is all incorporated. Pour back into the saucepan and set over a medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens sufficiently to cover the back of a spoon.
  5. Strain it into a fresh bowl set over iced water and stir continuously until cool. Churn and freeze in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. 
  6. For the crumble, preheat the oven to 120C/gas mark ½. 
  7. Cut the rhubarb into 5mm pieces and toss in 20g of the sugar in a wide, heavy pan. Allow to macerate for 20 minutes then place the pan on a medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, occasionally stirring gently, until the juice has evaporated and rhubarb is starting to soften and lose its raw colour.
  8. At this point, transfer the rhubarb to a roasting tin lined with greaseproof paper and bake for about 30 minutes  to dry it out, and then keep covered at room temperature until ready to serve.
  9. Turn up the heat to  180C/gas mark 4.
  10. Combine the buckwheat and oil, season well with sea salt, spread out on a roasting tray and bake for 10-15 minutes until the buckwheat turns golden and smells delicious and toasted. Set aside.
  11. For the caramel, combine the remaining caster sugar with the glucose and a splash of water in a heavy-based saucepan, and set on a high heat. Stir the mixture until the glucose dissolves but then leave it to caramelise.
  12. When it has turned a dark shade of brown, pour in 50ml water (be careful, it will splutter) and allow the caramel to dissolve in it. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter followed by the cream.
  13. To serve, divide the rhubarb between four bowls and add the toasted buckwheat like a crumble topping. Top with a large scoop of the thyme ice cream and pour on the hot caramel sauce. Serve immediately.
National Restaurant Awards 2017: Britain's top 30 restaurants

 

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