In summer 2015 I went back to North Yorkshire to visit an old school friend and chef Tommy Banks. We spent the morning foraging on the land packed with produce around his Michelin-starred restaurant, the Black Swan, and discussing the importance of farm to table food. You can read this on Munchies, here, with photography by Iona Crawford Topp.
This Chef Does Foraging Instead of Lunch Service
You'd struggle with the route if you hadn't taken it before. Lots of sharp right turns, meandering villages, and unnervingly winding roads that seem to veer off straight into the middle of nowhere.
I'm in North Yorkshire, on the edge of the Moors and the Howardian Hills, to see 26-year-old Tommy Banks, one of Britain's youngest Michelin-starred chefs and owner of the Black Swan restaurant in Oldstead. About ten minutes early (you have to allow for tractors instead of rush hour traffic around here), we pull into the dry stone wall car park next to Byland Abbey, a ruined 12th century monastery and signifier that we should turn left up a small road leading to Banks' house and restaurant.
I may not have ever been to Oldstead, but I know who I'm looking for. Banks and I went to school together nearby and I remember the food technology classes he'd be sent out of for messing around in (a fact now relished by local press).
Banks hasn't changed one bit and I'm sure I haven't either. After a reunion over tea and slices of toast—and not five paces out of Banks' front door—we come to a stop. What I would consider as weeds are sprouting up beneath a hedge.
"Let's start here. This is called 'hedge garlic' or 'Jack by the Hedge,'" Banks says. "It's a very bitter flavour, we use it with meat dishes as you need something to stand up to it."
I taste a leaf and it's bitter, sure, but only about as much as the other salad leaves I happily cram on my plate.
"A lot of these things that are absolutely edible are also disgusting," Banks admits, seeing my face. "Some things are very difficult to use."
We head over to a gigantic elderflower bush, where Banks immediately starts brushing the flowers off with the palm of his hand.
"Elderflower is one of the best things we have. It just tastes like summer and sunshine, so it's really great to forage," says Banks. "If we made elderflower cordial today, it would be tasty and it does smell great, but it wouldn't be as magical as it would be if you made it on a hot summer's day."
Barely stopping for breath, we now head to the back of Banks' garden. I ask how you get over the fear you might be collecting a load of poisonous mushrooms or deadly nightshade.
"Well, you do have to avoid things you're not sure of," he says. "The carrot family, for example, is a real broad spectrum and some of the things are delicious and edible, but some of them are deadly."
We arrive at what looks to me like the start of a field, or just some overgrowth and a lot of stinging nettles. To Banks, we're actually looking at dinner.
"Nettles obviously sting you but dead nettles don't, so you look out for the flowers. Once they've gone to seed, they're a dead nettle, and they can't sting you," he says. "They're a great leaf, but you've got to be eating something with it to offset it of course."
Our basket is already half-full and we're not even out of Banks' garden yet. I'd imagined a foraging trip would involve a car journey to an opportune spot, maps, handbooks, and scissors at least—but all we carry between us is a wicker basket. Accustomed to the endless phone calls to suppliers you'll usually hear chefs making, I'm amazed this can sustain a restaurant. Yet Banks has been foraging in this way for the past few years.
"Certain things we go crazy for. For instance, we'll be doing big batches of elderflower cordial every day now, so we've got enough to last us through the winter," he says. "We've been foraging extensively in the restaurant for the last few years, and then there's stuff we've always foraged for."
We trudge into a small wood and then out into a meadow full of wild flowers, but again, it's not the poppies that have caught Banks' attention, but huge bunches of meadowsweet and pineappleweed that block our path.
"Meadowsweet tea is really rich and you're not really sure why you enjoy it so much," he says. "It just makes you really happy. No one else seems to process it just for its pollen like we do, which is the tastiest bit."
I taste it. It's at first very sweet, before rounding off into chamomile. Even a small bite is strangely rich and comforting.
I ask Banks if he's ever made things that people don't want to eat. Has there ever been a dish people decide is a bit too strange?
"Not everything is everyone's cup of tea, but generally if something is really horrible, we just won't use it," he tells me.
There's nothing that's too outlandish?
"The dessert we made with Douglas fir is very different," he continues. "Nobody loves or hates a Douglas fir dessert so you can kind of get away with it."
As front of house staff, Iona Crawford Topp is probably the most accustomed to metering customer feedback with Banks' ambitions.
"The way you do the dessert though is very user-friendly," she adds. "It doesn't look like you're eating fir. And you're not doing tiny little bits with ash of tree or edible soil."
We head into a larger wood in search of wild garlic and jelly ear mushrooms. As we focus on the ground, Banks tells me that some days, it's almost impossible to find something you were sure was there in abundance the day before.
As we move onto wild garlic, Banks reels off everything you can do with the leaves, ("pesto, sauces, all sorts"), but it's the berries he's most intent on collecting.
"Wild garlic has a massive flavour," he says. "If you've got a jar of wild garlic capers in your store cupboard then you're the richest person in the world."
Adapting the Black Swan to allow foraging and growing to happen wasn't easy. Banks had to do away with a lot of the stereotypical working ethics of the cheffing industry. The restaurant no longer serves a lunch course during weekdays to allow the staff to forage or work in the kitchen garden before their shifts.
"We were coming to work at eight or nine in the morning—as chefs do—working inside a kitchen all day until midnight," says Banks of this unique working arrangement. "I just thought, If I am going to do this for the rest of my career, I want it to be more enjoyable. It's a better quality of life, to grow all this, and have the time. We open for evening service, and just have a few guests but serve them what we want to serve them."
Determined to avoid hiring a separate gardner, Banks and all the Black Swan staff maintain the kitchen garden, terraces, and vegetable-growing polytunnels themselves. It's no easy task. Banks explains through gritted teeth that a few hungry pigeons can undo months of work in just a few hours of snacking.
"As a really young chef, you're always thinking about developing your own style, and how you want to be portrayed and serve dishes," he says. "A lot of people work for somebody for ten years and learn how they do it. I didn't really have that to fall back on, so it was kind of like, What could be style be? It could be grow-your-own, because my family are from a farming background, and it could be foraging, because we've got all this stuff all around us."
Back in the restaurant's garden, Banks shows me the Maris Bard potatoes straight from the earth that barely seem to have a skin on them, and the gleaming radishes, carrots, and turnips that turn my hand into a rainbow of produce.
Jumping between rows of carrot tops and fennel, it's clear why the midnight watering schedule Banks mentions his chefs have started after service has worked so well: it would be easy to spend an hour here toiling away, even in the dark, without noticing it.
"The great thing is, it's kind of double edged. Mother nature waits for nobody," says Banks. "It's not a case of doing things for the sake of it, it's a case of doing things out of necessity, and also because it's really good."