Tommy Banks: 'Your business is only as good as its people'

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Cooking up a storm: It's all hands on deck at Tommy Banks' new gastropub
Cooking up a storm: It's all hands on deck at Tommy Banks' new gastropub

Related tags Chef Food North yorkshire Tommy Banks

Last month, Tommy Banks picked up keys to the pub where he washed pots as a kid. It was a real full-circle moment for the chef, whose high-flying career has carried him from championing sustainability to Michelin-starred heights.

The North Yorkshire chef opens up to The Morning Advertiser​ about his favourite dishes, working with family, and feeling like an imposter when he first bagged a Michelin star at the bright young age of 24. 

On Thursday 25 May, The Tommy Banks Group's latest site, the Abbey Inn, opened to the public. It’s a 19th​ century pub based in North Yorkshire that overlooks the gothic ruins of Byland Abbey, which was once one of England’s greatest monasteries.

The luxury 70-cover inn is a mere stone’s throw from Banks’ childhood home. When he discovered English Heritage was seeking someone to take on the site, Banks felt it was meant to be. “It is a beautiful building​ with so much history,” he says. 

What's more, Banks’ premium restaurant the Black Swan is just down the road. The chef has two Michelin-starred restaurants under his belt but chose to stray from the fine-dining route at the Abbey Inn. It was a true marriage of minds when Banks and head chef Charlie Smith put their heads together to design the menu. Pub classics​, from Ploughman’s boards and Byland Burgers, to chicken liver parfait with toasted milk bread and, of course, special soft serve sundaes, all feature. 

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Dynamic duo: Banks and Smith both worked on the menu

“It’s a cool, tasty menu,” says Banks. The dishes are modelled on his signature cooking style​ but are served in a more casual, pub-style format. Ingredients are sourced from the Banks family farm and restaurant garden, but for the chef, the most exciting part is the meat.​ For the past year, staff have reared cattle, sheep and pigs, making for “incredibly high-quality” produce that will feature in charcuterie cuts and Byland Burger patties. 

Sustainable plates

While he says it’s hard to pick a favourite dish from the menu, he’d have to opt for the “super tasty” glazed lamb rib starter that comes with yoghurt flatbreads and a pesto made with leftover carrot tops. As for cooking, he loves anything that involves barbecuing over coals. Luckily, there’s a lot of that at the Abbey Inn.

Fresh finds: Chefs often venture outdoors to forage during service

Banks is also a keen forager,​ with his chefs sourcing ingredients from the farm and local area to use in dishes. “I particularly love foraging wild garlic as I feel that is a real sign of warmer weather coming,” he says, “we also forage a lot of spruce tips.” Chefs often run out during service to pick ingredients “That’s how fresh they are!” Banks marvels. 

And how should chefs go about getting into foraging? “Understand the land around you, understand the seasons, and educate yourself properly on what’s growing,” is Banks’ advice, “and, of course, make sure you are foraging sustainably.” 

What’s more, if he doesn’t personally pick the ingredients, he’s lucky to work with a network of “incredible” suppliers​ he’s known for years. There’s Rob Tomlinson, who grows Yorkshire-forced Rhubarb, and then there’s Andy and Kathy Swincoe from Courtyard Dairy who source and age farmhouse cheeses. 

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Premium cuts: Meat from the family farm is used in Byland burgers and charcuterie

Pubs, traditionally considered watering holes, have historically had a firmer focus on drinks over food, but Banks believes there are many in the sector working hard to champion pub grub,​ from Paul Ainsworth at the Mariners to Tom Kerridge at the Coach, to Stosi Madi at the Parkers Arms and Josh Eggleton at Pony & Trap. For Banks, these cooks have changed the image of the industry. 

History in the kitchen

But his new pub’s foodie focus doesn’t discredit its drinks’ offering. The team’s favourites (Guinness, Estrella Damm and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord) are all available on draft, alongside other great beers from local brewers (e.g., Turning Point Brewery). 

All available wines from the 30-bin list can be bought by the glass, and Banks mentions his brother James can make a mean cocktail, using spirits, tinctures and bitters infused with foraged ingredients. He promises the rhubarb and lavender negroni is a must try. 

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Shake-up: Cocktails are made with spirits, tinctures, bitters and foraged ingredients

Banks was only 24 when he scored his first Michelin star​ in 2013, making him the youngest chef to have ever received the accolade. “I felt like a bit of an imposter,” he admits. With no formal training, he’d mastered his skills on the job. He adds: “I was cooking food I had just been taught to cook and felt like I hadn’t really developed my own unique style."
But then his parents began to learn to grow, sow and harvest produce they’d never even heard of before. This inspired the young chef to really get to grips with seasonality, as well as learn how to repurpose ingredients in different ways. Preserving what they grew meant the family could use produce in different guises throughout the year. 

Fast forward a few years and a lethal combo of inflation, soaring energy prices and staff shortages means the pub sector is struggling. We asked Banks for his top tip on running a pub in this perfect storm. He says you need to create a space that people love to be in:​ “You want to walk into a pub and it feel welcoming, and relaxing. You want your Guinness to be poured perfectly, a jar of nice treats for your dog and food that doesn’t compromise on quality.” 

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The Abbey Inn: Banks says it's key to create a space people love to be in

The pandemic was also a nightmare for hospitality, with kitchens forced to shut their doors during lockdowns. But it also made the world slow down. While the public were baking banana bread and making TikTok coffees, Banks was taking time to cook hearty, family meals and grill whole cuts of meat over coals on his Kasai grill.  

He also launched the food box delivery service Made in Oldstead during lockdown. This proved both “fun” and “incredibly challenging” for the chef, who had to figure out the puzzle of creating restaurant quality dishes that were transportable to people’s homes. But it’s been three years and the business venture is still going strong: “We obviously did something right,” says Banks.

 “Your business is only as good as its people and its culture”.

From Shakespeare’s King Lear ​to HBO’s smash hit Succession,​ there’s no shortage of media warning against the treacherous consequences of mixing business and family affairs. Banks admits that working with family can be hard work. But he also believes the unique strengths of each person make the businesses what it is.

Passion for hospitality

“It helps that we all have the same passion and love for proper Yorkshire hospitality,​” he says. “My mum and dad, Anne and Tom, are heavily involved with the farm and the growing, my brother James looks after finances, but also all the drinks side of our business, I of course oversee our kitchens and our business partner Matt Lockwood looks after all the operations.” 

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Team spirit: The whole family worked together to revamp the site

The whole family chipped in to refurbish​ the Abbey Inn, which includes three bedrooms. Originally built by monks as a farmhouse in 1845, the building was converted to a public house by 1853. The Banks family took special care to keep in step with the building’s architectural history during the makeover. The site features flagstone floors and the chef’s father Tom Banks worked with joiners to craft tables by hand.

The tables are “beautiful”, according to Banks. He continues: “In the middle of the Piggery, our main dining room, we sourced an old butcher’s block that’s caved in the middle from all its use over the years and an old copper milk churn sits atop it filled with foraged branches and greenery picked fresh by my mum Anne.  

“By the original fireplace, alongside cosy leather sofas, we sourced the most beautiful antique, high-backed monk’s bench, which is a real nod to our location beside Byland Abbey.” 

Banks has carved his own path to success and has refused to negotiate on values throughout his career. What’s for sure is that the gastropub’s future will be characteristically high-brow, hyper-local, and handled with care. The chef serves up his final words of wisdom: “Your business is only as good as its people and its culture”. And with a tight-knit family unit and culinary culture that holds a torch for sustainability, The Banks Group has nothing to worry about.  

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