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Black Swan head chef: 'I think people like that we're quite chilled out'

Tommy and James Banks outside the Black Swan in Oldstead, North Yorkshire.
Tommy and James Banks outside the Black Swan in Oldstead, North Yorkshire. Photograph: Mark Pinder/Guzelian

The Black Swan in the village of Oldstead on the edge of the North York Moors isn’t exactly what you’d expect of “the best restaurant in the world”. The former drovers’ inn, with its low ceilings, roaring fire and relaxed staff feels more like a local country pub than an exclusive dining experience.

But in an annual tally of millions of customer reviews on the travel website TripAdvisor, the Black Swan came out with the best average rating, making it the first British restaurant to top the list.

On Thursday, the phones in the family-run business were ringing off the hook. The restaurant, with its Michelin star and four AA rosettes, is normally in demand, taking around 25 bookings a day. But by Thursday afternoon it had taken more than 1,000 calls in 24 hours.

“The best restaurant in the world is a funny thing, isn’t it?” said Tommy Banks, the restaurant’s head chef. “It’s not a real thing. It’s so subjective.”

An open fire welcomes customers.
An open fire welcomes customers. Photograph: Mark Pinder/Guzelian

The 28-year-old said that despite the sneering from some on Twitter, the accolade from TripAdvisor was especially meaningful to him because it was based on reviews by real customers.

“The great thing about this award is that it’s not just about the food,” he said. “When people leave you a TripAdvisor review, they’re reviewing everything, and I think they like the fact that we’re quite chilled out, quite friendly people.”

Farmers Tom and Anne Banks bought the pub in 2006, and their sons Tommy and James, aged 17 and 19 at the time, were put in charge. Seven years later, Tommy – who may be familiar to viewers of The Great British Menu – became the youngest recipient of a Michelin star.

Food preparation in the kitchen.
Food preparation in the kitchen. Photograph: Mark Pinder/Guzelian

Oldstead is made up of a handful of cottages, and is a 15-minute drive down a single track lane. Most of the restaurant’s guests travel there specially, with many staying in the guest rooms.

Behind the picturesque building, with its tiny kitchen designed for cooking “chicken in a basket and microwave meals”, according to Tommy, are three acres of farmland, on which the majority of the ingredients for the restaurant’s dishes are grown.

A taster menu of around 12 courses will set you back £95, which includes a £50 deposit.

Tommy conceded that, like other Michelin-starred restaurants, the prices were high, but said the cost of running the restaurant, farm and guest rooms with the help of 40-odd staff meant they could not charge less.

On Thursday evening, the taster menu starts with a delicate celery and walnut tart with caramelised cream, and works its way through a course of rare local beef (from cows who reportedly drink four pints of beer a day) and a serving of beetroot cooked for four hours in beef fat and decorated with goats’ curd. Each dish is unusual, subtle, interesting and utterly delicious.

An item from the tasting menu.
An item from the tasting menu. Photograph: TripAdvisor

The simple restaurant room, with its locally made furniture, overlooks fields of crops, and figures can be seen among the rows of vegetables as the light fades. Tommy and James make their way between the candlelit tables to explain each dish to customers. The experience is set apart by its calm and comfortable atmosphere.

Out in the fields behind the Black Swan.
Out in the fields behind the Black Swan. Photograph: TripAdvisor

Asked what made a brilliant restaurant, Tommy said it was important that it offered “something you’ve not had before”.

He said some of his best food experiences had been at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Bray, Berkshire (which came 12th in the TripAdvisor list), and Fäviken in Åre, Sweden.

“I feel [Fäviken] is a kindred spirit because it’s in the middle of nowhere – really in the middle of nowhere. We’re almost metropolitan in comparison.”

Although Tommy said he would consider opening another restaurant – possibly in York – he is committed to the Black Swan, and to staying in the area where he was born and raised.

“This place isn’t going anywhere,” he said, gesturing to the pub around him. “We’re just going to keep making it better and better.”

This article titled "Black Swan head chef: 'I think people like that we're quite chilled out'" was written by Frances Perraudin, for The Guardian on Thursday 12 October 2017 06.47pm

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