For Tommy Banks of the Michelin-starred Black Swan, vegetables should be as exciting (or, in the case of his slow-cooked beets, as packed with beefy flavour) as meat.
I am in a shed in north Yorkshire. In it are large plastic tubs of mayflower rum, pots of honey, and crinkly onions suspended in bunches from the ceiling. To my left, large wooden crates of potatoes, South American oca, and crapaudine beetroot are stacked against the wall.
Tommy Banks, head chef of the Michelin-starred Black Swan in the unsurprisingly quaint village of Oldstead near the North Yorkshire Moors, is showing me his vegetables. He grows everything himself to use at the restaurant.
Banks' kitchen garden is currently in the withered midst of what he describes as the "hunger gap." It's the period following winter during which little grows, but spring has yet to take hold and birth new life. And so, Banks is using what he has.
"People ask me, 'Is this seasonal food?' And I don't really know," he says. "It's food grown seasonally, but cooked out of season because it's been stored."
What Banks means is that he makes use of everything—and then makes use of it again. His garden in summer is abundant with sprouts, cabbages, carrots, peas, and herbs. Oyster leaves, which really do taste faintly of oysters (Banks is ironically allergic to the shellfish), sit next to polytunnels in which chicory, lemons, radishes, and dwarf kale are cultivated. He just planted 2,000 celeriac in here, and will soon transfer them to the earth outside.
Banks makes use of his vegetables in season and then stores, ferments, pickles, and freezes the excess to eat during the winter. It's sort of circular cultivation—a waste-less way to harvest and harness.
"I actually think winter is the most interesting time to dine at the Black Swan," Banks says. "For centuries, we've had to store food for colder, sparser times. We have to be much more inventive and original in the kitchen."
He continues: "There's a huge drive to eat sustainably, locally, seasonally. That's good. This is doing a little bit more. These days, when there are limitations to what type of food we've got in Britain, we can source it from elsewhere. But before you could fly stuff in, this is what people did. Growing food in the north of England isn't easy—we can get frosts as late as May."
As well as pickling carrots in vinegar and storing fresh beetroot in underground boxes to make it last for longer, Banks has found a way to produce his own fermented black garlic.
"We were buying in black garlic—fine stuff—and it costs so much," he explains. "Me and my dad [his parents are farmers and work with him at Black Swan] looked into the process. You need to keep the garlic warm for an extended period—at about 60 degrees. We tested the boiler in the restaurant's guest house, and it was bang on the right temperature. I thought, 'Fuck me, this is golden.' And we went from there. We did it ourselves."
It's same with the oyster leaves: "They're 50p per leaf, so I've worked out an irrigation system that allows me to grow plants of my own. It's not easy, but it's worth it."
Banks has also been making "taco shells" from old Brussels sprouts and cabbage leaves by frying with butter and filling with ox cheek. Alongside this, he turns Jerusalem artichokes into syrup and fudge, and makes oil using cauliflower leaves.
In a world that is slowly waking up to the health and environmental impact of excessive meat consumption, Banks' cooking is a welcome reminder that vegetables can be exciting too.
In the Black Swan kitchen, I get a first-hand taste. Banks offers me green strawberries and broad bean sprouts to nibble on, and I marvel at a bright scarlet bag of fennel pollen vinegar.
But it's not all about veg. Banks earned his Michelin star for championing Yorkshire's local produce—meat included. His venison tartare dish is a perfect example.
"When I was 13 or 14, a friend and me used to go out into the woods and drink cans of beer and smoke. We'd nick his dad's stuff and go and sit out there," Banks says, as he prepares the dish for me."I was foraging out there recently for sorrel and stumbled upon a few cans and cigarette butts in a sort of den. Over in the fields is where we get our venison. I just thought, 'Yeah, I could do something with this.'"
The venison is given a dash of chili ferment, dotted with capers, enveloped in egg yolk, and smothered in an IPA sauce. On top goes an onion ash. It's deer with beer and fags, basically.
For my next dish, Banks serves his blowtorched scallops with artichoke puree and artichoke leaf crisps. He also includes a mussel and rhubarb juice stock.
"If I say to you, 'Shellfish with rhubarb and mussel stock,' you might think, 'Hold on.' But it's just replacing the regular white wine and lemon juice with local stuff. Yorkshire is known for its forced rhubarb and I think we should make more use of it."
But the dish that underscores Banks' homage to the land is his crapaudine beetroot, slow-cooked in beef fat. Black Swan's signature dish, the beets are topped with cod roe, linseed crackers, goat curd, and a rich barbecue glaze.
"This is a dish we're known for," says Banks. "It's ironic, because it's a vegetable masquerading as meat. It tastes so strong and beefy, but it's just beetroot."
It really is remarkable what you can do with a box of dirt and a shed. And a sprinkling of genius, of course.