The idea of local has been smashed. Just as Amazon, Uber and other disruptive tech companies changed the way we shop, call a cab or order a takeaway, so savvy restaurateurs are moving into the market place to provide a range of in-home dining experiences.
As the R rate continues to rise, Eat In to Help Out has become their motto. With tracked delivery, they can transport Michelin-starred food to our front doors.
It’s not just Michelin, of course. Food at all price points and of all times is now available to order online, just as jeans, books, DIY kits and more can be bought from other sites at the click of a mouse. Eek.
The lure of high-end cuisine can’t be discounted, however, as we get the opportunity to eat from some of the UK’s best restaurants from the comfort of our own homes. Restaurants that might once have been a day trip at best, or an expensive weekend away, are now available in our own kitchen.
And while the service, atmosphere and ambience might not be delivered with the crispy chicken skin, there’s no doubting the lure of gastro food boxes.
Not everyone’s got it right. Earlier in Covid, one enterprising Birmingham chef sent out a chargrilled lettuce dish – I know, it didn’t go well – while others have sent components that get lost in translation: beetroot crisps become beetroot chews once they’ve spent a few hours in the back of someone’s van.
Still, those that know their onions find a way to bridge the gap and deliver a restaurant-standard experience for those treat nights in.
Tommy Banks will be a name familiar to many discerning foodies. The Michelin-starred Yorkshire man hails from a family of farmers who’ve tilled the land for generations. Oldstead is the village from whence they came and Made In Oldstead is the name of his foodbox. It’s a sheer delight.
Banks is the chef at The Black Swan. Having grown up on a farm, he was well versed with the ways of Mother Nature. He understood the fickle nature of the seasons, the beauty of fresh produce. His family had a cow that was milked each morning, there were hens for eggs, he’d shoot rabbits with his father and then pick apples and plums from their trees – the same ones that he harvests from today for The Black Swan.
So immersing himself in food wasn’t so alien to him. He worked under Adam Jackson, who earned the pub its star in 2012 before leaving that June. Tommy took over and the regulars imagined the star would be lost. After all, how would a then-23-year-old without any formal training manage to retain gastronomy’s highest prize?
That November, Tommy became the UK’s youngest Michelin star holder, retaining the accolade with aplomb.
The business, however, wasn’t particularly successful and Tommy wasn’t particularly happy. He worked seven days a week, cooking on every shift and running all of the sections.
“It was pretty intense. I worked all hours every day and we retained the star, which was great: I’d just turned 24,” he says. That’s when the change came. A lot of the food he was serving was from cookery books. He sat down one day with the Yorkshire Post and listened in amazement as the reporter told him he was a genius.
“I had total imposter syndrome. I remember thinking all the dishes were nicked from other chef’s cook books. There was nothing original about me. I just ran a tight ship and worked hard.”
Over the next month, he reflected on that experience. He looked for inspiration to such chefs as Sat Bains.
“If you see a Sat Bains dish, you know it’s his. He’s got his own style. All the best guys do. But I hadn’t got that. There was no Tommy Banks food. It was just generically nice. I needed to get a thing, an identity.”
He didn’t know from where that would come. After all, he hadn’t been on a journey, he hadn’t worked for anyone or trained under anyone. He was just a redoubtable kid, hard-working and consistent.
“So I thought the only thing I could fall back on was my upbringing and little bit of knowledge of agriculture and the way food had been when I was a kid.”
He went to see a guy called Ken Holland, an amazing grower in Northumberland, and discussed getting better produce. At the end of their meeting, Ken told him he hadn’t got the capacity to supply The Black Swan.
“I thought it had been a wasted trip. Then Ken offered to help set us up.” That’s when Tommy Banks got his identity. It’s the day that The Black Swan started to come of age.
His boxed dinners are a treat. Our three-course supper began with a beautiful glazed pigs cheek served with smoked beetroot and fennel kimichi.
Easy to heat and assemble, the tender pigs cheek was beautifully paired with the slightly sharp fennel and earthy, sweet beetroot.
Fabulous textures, complimentary flavours and an expertly cooked cut of meat, gently reheated at home, made for a classy start.
The main was a butter-poached chicken supreme with confit leg, cow corner milk polenta and sweetcorn relish, drenched in a sticky, rich, satisfying chicken jus and garnished with crumbed, crisp chicken skin.
There are those who are parsimonious when they send out boxed food; after all, the customer can hardly complain when they open the trickle of sauce.
Made In Oldstead was the opposite. Generously proportioned, this was an expertly seasoned dish that had travelled well and was full of flavour.
Dessert was carrot cake with cream cheese and candied walnuts. Carrot purée was intense and sweet, the spoon of cream cheese was thrillingly indulgent while the cake was rich and satisfying.
We opted for the additional cheese course and were glad that we had. A delicious chutney was served with a ripenend goat’s milk gouda from Galway, a creamy, rich and buttery brie from Suffolk and a fabulously mellow, dense, fudgey blue cheese from Leicestershire.
With the Government advice flitting between go to the restaurant, don’t go to the restaurant, eat before 10pm, eat with a voucher and whatever they come up with on any given day, the smart operators are moving into the digital space. Tommy Banks is foremost among them and his box is an out and out winner.