Wrest brings the best back home

IN the middle of nowhere, down beautiful country lanes, nestling in a tiny village, a traditional Yorkshire pub attracts global attention. From the outside, a touch shabby chic from the kerb perhaps, there is little to hint at what lies within. According to the critics, it is simply the best, and foodies from around the world wait up to eight months to sample its hallowed menu.

When owner of The Black Swan, Oldstead, Tommy Banks twice won the Great British Menu, then topped it off with the Trip Advisor best fine dining restaurant in the world accolade, the bookings flooded in. More than 90,000 people visited the website and 15,000 booked a table. Eighteen chefs now slave over not-so-hot induction hob stoves seven days a week serving 50 covers a day, featuring £110 per person 14-course tasting menus, fusions of traditional Yorkshire fare grown in the back garden, locally sourced meat and fish, all with a Nordic twist.

Banks launching a cook book, being featured on the CNN food network and picking up the Food and Travel Awards prize for best restaurant outside London and in the country won’t help availability with bookings now stretching to the end of March. But according to former Darlington College student Sean Wrest, The Black Swan experience will be worth the wait.

Now 27, the affable Yorkshireman has returned to his roots to continue his passion for food. After attending Leyburn County Primary School and Wensleydale School and Sixth Form College and aiming to join the police force, he began working as a pot washer at the pub in Wensley, which stimulated his tastebuds and resulted in an apprenticeship with the well-respected Sandpiper Inn, in nearby Leyburn.

Off to Darlington College as a professional cookery apprentice, he secured his Level 2 and 3 qualifications, his tutor Dawn Cobb-Neate remembering him as “a great student who thoroughly enjoyed himself”. Now he's returning to college to enthuse the students, helping them to cook up a fine dining menu. “I am so pleased he has agreed to come back to work with our current cohort and stage a tasting night for us," says Dawn. "It is going to be an incredible experience for us all.”

Three years at the Sandpiper proved to be the perfect training for Sean’s next post, an internship at the renowned Fat Duck in Bray, the three Michelin star restaurant owned by Heston Blumenthal. Back to the North for a spot of Yorkshire air, Sean took up a position at Yorebridge House, Bainbridge, before honing his craft at the chic fine dining restaurant Maaemo in Oslo.

Today Sean is senior sous chef at The Black Swan – that’s third in line behind the proprietor Tommy Banks and head chef Will Lockwood – while his girlfriend Sam Haigh runs front of house. “It is unbelievable,” says Sean. “You have to remember that you are cooking for people who are coming for the whole experience, something that lasts over three hours. We go out to meet guests as it is so important that they love the experience. When you hear that they have come all the way from Canada and waited eight months for a table, that is humbling and exciting.”

Sean and Sam will both return to Darlington College on November 15 and fine diners at its Glasshouse restaurant are in for a treat, as are the catering students who will help to present a fine dining experience to remember.

A nine-course tasting menu, costing £22.95, will include such delights as potato blini with crab and horseradish; Beetroot with blackcurrant and Tunworth custard; Brill with a veloute of mussels, charred squid and parsley oil; Fennel parfait, blackberry and apple, and vegetarian options.

“I didn’t want to just produce a carbon copy of a Black Swan menu and really enjoyed putting this together for the college,” Sean explains. “At The Black Swan we have a massive garden which we harvest. We can take humble ingredients and flip them on their heads. We look at the way it was done in the olden days. Tommy’s family come from farming background so it comes naturally to him. I find it mind-blowing.

“Now I can share this with the students and diners at Darlington College. I think it is so important to give something back, to share my experience and offer some advice. Darlington College is a really good place to learn your craft and students go on to do some amazing things, which is a reflection of how good they are when they leave.

“I instantly loved the buzz of the kitchen but I never wanted to spend my life churning out 500 Sunday lunches a day. I always saw myself progressing to fine dining. Now I’m completely bitten by the bug. I work long hours, but don’t mind and I even think about food on my days off!”

• To book a table at Sean’s dinner at Darlington College, contact the Glasshouse on 01325-503030. For more details of opportunities at Darlington College visit www.darlington.ac.uk