Cat Thomson talks to Dean Banks – the enterprising Chef Proprietor
Some top chefs are content to stay in the kitchen, while others strive for greater things and award-winning chef, Dean Banks (34) is one.
He runs HAAR with Rooms in St Andrews, and Dean Banks at the Pompadour which both have three AA Rosettes, as well as Dulse in Edinburgh, and his newest venture The Forager pub in Dollar. In addition to these hospitality venues, he operates HAAR at Home delivery service and Waagyu burgers, and drinks businesses; Shaaken cocktails, Lunun Gin and Mond Vodka. He is certainly very driven and busy.
Says Dean, “My day-to-day can involve anything from service at Pompadour, designing new menus with Group Executive Chef Dan Ashmore, being suited and booted hosting or rolling up my sleeves and cleaning or doing property maintenance. I can be everywhere or anywhere doing everything at all times.”
It is just as well he thrives on stress. He tells me, “Being a chef I cope well with stress and I think high intense stress is what drives me. I actually push myself harder and deliver better.”
This year Dean is delighted that Pompadour, Dulse and HAAR all feature in the Michelin guide, who also recommended The Forager on social media. He adds, “I think what we’ve achieved this year with Michelin is fantastic, and shows that we’re doing something really special.”
Not bad going for someone who grew up in the 1990s on a council estate in Arbroath. He tells me, “I was raised by two strong role models who I feel are responsible for my entrepreneurial drive.” He explains, “Growing up with two lesbian mums was amazing. They taught me that if I wanted something I had to get it myself and not expect a handout from anyone. If I wanted a skateboard or cool trainers I had to go and earn them. So I got jobs in the berry fields around Arbroath, picking daffies (daffodils), or a paper round or a job in Peggy’s corner shop.”
They also raised him to be aware of the importance of good mental health, and he makes sure his staff have a good work-life balance and he does try and do that too. Mondays are his family day, and he spends time on the beach or foraging with his wife Isabela and son Felix, aged four. Dean says he’s a hospitality natural, adding, “He’s always saying, ’Daddy I want to come to work with you and cook the lobsters,’ he wants to be a chef and, that is lovely and it kind of gives you a drive.
Dean left school aged 15, went to Angus College to study catering and gained a National Certificate in Culinary Arts. Then in 2007, he headed to Padstow to work in his Rick Stein’s Seafood restaurant for 18 months before returning to Scotland with stints at Number One at The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh and at Paul Kitching’s, 21212.
Next, he went to work as a private chef in Verbier, spending the next seven years working all over the world, including a spell at Tides Lodge in Tanzania in 2016. By 2018 he was ready to come back to the UK and decided to go on Masterchef: The Professionals. He made it to the finals and the following year he opened his first restaurant HAAR, St Andrews and launched Lunun Gin.
In 2020 he crowdfunded to get HAAR UK-wide home delivery off the ground, as the pandemic closed his restaurant and the following year he opened, Dean Banks at the Pompadour Waldorf Astoria.
However it has not been plain sailing. A dispute with his landlord in 2021 saw him closing both, HAAR and HAARBOUR, his fish and chip restaurant in St Andrews. Fortunately, he found a new location in St Andrews and opened HAAR with rooms in 2021, and last year, he opened Dulse, Edinburgh and The Forager Pub.
At the moment like everyone in hospitality, Dean’s main concern is rising costs, he adds, “Fish prices are at an all-time high. The price we’re paying for lobster right now is the same price that we used to pay at the most expensive week of the year, New Year and Christmas week. So this shows you how high it’s come up, and it’s staying at this height, no one’s bringing prices down!”
As for energy costs he tells DRAM, “HAAR with Rooms has faced an energy bill increase from £2000 to £11,000 pounds, creating a dilemma, ”We would have to charge everyone £7 or £8 more just to cover the electricity price rise. And that doesn’t begin to address the rising food prices. It’s difficult when you’re at the top end of the market. If prices rise as much as they should, we’d scare the customers away.”
And he is not afraid of doing things differently, which has led him to make a bold announcement which has raised eyebrows with some hospitality insiders. During April he reduced his tasting menu prices – HAAR with Rooms, St Andrews was priced at £49, down from £82.50, the Pompadour menu, was reduced to £59, down from £110 and at Dulse he charged £35 on Tuesdays and Sundays.
He explains this was a calculated risk, “I would rather have busy venues than empty seats. Our hope is we still have busy restaurants that balance the books for us, covering our increased costs.”
Dean understands that the cost of living price increases affect how often people go out, saying of his own behaviour, “I love fine dining, but how often do I eat at fine dining restaurants? Only on special occasions. I prefer being in nice pubs, or seafood restaurants, which is why Dulse and Forager were created as a casual dining experience, where you can afford to go out more often. I’m breaking into different average spends in restaurants so I’m covering my bases because I don’t know where we’re going to go, or where this is going to end. But now I’ve got fingers in different pots.”
He’s pictured behind the bar at The Forager with a pint of Belhaven Best. He says, “The reason I love Belhaven is my grandfather. I was never a beer drinker until coming home after turning eighteen when my granddad gave me a Best, that’s the reason I love Belhaven Best. It’s not like I’ve teamed up with them it was literally, I like it because my granddad loves Best. We use it in our ‘Best’ Steak Pie at Forager as well. “ My grandfather is still kicking about in Carnoustie, an avid golfer all his days and my middle name is Leslie after my granddad”
Dean told DRAM that he also harbours a dream to own a 150-bedroom hotel. Many people may dismiss that idea, but he firmly believes it, “If I tell myself over and over, that I’m doing something, it just always seems to happen. I think people will laugh at me for this, but people laughed at me in the past and I enjoy people when they laugh and say you’re big-headed and call me names, but something like The Old Course in St Andrews would be the ultimate, with the seaside and beach right there. It’s a famous town, it’s got students, and it is the area where I grew up.”
But he is also a realist and knows this might take time, “It might take ten, twenty, maybe thirty years, I don’t know… to get finance from a venture firm or a bank or someone to help achieve that goal. Right now it’s impossible, I don’t have the funding for it. I don’t have the right management group for it. I don’t even know how we would start with it.”
So the main focus of his business partner, Ruairi Mitchell (operations director) and the rest of his operational team, is to grow the business naturally with a strong foundation. The revenue target for this year is to hit £10 million, last year’s goal was to consistently hit £100,000 every week. Dean explains the benefits of being a group, “I can focus more on one, and push one site more, which can support the other sites during hard times. And if, for example, one site is quiet some of the staff are happy to go to another site and help out there, having that flexibility is definitely working for us.”
He is looking for new sites for Dulse and Forager, adding, “I think this year we will have three new sites open.”
And he exclusively tells Dram Scotland that he is opening a new beef steak venue in central Edinburgh named, ‘Haunch’ in June. He knows his businesses cannot afford to stand still, he said, “We have to keep on our toes and diversify all the time, and it’s about being able to act quickly, then we’ll get through it. “
So watch this space, if Dean keeps focusing on his hospitality dreams then who knows what he can achieve? Time will tell if his price-cutting gamble has paid off.