BELLEVUE — In his kitchen on a recent Wednesday morning, Brett Bankson pulled a footlong beef tongue out of a tub of broth. He placed it on a cutting board, shaved off the layer of bumpy papillae on the top, then sliced it into half-inch-thick cross sections. He then ran the tongue down a flight of stairs and threw it onto a gas grill in his garden, surrounded by beds full of green beans, hyssop and basil, before plating it with poached and peeled yellow cherry tomatoes and fig leaf oil.

Bankson, a Bellevue native, is honing his culinary chops in preparation for a career in catering, and he’s about to watch himself cook on television for the first time on Bravo’s “Top Chef Amateurs” at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2. But until two years ago, Bankson was on track to work in academia as a neuroscience researcher. Now, he’s in his final year of a Ph.D. program in cognitive psychology while preparing for a career in food. 

“Top Chef Amateurs” is a spinoff of the popular “Top Chef” cooking competition show, which recently concluded its 18th season. Unlike the original “Top Chef,” a season-long competition among a group of chefs, each “Top Chef Amateurs” episode works as a stand-alone competition between two home cooks who lead teams of former “Top Chef” contestants through cooking challenges. In Bankson’s episode, he competes against Nick Souksavat, a visual merchandiser from Illinois, for a $5,000 prize. The season was filmed in Portland in the fall after filming for “Top Chef” concluded.

Bankson, 28, applied to be a “Top Chef Amateurs” competitor on a whim because he “pretty much says yes to anything related to food.” But he says being on the show gave him confidence that he could succeed in a catering career once he finishes his Ph.D.  

Bankson has loved food from the moment he could eat it. When he was 4 years old, he remembers asking his mom to make “tubby custard” with him after watching “Teletubbies.” 

And he grew up in a fertile environment for an aspiring foodie. Bankson’s parents were great cooks, and his sister, Claire Bankson McPherson, remembers spending every Christmas Eve eating different preparations of oysters on the half shell while growing up. 

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On trips to visit his mother’s family in Maine, Bankson ate lobster. And living in a city with a large Asian population, he was exposed to international flavors — he remembers eating pork floss and rice on weekday afternoons during his high school days with his best friend, who was Vietnamese. 

His love of food grew as he got older. In his sophomore year of high school, Bankson roasted pork loin with Bing cherries and a blue cheese wine sauce for a group of friends before homecoming. When he went to college at the University of Portland to study psychology and French, he bought cheese with his spending money, a way he could keep learning about food during a time when he didn’t have a budget for Michelin-starred meals. (One of his best friends, Sierra Padilla, says within an hour of meeting Bankson on the University of Portland quad, he invited her to his dorm room to eat aged cheddar.)

But even with this passion for food and talent for cooking, Bankson says his “identity was inextricably linked with [his] academic success,” and he spent most of his time researching psychology and climbing the academic ladder.

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After undergrad, he worked for two years at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. Before he left NIH for a Ph.D. program in cognitive psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, he edited recipes for months to cook a 10-course meal for 12 of his lab mates.

Bankson says he liked the research he was doing on visual neuroscience in Pittsburgh. And he kept cooking, sometimes even for receptions for academic programs and other events, as a creative outlet and a way to release the stress that accumulated during hours in the lab.

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But by the beginning of his third year, Bankson was burnt out from the pressure of constantly grinding to get to the next tier of the academic hierarchy. 

In the past several years, he says, “the majority of the happiest or most memorable or most fulfilling moments in my life [had] all been food-related.”

Bankson had spent the last two weeks of summer on a road trip through Nova Scotia with a friend, where they went to markets every day, and he cooked on a fire every night. It was a happy trip. 

But while at a dentist appointment the day after the first day of classes, jittery from caffeine, Bankson realized neuroscience just couldn’t fulfill him the same way cooking a vegetable could. Each hour spent writing analyses was an hour he would rather spend in the kitchen. Bankson decided to eventually leave academia. 

That spring, still in the Ph.D. program but going through a mental health crisis, Bankson came home to Bellevue to evaluate his path. After some rest, he decided to finish up his research project and Ph.D. remotely (he says he owed that to those who’d helped him in the program) while making plans for a future with food. He’s now set to finish the program by summer 2022.

Bankson says he draws influence from Italian and French cuisines, from the food he ate while growing up in the Seattle area and from chefs he admires such as former “Top Chef” contestants Stephanie Cmar, Nina Compton and Seattle’s Shota Nakajima. 

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But a lot of Bankson’s passion lies in cooking organ meats, tongue, tendon and any other part of the animal that isn’t muscle tissue — the parts many Americans tend to avoid.

He says he had a “transcendental experience” when he was 13 and tried sweetbreads (thymus gland) for the first time, shocked that a piece of meat could taste like sage and butter and have the texture of custard. Since then, Bankson has been wowed by the crunchiness of pig ears, the gelatinous texture of cooked tendon and the myriad flavors in organ meats.

One of his favorite meals was at “Top Chef” season four winner Stephanie Izard’s restaurant Girl & the Goat in Chicago, where he savored piri piri duck tongues and a spread of offal. 

Bankson says he sees a future for himself in catering, partially because he loves cooking for special events and partially because he doesn’t want to have to climb any more hierarchies, the way he’d probably have to in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant. 

He’s already off to a good start. Before the pandemic in February 2020, he catered his biggest event to date: a 180-person wedding where he served milk-braised pork shoulder with borlotti beans, chickpea gnocchi and vanilla sponge cake with Malaysian pandan curd and grapefruit, among other dishes. 

Back in his kitchen at around 11:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, the beef tongue turned out exactly how Bankson wanted it: dark-brown grill marks accentuating the red tongue meat, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside like well-made Spam musubi, and with the briny flavor of corned beef. A perfect brunch.

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Brett’s Focaccia Salad 

Brett Bankson, a Seattle-area neuroscience student, is competing on the TV show “Top Chef Amateurs.” This is his finished focaccia salad with croutons. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Makes: 4 servings 

Time: 45 minutes

Loosely related to a panzanella or fattoush, the point of this bread salad is to combine: 1) crispy, chewy focaccia croutons draped with spoonfuls of porcelain-colored toum (a literally perfect Lebanese whipped garlic spread similar to aioli) with 2) BIG and ASSERTIVE leaves dressed in an herbaceous, lightly sweet lemon vinaigrette. I really like salads with whole leaves that are large verging on unwieldy because it feels like a reminder to just appreciate greens for everything they are! I make toum to just have it in the fridge, so that when I make a focaccia I can just quickly throw together this salad with whatever greens are the most gorgeous and compelling at the moment 🙂 You can definitely buy focaccia because you’ll be dolling it up, but honestly just make your own!!! It’s an easy overnight proof, you get to experiment with any fun flours you have lying around (I like rye or einkorn usually), and then your kitchen smells like a dream and you have crispy warm focaccia straight out of the oven to fortify your mind against the doldrums of the day. 

INGREDIENTS

Toum 

  • 2/3 cup peeled fresh garlic, germ removed 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste 
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
  • 2 cups canola oil (any neutral oil, take your pick) 
  • 2 tablespoons ice water 

Focaccia croutons 

  • 4 cups torn focaccia (whole wheat if possible, approximately 1-inch torn cubes) 
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste 
  • 2 tablespoons minced thyme 
  • 1 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds 

Salad and dressing 

  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced or made into paste 
  • Juice from 1 lemon (should be about 2 tablespoons) 
  • 1 tablespoon honey 
  • Zest from ½ lemon 
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste 
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint 
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
  • 6 tablespoons (fruity!) olive oil 
  • 8 cups washed and dried whole lettuce or chicory leaves (anything tender is good — butter, Batavian, little gem, Castelfranco — go for it!) 

STEPS

To make the toum:

  1. Pulse garlic, the salt and ¼ of the lemon juice in a food processor until a fine paste forms (or, if your food processor is large like mine, until garlic cannot be processed anymore — no worries, it will work out when you continue to add more volume to the mixture).
  2. Add another ¼ of the lemon juice and process until mixture starts to become fluffy. Scrape down any mixture that accumulates on the side of the processor while mixing.
  3. While the processor is running, slowly stream in ½ cup of oil. Once this is incorporated and emulsified, add the next ¼ of the lemon juice with processor still running. Repeat the oil and lemon juice additions once more as in the previous step.
  4. Next, stream in ½ cup of oil and then slowly add half the ice water. Repeat this oil and ice-water step with the rest of the oil and water. Keep processor running until everything is fully blended. The toum should be fluffy, extraordinarily tasty and a little piquant; it will keep in the fridge up to a month but you’ll definitely work through it in three days.

To make the croutons:

Brett Bankson, a Seattle-area neuroscience student is competing on the TV show “Top Chef Amateurs.” He sliced up these bread croutons for a salad, heated on a pan for a short time. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Toss torn focaccia cubes with 6 tablespoons olive oil and spread in a single layer on an 18-by-13 baking tray.
  3. Bake cubes for 8-10 minutes, stirring halfway through to get crunchy sides all around. Remove from the oven when golden brown all over (but still some chew in the center) and transfer to a heatproof bowl.
  4. Toss with salt, thyme and sesame seeds and set aside. 

To make the dressing:

  1. Combine garlic, lemon juice, honey, lemon zest and salt in a Mason jar (or anything you can close with a lid and shake).
  2. Stir to dissolve honey and salt.
  3. Add mint, oregano and olive oil and shake until the dressing is creamy and opaque. If any of the salty, sweet or acidic dimensions need to be adjusted to taste, add salt, honey, lemon juice (or another acid, like sherry vinegar, if you are looking for complexity!). The dressing should be light, punchy and suggestive — just enough to coat the leaves and provide lift! But remember, the leaves are the stars here. 

Salad assembly:

Note: Chill salad bowls in the fridge before you start assembling for an extra dimension of salad luxury.

  1. Tear salad leaves to desired size (but not too small! Keep them a little bigger than bite-size!) and place in a large bowl.
  2. Toss croutons with dollops of toum, enough to coat the exterior of all the croutons (you’ll definitely have extra toum).
  3. Pour dressing over leaves slowly while tossing with tongs so that all leaves are equally coated.
  4. Once dressing has been added, sprinkle focaccia throughout the dressed leaves in the large bowl and quickly mix leaves and focaccia.
  5. To serve, delicately arrange focaccia and leaf mix in individual bowls. Crack some fresh black pepper on top of the salad, and sprinkle over the top any extra sesame / thyme leaves from the focaccia seasoning mix. Keep the large salad bowl around and then you can dip croutons in any extra dressing that has accumulated at the bottom.