Pitt Ph.D. student Brett Bankson wins Top Chef Amateur competition

By Darin Fields, For The Pitt News

Food may be a necessity or a pleasure for most of us, but for 28-year-old Pitt Ph.D. candidate and recent “Top Chef Amateurs” winner Brett Bankson, food is much more. For him, food is a medium in which to interact with other people and the world around us.

“To me, food is a way to express myself, to intimately interact with people,” Bankson said.

Brett appeared on season one, episode 12 of BravoTVs’ “Top Chef Amateurs,” a spinoff of the hit show “Top Chef.” In the show, home cooks are invited to compete against each other for a chance to win $5,000.

The casting process took about three months, starting with an online questionnaire followed by a series of interviews and auditions, according to Bankson. Once cast, the show’s producers flew Bankson out to Portland for three days of filming. After an eight-day quarantine, Bankson went through a day of pre-interviews, a day of competition and a day of post-interviews.

Even though Bankson was excited he won the episode with a distinct walnut soup, he said cooking shows offer only a brief snapshot of what cooking and food mean to him.

“In my everyday life, I’m a very non-competitive, non-confrontational person,” Bankson said. “I don’t think that cooking competitions are anything other than what they are. Which in this case is one hour of two people in a very artificial environment on TV.”

Food for Bankson is anything but an artificial concept — it’s been an essential component in his life since childhood. He pointed to memories such as eating Gouda cheese on the floor of his new home with his cousins as child and exploring new cities through their culinary scene.

“The most poignant memories in my life have a food component,” Bankson said. “I love to interact with the world through taste.”

Food isn’t the only passion in Bankson’s life. Along with his blossoming culinary career, he is also pursuing his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology at Pitt. He works under associate professor Avniel Singh Ghuman studying high-level vision — how people recognize faces, objects and other visual stimuli.

Ghuman said Bankson has an amazing ability to balance the various aspects of his life.

“In balancing everything in his life, he’s got a passion for all of them,” Ghuman said. 

But Bankson’s relationship with his academic pursuits has not always been a healthy one. The academic road can be a mentally exhausting path paved with failure and frustration, according to Bankson. Throughout much of his academic career, Bankson said he was fueled by thoughts of perfectionism and battled with feelings of inadequacy.

“If I wasn’t feeling overwhelmed I didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” Bankson said.

It was during this time of intense frustration that Bankson turned to his passions, and began to find solace in them. He described the tensions between pursuing new and exciting opportunities in food, as a result of winning “Top Chef Amateurs,” and remaining in cognitive psychology.

“There is this tension between this thing that I have no training in that makes me feel so good, and this thing that I have been developing skills in for eight-plus years,” Bankson said.

Sydney Boutros — Bankson’s best friend who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University — said the rigor of a Ph.D. program often leads people into other creative outlets.

“The stress and difficulty that comes with being in a Ph.D. program really pushes people to find something outside the Ph.D,” Boutros said.

According to Boutros, food and cooking are not just stress relievers for Bankson — they are a means to convey love and to interact with those around him. She said Bankson began cooking for her and their other friends purely to share the love food brings him.

“He started out by cooking for all of his friends just because he wanted to share the joy it brought him,” Boutros said. “And getting to see him get recognition for how creative he is is amazing, because the more people that get to experience the love he puts into his cooking, the creativity and all the thought processes behind, is really something special.”

For Bankson, he said the success on “Top Chef” is just another opportunity for him to continue to spread love through his work.

“I am having a very galvanizing and positive experience sharing what I think about food with people because of this wonderful random opportunity on ‘Top Chef,’” Bankson said. “Clearly people care, that’s fine, I just want to cook for you.”