Banking on Success: David Banks Flies Solo
When it comes to his profession, Chef David Leo Banks is old school. You’ll never see him wearing slouchy pants with a chilipepper pattern. Whether in the kitchen or at a fundraiser, he wears a crisp button-down shirt, a tie, black pants and black shoes. His chef’s coat is open just enough to form neat lapels. That’s not to say he’s stuffy. “He follows the trends of what’s happening in the culinary world,” says longtime colleague Tom Hannum, the executive chef and a co-owner of Buckley’s Tavern, who met Banks in 1978.
For proof of Banks’ creativity, take a glance at the menu of Banks Seafood Kitchen and Raw Bar, where you might spot California sturgeon with Asian avocado toast, smoked salmon crisps or cornmeal-crusted rainbow trout with bacon, brie and a saffron sauce.
Don’t recognize the restaurant’s name? The Wilmington Riverfront eatery is the former Harry’s Seafood Grill, which Banks previously owned with Xavier Teixido. Banks became the sole owner in October.
Recently, he rebranded the restaurant and added some signature touches, including maritime images by Delaware photographer Jim Graham. The menu puts a greater emphasis on the already popular raw bar. He’s bumped tuna selections up from three to six. There’s a large variety of oysters, which also appear in cooked dishes. Entrees feature the expected and unexpected fresh fish. Crab, including seasonal stone crab claws, is a menu staple.
Moving from executive chef to partner to entrepreneur gives Banks a chance to shine brighter in a more public forum. His name, after all, is now on the sign. But those in the culinary world have long been impressed by his skills. “There are few chefs that are as committed to industry professionalism as Chef Banks,” says Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.
DO WHAT YOU LOVE
Banks is the youngest of five children. His father was a DuPont Company engineer, who moved the family from North Carolina to West Virginia, where Banks was born. When Banks was 5, the family moved to Newark, Delaware. Although he lacks a Southern accent, Banks speaks in the soft, measured tones of a Carolinian.
When he was 14, the family’s house burned down. While helping his father with the rebuilding, he got a crash course in heating, plumbing, carpentry and electric wiring. He’s put the knowledge to good use in restaurant kitchens. “My truck looks more like it belongs to a contractor than a chef, although I have the implements for both,” says Banks, whose motto is “a good chef has everything.”
His father was also fond of sayings, including “If it’s hard to do then you’re doing it wrong,” and “You better find something you like to do and hope you’re good at it.”
Banks briefly considered a career as a forest ranger before realizing there weren’t many jobs available. He then focused on another interest: cooking. He was 12 when he began making omelets at home and 16 when he joined his brother, Dennis, at Schaefer’s Canal House. His brother was a server, and Banks washed dishes. They both moved to the Hotel du Pont, where Banks worked alongside Dan Butler, now the owner of Piccolina Toscana in Wilmington’s Trolley Square, and Tom Hannum.
Their mentor, Chef Hubert Winkler, had apprenticed in Austria and worked in Switzerland for five years before coming to Wilmington in 1973. “Every good chef in this country was European at that time,” Hannum says. They were sticklers for exactness and proponents of classic techniques. They were quick to command and intolerant of failure.
“I was too young to be scared,” Banks recalls. “I was too full of energy.” The demand for discipline benefited Banks, who’d had a spotty attendance at Newark High School. It also made an impression. After receiving his diploma, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America.
WILD ABOUT HARRY’S
Back in Delaware, Banks worked in iconic area restaurants of the 1980s, including Ristorante Carucci, where the waiters sang, Bellevue in the Park and the Kitty Knight House. In 1983, he married his first wife; they would have three children.
His life seemed golden. But in the winter of 1987, he crashed his motorcycle near the Bohemia River and landed in a ditch, where he shivered for two hours before help arrived. Banks broke a femur and his back in multiple places. He powered through physical therapy with “a force of will,” he says. “I was walking in six months and working in nine. I was an anomaly at that time.”
He was using a cane for his interview with Xavier Teixido, then with 1492 Hospitality Group. After starting at the company’s Columbus Inn, Banks opened Harry’s Savoy Grill in North Wilmington in 1988.
When Teixido split from 1492 in 1993, taking Harry’s with him, Banks elected to stay with Teixido. “It was a no-brainer,” Banks says. “I believed in the brand, and I believed in the people that surrounded me there—Xavier being one of them.”
Harry’s brought juicy steaks, icy martinis and cigars back in style. But Banks slipped in some surprises, including tuna seared yet served rare, which raised eyebrows at that time.
His seafood dishes sold so well that Teixido and Banks partnered to open Harry’s Seafood Grill in 2003 on the Wilmington Riverfront. A to-go business, Harry’s Fish Market + Grill opened in the adjoining Riverfront Market. With Kelly O’Hanlon, the partners purchased Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in 2010. In addition to being the executive chef for the hospitality group, Banks also oversaw Harry’s banquet venue, located behind Harry’s Savoy Grill.
THE NEXT STEP
Banks and Teixido were together for nearly three decades. So there was a significant buzz in culinary circles when the news broke that Banks had sole ownership of Harry’s Seafood Grill and the quick-casual counter in the Riverfront Market. Banks is no longer part of Kid Shelleen’s.
The men insist the transition was amicable. “Dave is an immensely talented chef who has worked throughout his career to positively change the culinary landscape in Delaware through his commitment to professionalism and excellence,” Teixido says.
From the succession plan to the financing, the timing was right, Banks says. “Harry’s Seafood was a natural for me.” Not only does he like the concept, but he likes the view of the river and the interior design, which would suit any big city restaurant. His current wife, Jessica Donnelly-Banks, whom he wed in 2016, is an interior designer. She helped freshen the décor.
So why change the name? Banks has amassed accolades over his 30-year career. He’s been the American Culinary Federation First State Chefs Association Chef of the Year twice. In 2017, he received the ACF’s National President’s Medallion. He’s a regular on Comcast’s “The Chef’s Kitchen.”
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve gotten good press,” Banks says. “It’s not as much about ego as it is common sense.”
The classics remain the foundation of his style. “It’s the basis for all great cuisine,” he maintains. “When I create a dish, the first thing I think about is what goes with a particular ingredient and why. Does it make sense? Fusion can turn into confusion.”
Banks loves to talk about technique and “other nerdy food stuff,” says Ed Hennessy, a culinary instructor at Delaware Technical Community College, who met Banks when they were both working toward ACF certification. “He can spot a phony a mile away.”
Banks, who often speaks to Hennessy’s classes, finds time to promote the profession. “His involvement with the Delaware Restaurant Association’s ProStart program and his leadership positions with the American Culinary Federation showcase his dedication to our future hospitality industry stars,” says Leishman of the Delaware Restaurant Association. “So many of our state’s talented chefs in some of our best restaurants in Delaware started their careers working for Chef Banks. It’s fair to say that Delaware is a culinary gem because of the contributions of chefs like Dave Banks.”
That’s not likely to change. With Banks Seafood Kitchen and Raw Bar, he is just getting started.
> Banks Seafood Kitchen and Raw Bar, 101 South Market St., Wilmington, Delaware; 302-777-1500, banksseafoodkitchen.com