AWARD-WINNING CHEF/TV PERSONALITY
About 3/4 of the way through my conversation with Brian Malarkey, I discovered that he is an expert multi-tasker…I’m talking way beyond standard-issue multi-tasker. At that moment in our conversation, he stopped to exchange a few words with a staff member in the kitchen of his new 7000 square foot San Diego restaurant, Searsucker. Before that pause, Brian seemed to be so singularly focused and present for our conversation that I had no clue he was in the middle of Searsucker’s busy lunch rush. (Kind of makes me re-think the idea that I could not possibly answer the phone while mixing up a box of mac n cheese for my own demanding diners at home…then again, demands from a hungry 4 year old and 2 year old might be equivalent to the collective needs of 99 adults.)
Brian’s mastery of doing many things well at once (“well,” that’s key) is something that a great chef surely has to possess. If you’ve ever watched Top Chef, you know you have to be able to saute while making sate. (see Brian’s very honest answer in the q&a about what he thinks makes a great chef)
In addition to being a fantastic and artistic chef, Brian is highly entertaining to watch on television. His showmanship on season 3 of Top Chef made him a fan favorite and landed him his own show this season on TLC (Kick Off Cook Off.) He’s full of energy, which seems like a professional necessity as he works 12-14 hour days on his feet without eating a full meal. Speaking of meals, check out the recipe Brian shares at the end of this post — even the way he writes it up sounds like a party!
Brian continues to convert his dynamism into successes with more television possibilities in the works and plans to expand his restaurant, Searsucker, to more locations. Plus, he and his wife have 3 kids under 3! (I think Brian’s wife deserves a spa day week.) Brian’s story is most inspiring not only because his hard work pays off, but also because of the twists and turns his path to success takes…sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you could never imagine.
Did anyone influence your path into cooking?
There were influences in my family. I was raised by a single mom on a ranch in Oregon. We butchered cows so I learned about different cuts of meat and how to grill it. My dad had an industrial kitchen at his house and loved to cook. My grandmother lived on the coast in Gearhart, Oregon and entertained together with James Beard (“the dean of American Cookery.”) She had her own garden and introduced me to the concept of fine dining.
Did you train in a culinary school?
Not at first. Initially, I went to the University of Portland and then transferred to Santa Barbara (CA) City College where I studied theater. I liked it, but my father reminded me that I only had about a year and half left of the 4 years of tuition he’d offered me and I decided I needed to do something that would get me on a more certain career path. I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Portland. It was a really broad experience – you learn everything from pastries to salads. I wasn’t a great student, but I worked hard and got through it, in part thanks to a friend I met at school who encouraged and mentored me.
After school, despite the fact that I had never worked in a restaurant, I landed myself an unpaid internship at one of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurants at the time, Citrus. I worked hard, was offered a paid position, and within two years could work every station in the kitchen. It was at Citrus that I saw that food was an art. I also could look out into the dining area and see the celebrities that I was cooking for be wowed by what was presented to them and I really liked that experience.
So you kept doing what you love?
Not exactly. After a couple of years at Citrus, I felt a little burned out and wanted a break. My uncle was a photographer at a horse track near Minneapolis and he was ready to give up his contract there, so I took it over. My mom had a dark room on the ranch, so I had some experience taking and developing photographs while growing up.
The photography contract at the track was lucrative, but I did also keep cooking. I took a job at the Minneapolis restaurant The Loring Cafe, then moved to The Local and then became sous chef at Oceanaire. After I met my (now) wife, she took over the photography contract at the track. I spent about 6 years in Minneapolis and then my wife suggested that we head back to the west coast.
I had heard that Oceanaire was expanding to the west coast so I asked for a position there. I approached various hiring managers several times and they turned me down. Then one day the owner, Terry Ryan, heard my request and offered me the chance to open Seattle’s Oceanaire. A few years later I moved to San Diego’s Oceanaire where I was named Executive Chef.
Talk about your new restaurant, Searsucker.
I opened Searsucker about 5 months ago (summer 2010) with the help of a friend who owns nightclubs. It’s incredible. Our food is “new American classics.” It’s in the Gaslight Quarter of San Diego which is touristy, but we put a special emphasis on being for the locals, too.
How did you land on Bravo’s Top Chef?
A talent scout for the show actually found me while I was at Oceanaire. They track down some chefs they hear about and then come in and observe you. The day before I was due to be on set for Top Chef, I called the producers to tell them I wanted to back out. They convinced me that it would be a good experience that would change my life…they were right. People come to Searsucker to see me and I’m invited to food festivals where I get to meet my food heroes like Mario Batali.
What’s the biggest surprise about Top Chef that we viewers don’t see?
How long it takes to shoot things and how boring it can be while shooting. The judges table looks like it takes a few minutes but we shoot it for hours. When we do something like go shopping at a grocery store, we drive to the store and then wait outside while the production crew goes inside to get waivers signed and cameras in position. It’s also amazingly stressful – people are fighting for burners and the chefs are sleep deprived, hungry, dirty.
Do you keep in touch with your fellow castmates?
We’re like a fraternity. Whenever I’m in one of their towns, I call or visit them at their restaurants.
Are you going to continue in television?
Yes – this Fall I co-hosted TLC’s Kick Off Cook Off and I’m also working with a new production company on a sort of cooking/ adventure show.
What else is coming up for you?
We’re hoping to open another restaurant in the next 6 months. We’re thinking of calling it another type of fabric and making all the names of future restaurants fabrics.
You’ve been so adventurous and enterprising…have you made any mistakes that actually helped you along the way?
When I was in Minneapolis, I opened an outdoor lemonade cart called “Lemonade on the Rocks.” At first, when I ran it, it was successful. But when I got too busy and hired people to run it, I took a big loss. I hadn’t trained them properly and I had no way to track how many lemonades were actually sold. It was a disaster, but it taught me a lessen in getting it right.
What makes a great chef?
I think you have to be slightly mad. You work 12-14 hour days and you never sit down or eat a full meal. At Searsucker, we turn out 300-400 meals each day and it can be monotonous…it’s all about productivity and consistency.
What mistake do amateur chefs make in the kitchen?
They don’t cook on high enough heat. Top chefs cook on high heats to carmelize food. You also want to use the right kind of oil that can handle a high heat, like canola or grapeseed oil. Also season – a lot of home cooks don’t use enough salt and pepper.
You have 3 kids under the age of 3…how do you and your wife balance parenting/work/relationship?
Although I offer lunch and dinner at Searsucker, I do try to go home in the afternoons for a few hours. My wife and I also draw out pie charts and divide up the pie. If there’s too much work in the pie, we have to figure out how to get it divided up more evenly.
My favorite snack is: meat/salami and cheese
Don’t ask me to: do the dishes…whoever cooks doesn’t have to clean
I would put into a time capsule my: photos; my computer; good wine
My favorite place is: home with nothing to do (which never happens) and being at the beach
When I have a creative block I: drink sauvignon blanc from New Zealand
My favorite mantra is: comfort and chaos (this is a sign he has posted in his restaurant’s kitchen)
Brian’s recipe seems like a guaranteed good time!
Screaming Shrimp N Dirty Grits
for 4 friends
Searsucker San Diego
1 cup Grits – instant (5 minutes)
follow the instruction on the box – 3 to 1 I thinks and then we get dirty
½ cup buttermilk
½ stick butter
½ cup cheddar cheese
¼ cup bacon – diced and cooked
salt and pepper
keep stirring/whisking until the “grits” are glorious and DIRTY GOOD!
1 pound shrimp (16/20) counts peeled, cleaned & butterflied
½ stick butter
2 tbls canola oil
4 each tomatoes roma – cubed
¼ cup basil – sliced
¼ cup garlic – chopped
¼ cup lemon juice
2/3 tbls Cajun seasoning
salt and pepper
In a large sauté pan over “high” heat add the oil and butter add the shrimp and cook until about half way done, add the garlic and continue cooking until golden brown, adds the other ingredients and serve over the top of the “dirty good” grits, sit back and watch your friends lick their chops….