12 Questions for Searsucker’s Brian Malarkey
By Megan Giller
October 2, 2013
You might know celebrity chef Brian Malarkey from Top Chef or ABC’s The Taste, but the all-American chef recently brought his culinary talents to Austin in the form of Searsucker. The downtown restaurant has quickly become a hot spot for happy hour and relaxed upscale dining. Malarkey resides full-time in San Diego, but we sat down with him when he was in town for his birthday to talk about his love of Rocky Mountain oysters, why all of his restaurants are named after types of fabric and his mother’s chimpanzee sanctuary.
Zagat: What were some of your favorite foods growing up?
Brian Malarkey: Oh, my. I grew up in a very small town outside of Bend, Oregon, called Tumalo. It was like a really big thing when McDonald’s came to town. There was this little restaurant down the street called the Tumalo Emporium that we would go to on special occasions, and that’s where they had cowboy caviar. We also had our own bull calves that we would turn into steers for the springtime. My mom grew hay and we had some wheat. We had little gardens when we were young, and she still has gardens now. They’re for her chimpanzees now, though. She has a chimpanzee sanctuary.
Zagat: You’re a very metropolitan chef now, though. How does that flashy food fit with your background?
BM: I would spend the summers with my grandmother and father in Portland and the Oregon coast. My dad would take us salmon fishing, and we would go clamming. My stepfather also took us little farm boys to see the big world. His family lives in L.A. We would go eat at really nice restaurants. We would always go to horse shows, and we’d always go out to eat someplace nice, so that educated me. My parents and grandparents were very into social partying. There were always lots of big theme parties, dinner parties.
Zagat: Is that where the fabric of social dining concept came from?
BM: It also came from my partner, James Brennan. He owns a nightclub in San Diego, and man, we used to have fun there five years ago. But we’re realizing that we’re growing up and can’t go to the nightclubs. Every once in a while it’s fun. But we want a place where we can go out and be social with our friends. It was that idea of sharing dinners with family and friends, where you can sit around the table.
A lot of chefs firmly believe that what you put on the plate is all that matters. Whereas I believe it’s all about the senses. It’s the music you hear, the clanking of the glasses, the taste, the sound, the conversation. I think at the end of the day food is a facilitator for a great time. If someone comes in and takes a picture of every single dish and writes this huge review about just the food, they didn’t see everything and they missed out on the point of the restaurant. The point of the restaurant is to come and have the conversation and the connection to people. Put the phones down and have some fun.
Zagat: Speaking of the food, do you still get to spend time in the kitchens?
BM: I get a lot of kitchen time [laughs]. My restaurant, Gabardine, is right by my house, and I go down there all the time and cook. I had my family and friends in last Saturday for dinner. It’s a good neighborhood seafood bar. But I wanted king crab and lobster and all this, so I went to the market and bought it all and cooked for my family at the restaurant.
But line cooking is a young person’s sport. It’s aggressive. People are like, “Oh my god, I love to relax and cook.” And I’m like, “That’s not the way it works in our world.” We call it comfort in chaos. Usually if I'm on the line cooking, something has gone terribly wrong. I’ll go up and down the line and give techniques and skills and teach people. And I go up and down the line and touch all the food and taste things.
If Adam [Brown, the chef de cuisine] and I want to make a dish, we’ll do it in the afternoon. Then we’ll build a kit for the line cook.
Zagat: How does Searsucker fit into Austin’s dining scene specifically?
BM: San Diego is very similar to Austin in that there are a lot of good chefs and you can have a lot of fun and there’s a lot of fun events. It’s the same size demographically. I’m from Portland. When I built Searsucker in San Diego, I wanted to bring some of that urban cowboy thing to it. San Diego is really different. Searsucker really fits better in a Portland or Austin. The vibe is very Austin-ish. It’s a nice fun, relaxed, casual upscale eatery kind of thing.
Zagat: What do you think of the city?
BM: It was a lot of fun during the Austin Food & Wine Festival, because of a lot of the chefs in town and the chefs that came to visit, and everyone was so nice. Paul [Qui] and I have a relationship because we were both on Top Chef, so he’s calling me up asking me what I need. Then when we had the fire here everyone reached out to us and said we could prep in their kitchens and asked what they could do for us.
I love Larry McGuire’s places. He’s young and enthusiastic. I’ve never met him. But I love Clark’s and Perla’s, and I’m really excited to go to Jeffrey’s, the barbecue place.
I love Peche. I had French fries, sweetbreads and bone marrow on the same plate last night. I was like, “This is death. This is so good” [laughs].
I love going over to East Sixth and getting lost over there and having fun. And the food trucks. There’s soooo much good food here.
I’m super excited to bring the indoor-outdoor element to Austin’s Searsucker. Unfortunately I have to glass in the window to the kitchen if I want to open the front doors. I’m not going to say that I haven’t been to a restaurant that has no glass in it, and is a completely open kitchen, but [the owner of that restaurant is] a hometown hero here. I even asked him how he gets away with it. What the hell? It’s an indoor-outdoor restaurant! But I have to glass mine in.
Zagat: What kind of stuff do you and your family like to do in your free time in San Diego?
BM: My kids are avid fishermen. For my birthday, it wasn’t what Daddy wants to do. It’s what they want to do with Daddy. So we went fishing all over San Diego. We don’t have a boat. We have a golf cart. We catch sting rays and little sharks. They also love to boogie board. They’re in the water all the time. I sneak away and go standup paddleboarding for a little peace. Little kids have a lot of energy.
Zagat: You mentioned Top Chef. What draws you to TV and reality TV in particular?
BM: [Laughs] I can’t get away from it now. I wanted to be an actor when I was younger. I studied theater arts in school. But I was really bad at memorizing the lines [laughs].
I saw it as a fun competition. I watched the first two seasons of Top Chef, and I was like, I’d like to do that. I think I can beat them. Literally cooking became a sport that people watched on TV. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go play that? Getting on the show was like winning the lottery.
After I did that, I saw how powerful it was for the restaurant. So I continued to work on that. I started doing weekly TV and I had a weekly segment. I would do a wine pairing thing where I just cooked directly, did the Bobby Flay thing and looked directly at the camera. I kept practicing that. I was able to build a little reel and did a couple of shows for TLC. Then I made some cameos on some horrific television like Real Housewives of Orange County. Getting ABC’s The Taste was like winning the lottery again. Now, I’m very excited that I work with a different cable channel, one that we can’t announce yet.
Zagat: And you’re also planning to open 15 new restaurants in the next few years?
BM: Oh, that was my partner throwing that out there. We’re going to open as many restaurants as we can properly run. We’re at nine right now. We just need to make sure Austin’s and Scottsdale’s Searsuckers are running on all cylinders. I’m in a big learning curve about running and operating restaurants that aren’t in my own backyard.
It took a little time for people to come to the Austin location because they didn’t know what we are about. To get the proper talent in the kitchen has taken us longer than we would have liked. Now we have a really good core team in here. It took us a little while and poor Adam had to work hard and long and still has to work hard and long. But I can tell by walking up and down the line that everything looks brighter and happier and cleaner. Last time I was down here the food was lacking personality. It looked like the food was just being cooked and not motivated or fun. If the kitchen is having fun, the food tastes good. If it’s stressed and working too hard, you can feel it.
Zagat: What else has been part of the learning curve?
BM: Happy hours work in some cities and not in other cities. Location matters. Are people lighter eaters? Is it more of a salad town or a hamburger town?
Zagat: Is Austin a salad town or a hamburger town?
BM: It’s a nice pleasant mix, actually. At lunch we sell more hamburgers here than we do anyplace else.
Zagat: What’s next for you?
BM: Right now we’re opening our biggest project to date, and that’s at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Strip in L.A. That will be a Herringbone, and we’re slated to open on December 31.
Mainly we’re just circling the wagons and making sure everything’s going great. We’re really excited for the big festivals coming up in Austin, and I’m coming back down for all of them. I get off the plane in Austin and I literally get excited. It’s just such a cool, quirky, fun town, you know? You go to other cities and you’re like, whatever. Here it’s like, "What trouble am I going to get into in Austin this time?"