In today’s episode, we speak with Brian Malarkey, Top Chef finalist, San Diego-based celebrity chef, and restaurateur.
Brian shares the “key” behind launching award-winning restaurant concepts, including Herb & Wood, named one of America’s 10 best restaurants by USA Today, and his latest work with Animae. He also reveals how he took his talent to television, with appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars, ABC’s The Taste, Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, Good Morning America, and more.
Listen as Brian chats about finding opportunities that highlight your culinary talents, cooking for the people, and mastering “the art of food parties.”
Watch the podcast episode:
Get the latest episode of The Ultimate Dish delivered right to your inbox every week.
Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Brian Malarkey, a San Diego-based celebrity chef and renowned restaurateur. Throughout his career, he’s created over 15 award-winning restaurant concepts.
Chef Malarkey also co-developed the Puffer Malarkey Collective with his business partner, Christopher Puffer, launching the nationally-acclaimed Herb & Wood, named one of America’s 10 Best Restaurants by USA Today and Restaurant of the Year by Eater San Diego. We can’t forget to mention his most recent adventure, Animae – where Asian flavors meet fine dining.
If Chef Malarkey isn’t in the kitchen, chances are, he’s on TV. Chef Malarkey was a “Top Chef” Season 3 finalist, Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars” contestant, and winning mentor on ABC’s “The Taste.” He frequently makes appearances on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” Good Morning America, and many other television shows.
Join me today as we speak with chef Malarkey about what it takes to launch award-winning restaurants, appear on television, and his advice to aspiring restaurateurs.
And there he is! Good morning, Chef! How are you?
Brian Malarkey: Good morning from central Oregon.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. I was in central Oregon, Brasada Ranch, probably not far from you last August. One of the most beautiful places on the earth.
Brian Malarkey: It is beautiful. It’s a little cold up here.
Kirk Bachmann: I could tell!
Brian Malarkey: I’ve been watching far too much “Yellowstone,” so I’ve got my outfit on here.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it!
Brian Malarkey: I’m living the dream.
Kirk Bachmann: Is that one of the best television shows ever made?
Brian Malarkey: It is just so good. I’m a big Kevin Costner fan. The disciplines they do with the horses on that show are actually what I grew up doing. It’s reining and cutting. My mom is 75 years old, and she’s still out there showing those horses just like that. Pretty impressive stuff.
Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love that. Wow! That’s something we didn’t know about you.
Brian Malarkey: Oh yes. I was a Redmond High School state champion high school rodeo three years in a row.
Kirk Bachmann: No way! I love that.
Brian Malarkey: I’m a real cowboy. I get to wear the hats, the spurs, the boots, the whole thing.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my God, I love that! I’m a University of Oregon alum. My older daughters live over on the other side, Portland area. Boy. Portland’s gotten a little rough in recent years, but I just love Oregon.
Brian Malarkey: I love Oregon also. You went to Phil Knight University.
Kirk Bachmann: I did!
Brian Malarkey: He lives over here. He has a house over here in central Oregon.
Kirk Bachmann: I’ve got to get you something. I have my whole team reading this right now. There you go, Uncle Phil. There you go, buddy.
Brian Malarkey: Best book ever! I’m so excited to see the movie now.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I’m a little nervous about the movie.
Brian Malarkey: It will be called “Air.” Is that what it’s called?
Kirk Bachmann: I think so.
Brian Malarkey: Matt Damon…
Kirk Bachmann: Matt Damon’s in it.
Brian Malarkey: Yeah, I love it. That book is the best book ever. That book, that story, the resilience, right there, is awe-inspiring. I’m not by any means Phil Knight, but you know what? I’m as passionate as he was that I just double down. I double down. He just kept leveraging more, more, more. He wasn’t rich until Nike went public. He was living in his same house in Portland, Oregon, wherever he was – Beaverton, Portland – and he was of almost zero value until that thing went public. Then he became an instant multi-millionaire in the day.
Kirk Bachmann: And he’s still doing it. Toward the beginning of the book, he talks about the formation that the geese fly in, and that the leaders are at the front, and the leaders take the risks – like you’ve been taking your whole career.
Brian Malarkey: All the Prefontaine stories and stuff like that. It’s brilliant. The whole thing is amazing.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, it really is. God, what a connection. I love that. I’m getting chills up and down my spine.
So tell us – you’re at your mom’s ranch, the family ranch…
Brian Malarkey: My mom has a big ranch up here. It’s a little town called Tumalo in between Bend, Sisters, and Redmond. This is the ranch I grew up on. I grew up riding horses and shooting gophers and raising beef. We always raised cattle. We had one steer that we raised every year for beef. It’s just absolutely the most amazing place to live. I’m so happy my mom kept a hold of it. Now I bring my kids up here, and they get to ride the quads and the motorcycles, and dig jumps, and go swimming in the pond. It’s just the best thing ever.
Then we go skiing on Mt. Bachelor. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh, that’s storybook. That’s absolutely storybook.
It’s been a few years since you and I hung out. We met in New York City back in the day. I have to say – I’m going to spoil you here, I’m going to embarrass you – you captivated this New York City press crowd. You did an opening presser for the movie “Julie and Julia” that came out with Nora Ephron. Julie Powell wrote the book. I don’t know if you remember, but you made beef bourguignon, but it wasn’t just Julia Child’s beef bourguignon, it was petite. You noticed that you had a crowd. Not everybody was going to get a big bowl of beef bourguignon. They were going to get a little cup. You had all these tiny little batonnet carrots or brunoise carrots and beef. It was absolutely beautiful. It was a lot of fun. Gosh, I’m just so excited to dive into the conversation.
You’re in Bend today. I’m envious about that, but I was going to be really envious if you were in San Diego. As I read, and I watch your career, it seems like you spend a lot of time in the public. You’re surfing. You’re paddling. You’re with your family. You’re boating. Is this the West Coast dream? I was just in Punta Mita, further south, in Puerto Vallarta for spring break. I’ve got to tell you, Brian, I didn’t want to come back.
Brian Malarkey: It’s beautiful.
Kirk Bachmann: The weather, the surf, it’s just gorgeous. So tell me about San Diego. You have this ability to bounce back and forth between the beautiful Northwest, but what is it about San Diego that’s just so gorgeous?
Brian Malarkey: You know what’s really great is San Diego “covid-ed” very well. We kind of just mentioned [Portland.] Portland did not covid well. A lot of the big cities on the West Coast – Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and LA – had a rough time. A lot of the people fled the city. They fled the city, gave the city up to, unfortunately, some homelessness. A lot of restaurants closed down.
San Diego is a small enough city that it actually did great. The city got really behind us and helped us with putting the restaurants outside. People, when they left those other cities, they came to San Diego. Before covid, San Diego wasn’t very cool. After covid, San Diego is extremely cool. All the culinarians and stuff from San Francisco have moved down. People from LA have moved down. Just because we do have the water. We don’t have the traffic jams. We have a clean city. It’s absolutely beautiful. Our produce, our fish, our restaurants, just the communities are very happy and healthy down there.
Yes, it is the dream. And to be able to. Nine months of the year, they have a direct flight from San Diego to Redmond, Oregon, which is central Oregon’s airport. There’s nothing better than that direct flight.
Kirk Bachmann: I’ve done that flight on United. Boulder is the same time. A few months of the year. It’s a little bumpy, I’m not going to lie, but it’s a direct flight. They pick you up.
Do you remember a restaurant – oh, he’s going to kill me when I say this – in Bend, for years, was called Joolz? It was kind of a Lebanese restaurant?
Brian Malarkey: I do recall that restaurant. You know what is still here from the 1930s is the Pine Tavern. Who owns that – I don’t know if it is McCormick or Schmick – but one of those people…
Kirk Bachmann: One of them. If you’re from Oregon, you know that brand very well.
Brian Malarkey: From anywhere. They had places from New York to everywhere, San Diego to Florida. McCormick & Schmick’s was huge.
Kirk Bachmann: Joolz was owned by an amazing couple, Ramsay and Juli. Ramsay went to U of O with me and Western Culinary Le Cordon Bleu in Portland. Juli went to U of O as well.
Let me talk a little bit and go down memory lane with you. I love it when I have a chance to speak with successful and amazing people like yourself, chef. Back to the very first moment that you fell in love with cooking. I think I read…did your grandmother have a beach house also in Oregon?
Brian Malarkey: Yes. Gearhart, Oregon.
Kirk Bachmann: No way! Wow!
Brian Malarkey: My fun tie-in with that. I never had the opportunity, but my father said of my grandmother, who was a great chef, he said she would only mess up cooking when she was in the presence of James Beard. James Beard had a house in Gearhart, Oregon also. All the people of Portland, Oregon would get together and have these big feasts. She would cook with James Beard. My father said she would get so nervous, she would burn water.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my God, the chills just keep coming! When’s the book coming out? There’s gotta be a book. I mean, these memories are incredible.
So tell me about that inspiration. Here’s a cowboy from central Oregon. It must be in your DNA. You fall in love with cooking. You decide to enroll in culinary school. Was that something you started thinking…?
Brian Malarkey: It wasn’t as glorious as that. I did fall in love with cooking. I was raised by my single mom and my brother on a big ranch. They are often out tending to the horses and mending the fence and changing irrigation pipes. I actually learned to cook at a pretty young age. The basic stuff. I was making the rice. I was learning to grill the meats and stuff like that. I was helping out in the kitchen a lot. I remember my mom even took me to little cooking classes when I was probably eight years old. Baking classes and stuff like that. I always kind of enjoyed it.
I fell in love with cooking protein mainly because – a little bit different story – but every summer and every year, we had a cow that we would raise to fatten and to eat. When I really figured that out and realized my pet cow was dinner, I would rebel against the family. I would steal the best steaks and go cook them for my friends. “Ah!! Whatever!” We would eat grills and barbecues and stuff.
My father was always a big chef. My grandmother was much more of an elegant chef, had dinner parties with little finger bowls for your hands, to clean your little fingers between bites.
I had the coastal cooking and the ranch cooking. A little surf and turf, we’ll call it.
Then I wound up going to college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I think it’s very important for people at any age to realize that the culinary arts – cooking – is an option for people right now, in line with your Escoffier. Our industry is decimated. It is absolutely decimated. So many people got out of our industry during covid. It’s so hard for us to find cooks who want to get in there and grind. Everyone got jobs where they could work from home. I don’t know what happened to an entire workforce, but there is an abundance of opportunity in our profession, from entry level to running restaurants. I have people – headhunters – hitting me up all the time, asking me, “Do you know anybody who could fill this niche?” I’m like, “I don’t know!”
I was even thinking about going and speaking at local schools and saying, “Hey guys! I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was told I should study business. I should do this. But nothing caught my passion.” I bounced around college, University of Portland. I did some Santa Barbara City College. I stumbled all the way down to acting. I was really at the interesting point in my life. I was doing the local theater. My father came down to watch me in this play. At the end of the play, he said, “You know what? You are a terrible actor.”
I said, “You know what? I know it! I know it, Dad. I’m just not good at memorizing the lines and stuff. I’m just not good.”
He goes, “Why don’t you do what you love?”
“I’m looking for that. I want to know what that is.”
“Every time I’m around you, you’re having a party. You’re cooking for your friends. You’re making cocktails. You’re just having the best time.”
I said, “Do you want me to be a professional partier for the rest of my life? I’m in, Dad! I got you.”
He said, “No! You’re throwing parties, dinner parties. Why don’t you go to Le Cordon Bleu back up in Portland, Oregon?” I’ll be closer to home.
I went and did that. To be honest, I didn’t get captivated at culinary school. It didn’t work for me. It was outdated, as far as I was concerned. I had the opportunity to eat at different restaurants and explore, so I kind of knew what was going on. I wore a paper hat. I had to wear a cravat and hounds-tooth pants. I’ve always been a little fashionable. “I don’t like this!” I learned what classes I kind of like.
When people are going, “Well, I want to go to culinary school,” I say, “Well, you should work in the industry for a minute, a little while, to make sure that it’s the proper fit.” It’s not TV. It’s not glamorous. It’s not glorious, but it is a passion that people who have it, you don’t get rid of it, and you enjoy going to work. Every day is an adventure. Every day is exciting. Every day is new and different. It’s just a wonderful environment. If you have the passion, you will know immediately.
In the restaurant industry, we’re bored on Monday nights. We’re bored on Tuesday nights. Then all of a sudden, you start getting ready. Then it’s just going and going. We call it “comfort in chaos.” We love when we’re really busy and having a good time.
Culinary school let me know that I wanted to do higher-end food. I knew I had to see lots of different options. That was what was great about that.
Then I went down and worked at the Citrus in Los Angeles. It was a big, blasting kitchen, and it was the French [brigade] system. The French led the charge. We had amazing Mexican mercenaries. We had passionate people here. It was a team. It was rock stars. It was like Anthony Bourdain had written the script. It was amazing. The celebrities of Los Angeles were looking in the kitchen at us like we were the stars.
That was it. I was in. I did have a cookbook that came out many years ago called “Come Early, Stay Late.” That was work ethic at the time. You came early, you stayed late. They paid you for forty hours a week, but you were expected to work 70. You know, the good old days. You got a beer during your lunch break. It was just the right setting that gave me the passion to never look back.
Kirk Bachmann: You bring up Michel Richard, Citrus. I mean, classic. I never dined at Citrus, but I dined with him and met him at Citronella when he was in DC. What I loved about him – did you get that impression? He was originally a pastry chef. A couple of stories. The food was beautiful and unique.
Brian Malarkey: He was an artist, also. He could paint and draw and stuff, too. He was just a natural artist at everything he did.
Kirk Bachmann: And the nicest guy. I was walking down the street in Washington D.C. I happened to walk by the side of Citronelle. Here he is outside holding court, telling jokes that I can’t repeat here, with a bunch of people. Before I knew it, four hours had passed and we hadn’t moved.
Of course, the next night, I’m in at the chef’s table. His son is behind the line, and he’s at the pass. There’s not a dish that goes by that he doesn’t look at or touch in some way.
I know you’re incredibly humble, but that’s one heck of a place to end up after culinary school.
Brian Malarkey: Oh, it was the best. When you had to go work for free, your last class was six weeks at an internship. You know what it is? I actually just hung out with Patric Kuh, who was the sous chef there at the time, who actually went on to be the big writer – K-U-H is his last name. I don’t know if I ever say it right. Patric – for LA Magazine. He was the big food critic for years and years and years in Los Angeles. I didn’t really realize that.
It was Alain Giraud was the chef. Patric was the sous chef. I went in there with my little paperwork. I was like, “All right, guys. This is what I want to do for the next six weeks.” They laughed at me. “Whatever!” They put me in the back room with the team. I turned artichokes and peeled asparagus and stuff like that for the first six weeks. After six weeks, they looked back there. “Oh, he’s still here! Let’s bring him in. Let’s teach him something.” I wound up spending about two years there.
Then I moved around. I worked at restaurants in Seattle and Minneapolis. I kept bouncing around a little bit. I was reading an article from LA Magazine years later. It was about this female chef in a man’s kitchen, her holding her own. Her burn marks and her work ethic. All of a sudden I was like, “I’m in this kitchen! I’m IN this kitchen.” I looked to see who wrote this article, and it was Patric who was the sous chef who had turned into this tremendous James Beard Award-winning writer. He was writing the story. I was thinking, “I was physically in the kitchen. I know all these people. This is amazing.”
Kirk Bachmann: What about travel? You just mentioned Seattle, Minneapolis. How important in your mind, even today post-pandemic, is it? How important is it for chefs to travel globally and experience different cultures?
Brian Malarkey: It’s a great opportunity. I don’t think it’s a requirement any more, but in the olden days, you got your badge of honor for going and cooking in New York. I still look back going, “God, I never cooked in New York.” Five people in a tiny apartment, you all worked two jobs. If you’re young and in the culinary field, it is an opportunity that you can travel to Europe, Southeast Asia, all around the U.S. You can use it. I have people who work on cruise ships and friends that work on private yachts. You can go see the world if you’re not attached to anything and have something holding you back.
But if you [do,] if you have a family, you can find everything you need in any given town, from high-end to low-end. It’s just tremendous amount of opportunity in this field. And they’re paying living wages. Back in the olden days, back in the Citrus days, I wasn’t making enough money to live. But they fed you and everything like that. Now, the pay rates equal the work. There’s just a lot of upward mobility on that one.
That’s a fun thing to talk about, too. You get into this gig – and this is why a lot of the culinary schools didn’t really work out back in the day – it was too much. You’re paying too much for the education you’re getting. You’d get in. You’re making $10 an hour. It was really tough back in the day.
Now, you do something with Escoffier. You go online. You learn your things. You’re working in the meantime. You’re doing that. That’s a great way to do this. You get into the field. It’s so funny. No disrespect to anybody out there, but people say, “You’re such a great chef. What’s your key?”
I’m like, “I just showed up every day. I took care of the simple things. I just showed up. I did my job. I wasn’t hung over. I just went in there and enjoyed it, made my own little games in my head. How fast? How organized? What can you do?” There’s not much consistency in our industry. We’re not rocket scientists over here. We’re not the high-end overachievers. We’re salt-of-the-earth people in this industry. You don’t have to be great; you just have to be consistent and you’ll win in this game.
A lot of people who are great chefs that can cook the best food? They can’t run a kitchen. It gives them less value. The turtle who knows how to just consistently get in there, motivate the staff, make sure their numbers are working, puts a really good dish on the menu, they will exceed far beyond the rock star who just knows how to cook great food. Yet, his team doesn’t really like him. The numbers don’t really work. Those things. You don’t have to look and go, “Oh, I’m not good enough to be that person.” You just have to be the best you, and you will be able to succeed immensely in this industry.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s so well said. Uncle Phil called that leadership. Leadership. All those things you mentioned. Again, we sort of touched on this during the intro. You’re a true restaurateur. You’re a businessperson, salt of the earth. I absolutely love that.
I was prepping myself for our chat. I found a video where you were just de-veining some shrimp. What I loved about it was you were in there! You just grabbed that shrimp. You talked about shrimp in a pasta dish; remove the tail. Or, if you’re going to serve it outside of a dish, leave the tail on. You cut it. You talked about the popper shoot. You clean it out. What I loved about that: with all of your success and all of your notoriety, you still can jump in there and grab a shrimp and quickly de-vein it. There’s a simplicity there that I so respect.
Brian Malarkey: On that, it’s the bicycle. I worked in the olden days where you worked and you learned everything, in that kitchen. In any kitchen, if you want something done, you do it. I learned every single thing. A lot of these up-and-coming cooks or new cooks, they want to be a sous chef. They want to do this. Unless you know how to do everything in that kitchen as good [sic] or better than everyone else, what gives you the right to be a leader? You don’t have the wherewithal.
I tell young people coming up, Don’t rush to get into a leadership role until your toolbox is full, so that when you’re leading, you can open your toolbox and you have all of these tools to help your people succeed. If you jump into that leadership role without knowing everything, you’re not just shorting yourself; you’re shorting your team.
What’s amazing now is that I love watching podcasts. I saw Joe Rogan the other day. He said, “You can get your entire education online.” Just like you were saying: do your Escoffier. Go look around the internet. You’ll learn everything. As driven as you are – you read about entrepreneurs. When they get done with their 9 to 5 job that’s getting them through school or through whatever, they go home. They don’t crack open a beverage and watch the ball game. They start studying. Now, I’m working. My time’s more valuable. That was your time. You had me in that capacity. Now, it’s my time to do more and over-succeed and learn more.
I don’t have a 9 to 5 workday. I’m a student of life. I’m constantly thinking about things, constantly writing things down, constantly thinking about what I can do better. I sleep and I breathe it. It’s fun. It’s not work; it’s fun. It’s all a giant Tetris problem to me.
Kirk Bachmann: And you make it fun. I was actually going to dive into key ingredients for aspiring restaurateurs or leaders. You hit on it. The key word was that word “consistency.” We all need more consistency. And humility, too. I grew up in the business. My father came over from Europe in the ‘60s. He achieved what’s called master level for pastry chef. The only advice he ever has given me through the years – he’s 86 now, doing great, still baking at home, all of that – all he ever told me was, “Just try to be a great cook for life. Don’t worry about all the letters. Don’t worry about what other people call you. Just be a great cook for life.” That’s kind of what I’m hearing here today.
Brian, I’d love to talk a little bit more about this. I’m all over the internet, looking at the Puffer Malarkey Collective and your relationship with Christopher. On your website, it says – this is brilliant – “Our culinary ethos celebrates California while exploring global influences. Our food is rustic but elevated, seasonal, and approachable.” Love that word. “We value simplicity above all else. Our method of production honors the open flame, wood-burning ovens, and coal-fired grills.” Where’s the inspiration for all this come? You’re getting chills, too, right? That’s on the website. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Brian Malarkey: It’s so funny. I was doing a cooking demo the other day. People seem like they are going, “I don’t cook. I don’t do that.” I was like, “Hey, I gotta point something out. I’m doing what they did five thousand years ago. I’m cooking the food on the fire. I’m cutting it up with my knife.” I was using a mortar and pestle. “I’m a caveman. I’m doing the same thing from thousands of years ago. We haven’t advanced too much, so just have fun with it.” It’s fire and knives and grinding.
That’s what it is. I go into a restaurant, and I read a menu. If I don’t recognize something, I’m like, “That’s just a peacock of a chef back there, just trying to impress other chefs and restaurateurs.” Not cooking for the people. We learned a long time ago, you have to set your ego aside and cook for the people. Be one of the people, because a wise person once told me if you cook for the elite – that little niche – you will live with the masses, because your niche is so small. But if you cook for the masses, you will live with the elite. The idea of reaching a broad group of people who will come in and appreciate your food…
A simply-grilled steak with salt on it is all you ever really need. Something simple. Roasted carrots just done right with a little seasoning is just a celebration of the earth. Less manipulation.
Ironically, it works out. Less labor force means less manipulation. We’re not doing a ton of small knife cuts anymore. We’re not doing those things. You want these robust, rustic dishes that make you feel like you’re getting your value, your money’s worth.
Again, you can spin tables. I walk into kitchens, I see twenty people behind the line with their tweezers and stuff like that and I immediately go, “They’re not making money.” Everyone’s like, “You want a Michelin star?” I’m like, “I don’t.” Some of my chefs and some of my restaurants would love that, but I as a restaurateur, not as a chef – I’ve moved into the restaurateur position – I don’t think they make enough money because they’re too worried about perfection. And to me, perfection’s boring. I like things a little chaotic. I like things with highs and lows and food and this and that, because when I go out to eat and what we’re trying to do in our restaurants is the celebration. It’s not the dish of food.
The celebration is the group of people you’re with. So you have to put your ego aside and say, “I’m not the star of dinner or lunch or breakfast. I am a great attribute of this meal. The ambiance. The service. The smells. The sounds. The sights. The company.” That’s the center of the meal, right there. It brings us all together to talk story – as they say in the Pacific islands. To talk story and share memories. We all come together to eat, to bring people together. The old thing – break the bread. Put your ego aside. Make something great to bring people together to celebrate life.
Kirk Bachmann: So well said. I love it.
To transition over to Animae, which I believe is probably the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t dined there. Tell us about that, with the Asian influences and how that dream came to be.
Brian Malarkey: We have Herb & Wood, which is the wood-fired restaurant, the first one I did after I got out of the fabric restaurants. Then we wanted to do an Asian concept. We worked with a couple different chefs. We explored up and down. What’s fun about being part of the melting pot of the United States is when you’re in Italy, you eat Italian food. When you’re in Japan, you eat Japanese food. But when you’re in the U.S., you eat whatever combinations that are really fun to come together. We ate all over Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, up and down the West Coast. We went to Korea Town. We went to Convoy in San Diego. We launched right before covid.
We really wanted to do this mash-up of Japanese, Southeast Asian, Pacific, California. We tried it with – in all honesty – some white chefs cooking Asian food. We tried. People have had great success doing it. Michel Richard had an incredible Asian concept. Wolfgang Puck’s had an incredible Asian concept. It was good. And then we closed down for covid and we thought, “Let’s go a different direction.” We messed around a little bit more.
Then Tara Monsod has been working on and off for me for the last ten-plus years. She’s worked at all my restaurants. She’s Filipino. She’s now a sous chef at Animae helping us out. She’s given us ideas. We’re going, “Oh my God! This is not OUR restaurant. This is your restaurant.” She’s a great leader, and her flavor profile…She was a little hesitant coming out of the gate. I said, “Give us Filipino mashed up with all of these other great things we’ve been working with. Give me food that would bring your family together. Bring me this food that is this.” And she reworked that menu. We relaunched it, and she is a superstar right now. That restaurant is absolutely packed. I have zero input on the menu except yum, yum, yum. Thank you very much. It’s amazing. She’s the next generation. It’s incredible what she’s been able to do and the excitement.
Martha Stewart was in not too long ago and said, “This is the best meal I’ve had in years. This restaurant’s better than anything in New York City right now.” I’m just saying what Martha Steward told me.
Kirk Bachmann: Wow. Congratulations. I love it.
I wish we could dive into every restaurant in the portfolio, but I love the passion. Herb & Wood. Let’s talk about the guest experience. What is it? I’m walking in. I just heard from Martha. What do you want Kirk, or whomever, to experience when they’re in Herb & Wood?
Brian Malarkey: Animae is a little bit more upscale. You get dressed up. People get dressed up for Animae. Herb & Wood is a party. It’s a party. In a lot of professional restaurants with your fancy professional chef, he’ll be like, “I can only do this many people per 30 minutes or this 45 minutes. I only take one ten-top. I don’t do that many large tables.”
In our restaurants, we have a rule; you do whatever comes in. This restaurant’s huge. You might have fifteen large tables. You have this. That kitchen is just a machine. It’s a locomotive. It is just producing food. It is fun. People are laughing too loud. The noise is vibrating. It’s just fantastic. The energy level is amazing. The food is fantastic, it comes out just hot and gorgeous and ready to eat. People are sharing and passing dishes. It’s just a true celebration of life restaurant. A very big restaurant. We have private rooms, upstairs rooms, different rooms. She’s a workhorse. She did $12 million last year. She’s a big girl.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s the manifestation of everything you’ve been talking about today. Bringing community together.
Brian Malarkey: Oh, it is. It really is.
Kirk Bachmann: And having a great time.
Brian Malarkey: We have Herb & Sea up in Encinitas which is the seafood version of that. Much more neighborhood, much cuter, a little girlier restaurant. Super fun, but still very busy. North County legend Tony Hawk is one of our investors. So that’s fun.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh wow!
Brian Malarkey: Tony Hawk the legend walking around. Then, we were able to buy back one of my old restaurants, the Herringbone in La Jolla. I sold Herringbone, Burlap, Gingham, Gabardine and Searsucker, my fabric restaurants back in the day to this group that is no longer around. The group that took over the stuff, I was able to get one of my favorite venues back. This one’s a fantastic building, old 1940s barrel-roofed building. Currently under construction, renovation, by my business partner, Christopher Puffer, who did the design with a group on Animae. To celebrate my old French upbringing with Michel Richard and Alain and Patric, we’ve decided to do a French-inspired – that’s how you get away with doing whatever we want.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it.
Brian Malarkey: French-inspired steak house. We’re going to name this beautiful restaurant – with the world being a little too politically correct and a little too uptight lately, we wanted to have some fun with this one. So in celebration of a rooster from France, I’ve been called from time to time a bit of a cock. We’re naming our restaurant Le Coq.
Kirk Bachmann: And you heard it here first. I absolutely love it.
I had the pleasure years ago of dining at Searsucker. It was everything you just mentioned. Way back then, it was energetic. I sat at the bar. People were moving around. The bartenders were lively and exciting. I’m so happy for you. I absolutely love it. Love it.
Let’s talk a little bit. You shared the story about your dad’s feelings about your acting talent. However, “look at me now, Dad!” You are incredibly natural. Obviously a gift to the camera. I’m sensing it wasn’t, but I’m curious when becoming a TV personality – or a personality period – became part of your dream. It comes so naturally to you. Did it come to you naturally? Like, “Hey, we’re going to film you Brian, here we go.” Or did you think about that?
Brian Malarkey: Way back in the day when I was working for the Oceanaire group, a group of restaurants that I moved from Minneapolis to Seattle to San Diego with the Oceanaire group, which was a great concept. I think there are a few of them still left. It was seafood concept, but chef-driven. About 50 percent of the menu was given to that chef in each city to play with seafood. You’ve got to do local seafood when you can.
The corporate chef, Wade Wiestling from Minneapolis, Minnesota had a rule that he wanted all of the chefs. When you’re not busy, I want you to be in the dining room talking to the tables. Go touch tables. He said, “The greatest marketing you can ever do is inside your four walls. No press, no ads, no out-in-the-street stuff works as well as when the chef walks up to your table.”
I think a lot of the chefs in the restaurant group didn’t listen to him, but I heard him loud and clear. Tickets come in waves. In between the tickets and this and the expo and running around, I would always be out there. “Oh my God! Don’t you just love that. This missed!” To this day, I still have people going, “Oh my God! I met you at the Oceanaire. You came to our table.” That kind of started my build of San Diego of getting to know the community.
Then, just through some shenanigans and craziness, I wound up on “Top Chef.” It’s so funny that “Top Chef” has become such a breeding ground for talent and TV chefs. There are so many people that have done so well from “Top Chef.” But we don’t go into “Top Chef” with any training. It’s a reality TV show. You’re just getting followed by a camera. It doesn’t teach you to talk in front of a camera. It doesn’t teach you any of those things. It just works out that some people have an ability to do it. I was very fortunate. I guess I was comfortable in front of the camera. But when the camera follows you around for six weeks and watches you brush your teeth, you get pretty comfortable with a camera.
What’s funny about my dad saying I was a horrible actor, and I was like, “Yeah, I couldn’t remember the lines.” Well, I just became a reality TV guy. I don’t have lines any more. I just ad lib. It’s funny that I’m still doing something in the public eye that way.
Kirk Bachmann: What a revelation all that was! Stephanie, and so many of you coming up with “Top Chef.” That was Season three. What season are they on now? In the 20s?
Brian Malarkey: 900, yeah. I did Season Three and Season 17, All-Stars.
Kirk Bachmann: If I had to ask, if someone came to you for advice – “Hey, I want to follow your path. I want to do what you did” – particularly because they saw you on television – what advice do you have for them?
Brian Malarkey: I would have to say, “Hey, you know what? There are 20 years you didn’t see before I got on that TV show.”
Kirk Bachmann: I knew you were going to say that. I love that.
Brian Malarkey: It was a dirty, hard grind. I worked harder. I cleaned more. I worked faster. I was more efficient. I played harder. I had the backbone. I don’t cook in the restaurants at all anymore, really. But I still do competitive cooking all the time. I’m so fast and so efficient, my knife skills are so great because I have such a backbone. I out-work everybody back in the olden days. I came early. I stayed late. I’m a monster. I can still jump on any station.
Now, I’m not going to work all night long, but if I set the station up the way I want it to – you put your salt and pepper in the same place every single time. You put everything in the same place. You have your cleanliness, your organization. Your spoon goes here. This goes here. It’s a discipline. It is in that French tradition where you are just anal. “I want it like this, and I can cook with my eyes closed because I know where everything is at.”
You don’t get to eat your dessert until you’ve had your dinner. I’m in dessert mode right now, because I ate my dinner.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Your next restaurant could be called Mise en Place. I absolutely love that.
I want to spend a little bit of time, or give you time, to talk about your new consumer line of cooking oils called Chef’s Life. I think I see some of them over your shoulder there. How did that come to fruition and how fun is that? Creating tools for chefs.
Brian Malarkey: They closed us down. They closed us down back in the day. We wanted to do an employee relief fund, so I started doing online cooking classes. We started selling some wine inventory. We were able to raise $100,000 for our employees. I realized that I was doing Zoom cooking classes all the time, and we weren’t making that much money doing them. I thought, “I need to ship ingredients to people. I need to do that.”
I called up a bunch of these companies that do it. They wouldn’t help me. So I figured out how to start shipping. I started shipping every relative I had frozen chickens and this and this. We were testing and logging it and seeing what worked and what didn’t.
Eventually, we turned it into a huge business. We were shipping over 1000 boxes a week during covid and doing a ton of cooking classes. But what cooking classes gave me was the opportunity to come into people’s houses. As the chef, you don’t get invited to a lot of people’s houses for dinner. They’re a little intimidated, and when they want you to come over, it’s on a Friday or a Saturday, and I’m never available on a Friday or Saturday. I’m in my restaurants because I’m still doing what Wade taught me back in the olden days.
My best attribute I can give to my restaurants is to go to them and talk to every single table. They’ve seen me on TV. They call me Shenanigans. They call me Malarkey. They want to get a picture. That is bringing people in, and we call it “Malarketing.” We needed some Malarketing.
The superstars in my restaurants are Tara Monsod’s at Animae, the Carlos Anthony at Herb & Wood. Carlos Anthony, he’s doing a ton of TV now. He’s been on the last two seasons of “Tournament of Champions.” He’s judging shows now. These are the superstars of the future. They have my work ethic, and they are just amazing people.
Being invited into people’s kitchens, I was like, “Oh my God! This is amazing.” We’re on Zoom. There might be 100 people on the Zoom, but six people are featured. I’d be like, “What kind of saute pan are you using? What kind of oven is that? What kind of salt are you using? What kind of knife do you have?” Then I would ask a question. “What kind of oil are you cooking with?”
And 98 percent of them were saying, “extra virgin olive oil.” I was like, “No, no, no! You’re not supposed to cook with extra virgin olive oil.” I love extra virgin olive oil, but you need to have a cooking oil. The extra virgin olive oil is this delicate little finishing oil. It’s not meant to cook with.
I thought, “There is a great opportunity here.” So I’d go to the grocery store, look at the grocery store. The grocery store oil section is like an egotistical chef. I don’t understand the verbiage on these oils. “High heat. Bold.” They’re not defining anything. So I got my good friend who builds beautiful brand design, Bex Brands, and I said, “I want to do a white bottle. I want to use all of the best cooking oils in one oil, and I want it to tell people what to do.”
We came up with the name, I was thinking “Chefs Oil.” Bex talked me into, “No, no. This isn’t an oil company. This is a lifestyle company.” A lot of people are like, “Why didn’t you name it Malarkey?” I said, “Because I’m not Guy. I’m not Bobby. I can’t sell a product line just as me.”
So I did all of us. I put “Chefs Life.” Why would I just pigeonhole myself? This is Chef’s knowledge for the home consumer. I was able to get the dotcom from some chef in Germany, ChefsLife.com. We made three lines of Chef’s Life oil. I’ll hold it up right here. You’ll see, I used avocado, olive – second-pressed, not extra virgin. You have sunflower and grapeseed oil. And right here is the key. It says, “Use this oil for cooking.”
Kirk Bachmann: So brilliant, Brian. Oh my God!
Brian Malarkey: Then, in professional restaurants, we love extra virgin olive oil, but you drizzle it on your steak when you’re done with it. You drizzle it on. It adds whatever flavor you’re going for: grassy, salty, spicy, depending on the olive oil. This is a great everything extra virgin olive oil. “Use this for finishing.”
Then, right here, when I make a vinaigrette or a marinade, I want it to have some of the fatty heaviness of the extra virgin olive oil, but heart-healthy avocado and grapeseed to consume. So this is our blending, for your vinaigrettes, your marinades, your aiolis, and stuff of that nature.
I was able to get an audience with Kroger. I told Kroger, “You guys are boring. You need to step it up.” They were like, “You’re right. We do.” They launched us in 2000 grocery stores. That was less than a year ago. Today, we’re in over 3000 grocery stores. We’re in a lot of Targets. We’re in a lot of boutique grocery stores. We’re everywhere. Chef’s Life is doing great. We just added two new SKUs. We have our cooking oil. One of them is just the exact same oil as a spray. This is the same exact oils also, but with a butter flavoring. Now we have five SKUs. We’re researching some more stuff we’d like to do. It’s phenomenal.
We have a charitable give-back program to Golden Rule charity. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Golden Rule charity is a hospitality charity that was around before covid, where they helped people in our industry who were having tough times, with grants.
Very, very fun. It’s another dream come true. We love shooting content for Chef’s Life. Realizing people didn’t know what oil to use. Stop using extra virgin olive oil for cooking, and use the right oils when you need to. People need to realize: extra virgin olive oil as I define as a big Chardonnay, a big, buttery Chardonnay. It’s got so much flavor, if you use it on everything, one, it doesn’t want to be used, and two, everything tastes the same. My carrot now tastes like extra virgin olive oil carrot. I just realized that people, the home consumer, knows so little about what they’re doing, that there is a massive opportunity in this field.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Thank you so much. Congratulations, first of all. I’m buying the kits for everyone here in Boulder. I absolutely love it.
You mentioned Golden Rule Charity. Ironically enough, I have a few more fun questions. Charity and giving back are really important to you?
Brian Malarkey: I think it is the key to hospitality. The whole idea of training cooks and teaching people all along is you’re really giving them the tools and knowledge to not just be a good cook, but be a good person in life. We’re in the trenches in restaurants. That’s been something that is so important. The contact and the human. Cooking is kind of like going to battle with people. I got your back; you’ve got mine. I’m helping you. I’ll stir this. I’ll flip this. You do this. You’re really intricate in what it is.
You’re taking different people from different walks of life and different communities and different societies, and you’re all coming together for a common goal as easy as putting a dish of food together. The amount of people that I’ve trained and watched blossom in this industry – you’re not just teaching them about how to do their job, you’re teaching them about how to be a responsible person. How to be a caring person.
Hey, if you call in sick, man, you’re hurting the whole team. If you’re sick, don’t show up, obviously, but don’t just go to the beach on your days off on us. We’re here. We all need each other. I think that really lends itself to making the world a better place.
The whole thing is if I have something, I will share it. I would like to give back and help people. The end-all goal is just to live in a world where you can hopefully make it a little bit better.
Kirk Bachmann: So well said.
You mentioned motorcycles at the onset. It sounds like there are some motorcycles there on your mom’s ranch. We’ve been doing the podcast for a couple of years now. Almost every chef – you included – mentioned Marco. That’s a menu from his steak house in Dublin that I happened to stumble upon. And music. Is music part of your life as well?
Brian Malarkey: Oh, certainly it is. We have one of the few jobs where a lot of our kitchens are in the dining room. We’re in the vibe. We’re hearing things. Music is always a big important thing in any one of our restaurants. Again, those super quiet restaurants that are so perfectly controlled and so tight – dude! I’m not wound that tight. I’m loose. I like to have fun. I like to yell and have a good time. I like to put my personality on a plate. Anytime you look at me on any one of these cooking competition shows, you’ll know you don’t have to look to see me handing the dish. You know what dish is mine. It looks like a party. I’m still throwing the party.
Kirk Bachmann: Perfect answer. I love going down, in the spirit of “High Fidelity,” one of the greatest movies ever made back in the day. If I asked you, top three bands of all time, what would they be?
Brian Malarkey: Oh, God! That puts me on the spot here. Top three bands of all time. Well, I would just have to say, I’m into my more relaxed music now in my old age, so Bob Marley and his band.
Kirk Bachmann: oh, love it. Love it.
Brian Malarkey: That’s almost like sainthood there.
Kirk Bachmann: Should be on the podium.
Brian Malarkey: Then you have to go with the Beatles, who are forever timeless. And then, you want to just get wild and crazy. I’m going to have to throw some Guns ‘N’ Roses in there, or something. You’ve got to have the bad rock and roll boys. We’ve got the almost –
Kirk Bachmann: That’s a perfect podium, Brian. That’s a perfect podium. For our listeners, we didn’t script this. I didn’t expect you to go Jane’s Addiction. I love Bob Marley. I’d throw U2 in there all the time, too.
Brian Malarkey: All right. Very nice. Very nice.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely love it.
Hey, one more question for you buddy. This can go anywhere you want. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish, so in Chef Brian Malarkey’s mind, what is the ultimate dish?
Brian Malarkey: I think this really says it all, right here. I’ll eat a whole tin of caviar. You can put truffles on my pasta. I love it. I will eat lobster and scallops and all of those things. I will have the best Wagyu beef ever. But you know what to me is the perfect meal? This is seriously the greatest thing ever.
The first thing you learn to cook in cooking school, and the right of passage. I firmly believe maybe the best thing there is: the roasted chicken. It is the simple, humble roasted chicken. I’d probably spatchcock it. It’s my favorite thing to do. I spatchcock my turkey at Thanksgiving. It makes it cook on an even playing field. You remove the spine, flatten it out. You get that crispy skin, that juicy meat. It’s so good. Then it’s great in the summertime and the wintertime. You can use the bones for making great soups and stocks and stuff of that nature. But it is the simple, humble, the French dirty butter mashed potatoes and the humble roasted chicken.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely perfect answer. I would expect nothing less.
Brian, thank you so much for taking time with us today during your break with your family in Oregon. I’m so honored and so appreciate it. Let’s stay in touch.
Brian Malarkey: I love it. I appreciate it. I look forward to seeing you out here in the sunny West Coast at some point if the sun ever comes back out here.
Kirk Bachmann: You’ll be the first person I call.
Brian Malarkey: Thank you so very much. Thanks for sitting with me.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely, Chef.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.