The Morning Report
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Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008 | Viewers of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” know Brian Malarkey as the gregarious, ever-smiling contestant who was booted from the show for adding just one too many ingredients to his dish.
When he’s not starring in reality television shows, 36-year-old Malarkey, who’s been cooking for 15 years, can be found in the kitchen of downtown’s swanky The Oceanaire Seafood Room where, as executive chef and operating partner, he concocts his own brand of eclectic seafood dishes that play on his training in classical French cuisine.
As convivial in real life as he is on the screen, Malarkey talks fast about his passions: His food, his family and his love for eating and creating great dishes. A native of a small town outside Bend, Ore., Malarkey’s happier than ever to be in sunny Southern California, cooking up a storm for downtown’s foodies.
We sat down to talk to Malarkey about good food, bad food, starring on a reality show and which joint deserves the title of worst restaurant in San Diego.
Watching Top Chef, sometimes it feels like the editors want to portray the characters on the show in a certain light. One character’s the bad guy, another one’s crazy, that sort of thing. Is there a lot of creative editing going on or are the people really like that?
Well, they’re basically filming 24 hours a day. There’s people up in the middle of the night, they’ve got five or six cameras going at any one given time, so they get to see everything of every person at every time.
So, with the guy in the editing room, it isn’t that the person isn’t like that, it’s just part of the storyline. Everybody is accountable for what they say and do.
So, for example, in the season you were in, was that a true representation of what the contestants were like?
It was a very exact representation. It’s exactly what their personality was; it was just a bit more overboard. Because they edit out some of the nice things that the mean guy says, they edit out some of the smart things the ditzy person says.
There was only one bad misrepresentation on my entire show, where somebody said something negative, and they acted like it was said to me, even though it wasn’t. But, 98 percent of the time, it’s legit.
If you say something stupid, you can almost guarantee it’s going to make it on TV, or if you say something clever and funny, that’s going to be the line. After a while, everyone on the show became a lot more relaxed in front of the camera and they started trying to spit out lines, like sound bites.
San Diego’s not exactly a culinary Mecca. Do you think the food scene out here is getting more sophisticated?
In the time I’ve been here, it definitely has. It’s almost even dropped off a little bit recently though. We had Gavin Kaysen in town, who’s probably the most celebrated, top-notch chef to come out of San Diego. He was on the next Iron Chef, he just won the James Beard award, for the country’s best up-and-coming chefs. He got picked up by Daniel Boulud for Café Boulud in New York, so he left.
But they’ve brought down a lot of San Francisco chefs. Tony DiSalvo at Jack’s La Jolla is from New York, you have Christian Graves at J-6, just down the street. You’ve got Nobu here in town now, which has really high-end, expensive food. There’s definitely great restaurants to go check out. Jason Knibb at Nine-Ten is awesome, too.
Also, I’m not a big fan of him, personally, but I love his food, is Carl Schroeder up at Market in Del Mar, who was just named chef of the year.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever cooked?
I remember the very first meal I ever cooked for my family and friends when I got out of culinary school. It was this chicken duxelle thing, and I hollowed the bones of the thighs and the legs and I piped it in with a bunch of mushrooms and things and baked it.
It wasn’t necessarily that it tasted that bad, it’s just that I had to contrive and cut and do so much shit and I just destroyed the kitchen and I just spent so much time. I know now that when you’re cooking for 15 people, you don’t do very super-intricate food, you go back there and grill something and toss it together and make sure that it tastes great — season it nice — and it’s fun and relaxing. But, oh my God, I spent about 12 hours in that kitchen, just cooking and stuffing and cutting and doing all this ridiculous knife work that nobody appreciated, nobody cared about.
Food’s got to just have some heart and soul and some caramelization and some love to it.
What do you think is the hottest ingredient out there at the moment?
Yuzu. Yuzu is huge right now. Sustainable fish are huge, grass-fed beef is huge.
Wait, what’s yuzu?
It’s a Japanese vinaigrette with kind of an orange, lime taste, kind of citrusy. Sea salts, you know, they’re hot. Olive oils, for me. But just sustainable stuff and organic, farm-to-the-plate vegetables.
What about the hottest style of cooking?
I think I’d just say eclectic, kind of what we do, which is just a fusion of what’s going on.
Neighborhood bistros are big — not really a style, but that’s the type of restaurant that’s killing it right now. You’ve got City Heights’ Urban Solace. Cafeacute; Chloe’s a neighborhood restaurant — small places where people can go and find familiarity, those are really popular. Places where you can go in and you know the staff.
Going back to the show for a minute, what do you think was the biggest mistake you made on Top Chef?
A couple of things. Obviously the dish that got me eliminated (an elk shank, cooked for the show’s “Elk Challenge”). But I had a good time, I was portrayed in a good light, fun and relaxed and easy-going. And we had a pretty cool group of people on the show, especially down to the end — I made it to the final four.
I was too complicated on my dishes, way too complicated. Because I’m used to cooking for 250 people, designing menus for a huge number of people, running a staff of 20 people in the kitchen and the front of house and doing that and doing this. You’re in this very, like, isolated environment and you have to cook one dish for like 20 people.
My brain would just start, like, overworking, and I’d think, I should just add that, and add that. I just really wanted to show them all the different skills I have, and the dish that got me kicked off just had too many components to it.
I think it was definitely one of the best dishes of that day. Had I left off a couple of ingredients, I would have been OK, but I was moving so fast and I was so gung-ho and I just wanted to make this dish that would just explode. And it did. The people that we cooked for was the cowboys in Aspen, in the mountains, and they loved it.
But the head judge was Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, who’s a very sophisticated, very minimalist chef. I cooked for the people, I didn’t cook for the judge, and that’s what I will always take with me: that I will always cook for the people, and not for an individual that I’m trying to impress. As long as I impress the masses and the customers.
I’m not going to force odd ingredients on my guests. A lot of chefs they use like, stinging nettles and stuff, and it doesn’t taste good, it just shows that you can try to make something good that’s not good.
If you could own a restaurant anywhere in the world, where would it be and what sort of food would you cook?
It would have to be in Spain or Italy, and it would be relaxed and fresh. I would go down to the farms in the morning. It would be a place where my kids could grow up, where people came and ate for three hours, with great game, great pastas and vegetables and fruit and cured meat.
It would be very open, near the water, where I’d have great access to seafood and I could take a siesta in the afternoon.
What do you normally cook on Thanksgiving Day?
One of my earlier meals was the first Thanksgiving after culinary school and I told my family that I would cook Thanksgiving dinner for them. They said all right, they gave me some money to go to the grocery store.
Well, I wanted to impress them with my unique gift, so I made what I would imagine a traditional pilgrim’s Thanksgiving. I made Indian flatbread and wild rice and my own cranberry jam and I cooked a wild turkey that was really lean with like a pumpkin soup. Just, you know, real traditional. There were no marshmallows, no canned cranberries and no Stove Top stuffing.
I served that to them. I was so happy with the way the meal turned out, but my 20-year-old sister actually started crying. Everyone was so depressed, because they wanted the Stove Top stuffing, they wanted the big ‘roided out bird, they wanted cranberry in a can and Jell-O and marshmallows, because that was their tradition. So, since then, I do not cook Thanksgiving dinner.
Any good Thanksgiving recipes for aspiring chefs out there?
Just go get some stale bread and get some nuts, dried fruit, whatever, pop in some butter and seasoning and make your own stuffing, because that adds huge uniqueness to the dish.
Stuff the bird or cook it in a pan?
I’m all for stuffing the bird, just make sure you cook it all the way through. It’s kinda not P.C. anymore to stuff the bird, but one way to do it is to cook the bird about halfway through and then stuff it and then do some in a pan also, just take some of the roasting liquids and just baste the stuffing, because that’s what makes the stuffing really good, all the great juices and oils.
What’s the worst restaurant in San Diego?
Well, the smart thing to do is not answer, but I’m going to give it a whirl.
There’s some ringers out there. Um, you know, when you go into a restaurant, you’ve got to go into the restroom and if the restroom’s not clean, don’t eat at the restaurant. If there’s stuff piled up outside there, that’s a big no-no.
I’ve got to pick, oh gosh! World Famous is just absolutely disgusting. I’ve never heard from anyone who came out of there who had a good meal.
That’s pretty rough, taking down World Famous.
And the best?
The best meal I’ve had was Carl Schroeder, unfortunately. The guy’s so talented, his food’s so good, it’s Market. Right now, I think Market’s my favorite restaurant in town.