Brian Malarkey: A Man with a Plan

'The Taste' judge is also at the helm of a budding restaurant empire

Brian Malarkey

Up until a few years ago, Brian Malarkey was best known as a competitor on Top Chef: Miami. But in the past two years he’s opened five restaurants in San Diego, has an astonishing 15 more in the works, and he hosted ABC’s The Taste alongside Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, and Ludo Lefebvre. If ever there was a rising star in the culinary world, Malarkey is it. He stopped by our offices this week and sat down with us to discuss his experience hosting The Taste and his unique philosophy when it comes to restaurants.

"Sitting up there with Nigella and Anthony is insane," he said of the TV show, which filmed in September and is currently airing. "We’re not in some remote place; it’s a giant soundstage with 30 cameras rolling and 200 crew members. You have to be on your toes!"

One aspect of being a part of The Taste is the fact that he’s not just sitting back, drinking wine, and passing judgment on the contestants. "We’re not just judges, we’re mentors," he said. "We have to get into the kitchen and cook with them, and really get involved. It’s a lot of fun."

One of the biggest surprises for Malarkey was the fact that in many cases, home cooks were just as good, if not better, in the kitchen than professional chefs. "The home cooks really exceeded my expectations," he said, "and a big part of that reason is because some of these cooks have made this dish at home 100 times, and it’s from an old family recipe. On the other end, the professional chefs really have to learn to control themselves, because they’re just giving us one bite."

So what did Malarkey learn from the experience? "It actually helped me become a better chef," he said. "I realized that I was cooking too much for style. This show consciously strips that all away, because you had to serve a single, perfect bite. It made me realize that the way a plate looks isn’t everything."

Malarkey, who grew up on an Oregon horse ranch, has brought a unique philosophy to his five San Diego restaurants (along with partner James Brennan), Searsucker, Burlap, Gingham, Gabardine, and Herringbone. He calls it "The Fabric of Social Dining," and it manifests itself by way of a fun, relaxed atmosphere where eating is actually "semi-optional." "I was too old to go to clubs but I wanted that same feeling of electricity," he said. "It’s about hanging out, being comfortable, having some drinks, socializing with friends, listening to great music, and eating great food. Going to our restaurants is like going to a great dinner party, but in a public setting."

And that approach seems to be catching on. Searsucker was named the country's number two "hottest restaurant" by TIME Magazine, a second location has opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a third opened in Austin, Texas, in April, and a strategy is in place to open 15 restaurants nationally within the next five years. And his cookbook, Come Early, Stay Late, is flying off the shelves.

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As we said, Malarkey is a chef that’s going places.