Baltimore Sun

Brian Malarkey’s ‘Taste’ for success

The judges on ABC's "The Taste": Ludo Lefebvre, Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Brian Malarkey.

There are many great chefs in San Diego, but so far, there is only one Brian Malarkey. And he is everywhere.

There he is, grinning from the cover of his new cookbook, "Come Early, Stay Late." There he is, schmoozing with customers at the five local restaurants he runs with night life mogul James Brennan, or at the Scottsdale restaurant he and Brennan opened last year.


And just this week, there he was on the premiere episode of ABC's "The Taste," where the "Top Chef" also-ran shared judging duties with food-world luminaries Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Ludo Lefebvre.

Like one of his beloved scallops, Malarkey is sizzling. It is enough to render the motor-mouthed chef almost speechless.


"I never imagined (being on) network TV, and the restaurant success has really blown me away," Malarkey, 40, shouted into his cellphone as he drove to one of the many meetings sandwiched into his day. "I am walking around kind of numb right now."

So how did the guy who did not win the third season of Bravo TV's "Top Chef" cook up a second act that is so much hotter than his first? Hint, there was more than a little sweat involved. Here is a look at how Malarkey became MALARKEY! The exclamation point is not optional.

Step 1: Get some color

And by color, we do not mean the toasty "Real Housewives"-ish glow he is sporting in the ABC promotional shots. From the childhood spent with a mother who raised quarter-horses and a grandmother who was a gourmet cook, to his working-stiff days as a racetrack photographer, Malarkey has a back-story made for network bios. Throw in the love of breakneck patter, hipster porkpie hats, patent-leather clogs and designer jeans rolled to reveal a flash of nut-brown ankle flesh, and you have a super-sized persona that seems ready-made for mass consumption. For some of the masses, anyway.

"A lot of America liked me (on "The Taste"), and a big chunk hated me. There are always haters in social media. That's been prevalent since 'Top Chef,' and I just let it roll off," Malarkey said of his first-night reviews, which were a mixed bag of kudos and snark. Or in the case of The New York Times' Mike Hale, a combination of kudos and snark.

"(Malarkey's) the peppy, relentlessly enthusiastic one, and you want to hate him," Hale says. "But beneath the Willy Wonka-meets-SpongeBob affect he's sensible and appears more than a little self aware, and he says concrete things about the contestants' food that we can understand."

Step 2: Smaller pond, bigger splash

Executive chef Malarkey came to town in 2004 to open the San Diego branch of the upscale Oceanaire Seafood Room chain. The downtown restaurant became the go-to spot for foodies in search of massive seafood platters and $10 au-gratin potatoes, and Malarkey became the local toque with the most.


By the time "Top Chef" viewers were introduced to the high-velocity chef in 2007, the tireless Malarkey had turned himself into a local star through endless profile-raising rounds of charity cook-offs, local TV appearances, parties and cooking classes. If there was a well-heeled crowd and room to swing a knife, he was probably there. When Malarkey and Brennan opened the Searsucker restaurant in the Gaslamp in 2010, locals poured in to check out their hometown hero. Four restaurants with fabric-themed titles followed, and when "The Taste" was looking for judges, it was Malarkey's growing San Diego empire that attracted Hollywood's wandering eye.

"We wanted people who had real credibility, and we wanted people who had different ways into that credibility," said "Taste" executive producer Chris Coelen. "Brian is the most successful restaurateur in the (judges') group and a tremendous chef in his own right. None of the other three have restaurants, and his perspective on food is very different from the others."

As big as Malarkey's personality is, he is the smaller of the big names on the show's marquee. Not surprisingly, he has also turned that into his own advantage.

"I have been working so hard for so many years, I have neglected to see the world. And here I am sitting next to one of the greatest world-travelers of all time with Bourdain, and Nigella is blessed with that experience as well," Malarkey said. "I learned a lot about travel from sitting in a sound studio in L.A."

Step 3: Go big, go home, move on

While Malarkey's "Top Chef" low was probably his flopsweat-soaked performance during the "Restaurant Wars" episode, he didn't get the boot until five episodes later. His losing dish? An overambitious culinary epic involving whiskey-braised elk shank and way too many accessories. But did he go home and drown his sorrows in leftover sour cream potato purée and pancetta corn asparagus relish? He did not.


Instead, Malarkey returned to San Diego while keeping his eye on the multi-platform prize. He did cooking spots on local TV shows. He blogged for Bravo and San Diego Magazine. He prepared a lovely on-screen meal for the cast of "The Real Housewives of Orange County," which they did not have the fine-food chops to appreciate. He starred in two low-budget cooking-competition shows for the TLC cable channel, one of which involved the construction of the world's largest Rice Krispies treat.

Perhaps most importantly, he joined forces with Brennan, whose big-top sensibility played well with Malarkey's grand ambitions and restless attention span. While talks with David Cohn of the Cohn Restaurant Group about selling La Mesa's Gingham restaurant fell through, Malarkey is already looking at another shiny culinary object. Laugh at him if you want. He'll laugh with you, all the way to the next big thing.

"My new hobby is catering. I've always been scared of catering, but we did a William Morris (talent agency) retreat in La Costa. We threw a hoedown for 550 of the most powerful people in L.A., and it was FUN.

"Now we're working on putting an Oscar party together," he said, just seconds before his phone cut out. "Details to come!"