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One on One: Brian Malarkey

Executive Chef, Oceanaire Seafood Room, San Diego

By Steven Hedlund
August 01, 2007

"I'm the seafood guy on the show. So far, almost every dish I've created involves seafood. Head Judge Tom Colicchio said on TV, 'Brian, you need to start cooking some meat.'


To San Diegans, he's one of the city's best chefs. But to reality TV junkies nationwide, he's simply "the seafood guy." Brian Malarkey, 34, is one of 15 "cheftestants" on Bravo's hit reality TV show "Top Chef 3: Miami," which airs at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. Well, make that one of 10 cheftestants. Malarkey survived the first five episodes of Top Chef 3, which premiered on June 13. In fact, he's on fire, winning two of the five challenges and wowing the program's four judges with his cooking skills and seafood knowledge. Malarkey is confident that he has what it takes to win the competition.

When he's not on camera, Malarkey is in the kitchen and dining room of the Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego. He's worked for Oceanaire since 2001, first as sous chef of the landmark Minneapolis restaurant, next as executive sous chef of the Seattle location then as executive chef and operating partner at the San Diego restaurant, which he helped open in late 2004.

Malarkey's love of seafood, however, stems from his childhood days at his family's seaside vacation home in Gearhart, Ore. He was inspired by the Pacific Northwest's bounty of seafood and his family's love of cooking. In fact, his grandmother was friends with James Beard, who also lived in Gearhart and often joined her in the kitchen. After studying business, history and theater ("I wasn't really finding myself in school," he says), Malarkey finally gave cooking a shot, enrolling in the Western Culinary Institute's Le Cordon Bleu Program in Portland, Ore. Upon graduating, he landed an apprenticeship with Michael Richard, executive chef of Citrus in Los Angeles.

Since then, Malarkey's career has flourished. The Bend, Ore., native was named 2007 Chef of the Year by the California Restaurant Association's San Diego chapter. He is a teacher at Macy's School of Cooking and Great News Cooking School, both in San Diego. He is also involved in numerous charities, including It's All About 
the Kids, National Kidney Foundation and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

I tracked down Malarkey at the restaurant on July 19, the day after the fifth episode of Top Chef 3 aired.


HEDLUND: What sets Oceanaire apart from the competition?

MALARKEY: We don't take ourselves too seriously. We're fine dining, but it's a fun atmosphere. We let the seafood speak for itself. The variety of species we bring in is unprecedented. Our crabcakes are legendary. There are 13 [Oceanaire] restaurants right now. But what's really neat is that they're chef-driven concepts, and we're all responsible for our own menus. We don't have to call corporate and say, "Hey, I want to put this dish on the menu." You just do it. We print our menus every day. If I had to make the same menu day in and day out, I wouldn't be able to stay in this business. [Oceanaire] is a great company to work for. They don't strangle you. They give you plenty of opportunity for growth and creativity.


How did you end up on Top Chef 3?

The show approached me with the idea. I'm competitive by nature, and I was a really big fan of the first two seasons. It's a classy reality show. They don't follow you around in the bathroom. They don't stir up trouble. It's about the food. It's not MTV. There's definitely drama involved, but they focus on the cooking. I'd like to have my own cooking show someday, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to put myself out there and show the world what I have.


Is your knowledge of seafood an advantage or disadvantage on the show?

The judges have already told me that I had better start cooking something other than seafood. I'm the seafood guy on the show. So far [through the first five episodes], almost every single dish I've created involves seafood. Head Judge Tom Colicchio said on TV, "Brian, you need to start cooking some meat." But I won the seafood challenge with my conch, crawfish, clam, mussel and oyster dish. I also won the barbeque challenge, and for that I made a seafood sausage. It was really good.


In the third episode, the judges 
lambasted you for using lobster to make a low-cholesterol dish. How did that make you feel?

I made a stuffed cabbage. I made it like a spring roll with rice noodles, cilantro and carrots. And I made a nice lobster broth. I wasn't positive that lobster was low in cholesterol. But my theory is everything in moderation, and I told the judges that. I had immunity for that episode, so I couldn't have been kicked off. But the judges said how disappointed they were in me for serving lobster as my low-cholesterol meal. But [the bloggers] defended me. Lobster is low in cholesterol, and it's a good cholesterol at that.


Describe your competitors.

They're an incredibly strong, talented group of people. I was slightly intimidated, really. Tre [Wilcox] has been nominated for James Beard Best New Chef in the United States twice. Lia [Bardeen] cooks under Jean Georges in New York. Hung [Huynh] has worked for every great chef on the face of the earth. [In previous seasons], they had a couple of culinary students and line cooks, but this season it's all sous chefs, executive chefs and [chef-owners].


What are the judges looking for?

They're looking for personality. It's a TV show, and you have to be outgoing. They're also looking for creativity, charisma and, of course, cooking skills. There are team challenges, and you have to be able to get along with the other chefs. We're used to our own environments, where we're in charge of our own kitchens. When you put a bunch of people who are headstrong in the same room, it makes for interesting TV.


Has Top Chef 3 changed your life?

I go to Starbucks in the morning and people recognize me. I don't mind. It's not like the Beatles. I don't have screaming fans. I just have people who smile and acknowledge me. And [appearing on Top Chef] is a nice advertising campaign for Oceanaire.


Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

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