For San Diego-based celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, his first visit to the Austin Food and Wine Festival (running April 26-28th) holds promises of foodie scene-schmoozing, unpretentious cuisine, and rocking many tacos, alongside Tyson Cole and Marcus Samuelsson.
Talking by phone from his home in Southern California, Malarkey chatted with Eater Austin about chef networking (chefworking, if you will), his future Austin restaurant digs (look for Searsucker, coming this May to downtown) and—y'all may be very surprised to learn—how Austin is nothing like Scottsdale.
What'll you be doing at Austin Food & Wine Fest this year?
I'm doing a demo. I'm doing a demo on unpretentious dishes, so that'll be a lot of fun. Then we're doing the Rock Your Taco competition, also.
What makes an "unpretentious" dish?
Our whole menu is pretty unpretentious, so we're just going to pick a few of our favorite items from the menu. I think we might be doing scallops and Brussels [sprouts] and shrimp and grits. That's kind of my whole thing – the unpretentiousness. I like big, bold flavors that are presented in an unpretentious way; something that I can just have fun with. We just came out with a cookbook, Come Early, Stay Late where the dishes are all super user-friendly. It's the kind of stuff you can do at home. I love encouraging people to cook; we do a lot of demos, and it's a lot of fun.
And what do you have planned for Rock Your Taco?
I'd like to win! I don't know – the lineup is pretty intense. Tyson Cole won last year, and I think I read on Eater that he was certain he would win again. It's a fun competition. I've been in other competitions before; it's all fun, and is just a great opportunity to meet new people and to meet some of the chefs. You've got Marcus Samuelsson in there, so who knows what people are going to be doing. It's going to be crazy. So we've come up with something that we think is very unique and fun. It was kind of a team effort. At first I thought we were just trying to impress some judges, but it's really a whole different game when you've got to execute a thousand [tacos].
This is your first year at Austin Food & Wine Fest, and you're set to open Searsucker downtown in a couple of months. When did Austin land on your radar as a culinary scene?
We've been aware of the Austin food scene for a long time. My partner is more into the real estate aspect of the whole thing. He's by air, I'm by ground. Once he finds the place, I move in and figure out how to open a restaurant. When he told me Austin? well, he's not a hugging guy, but I gave him a big old hug on that one. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so I've been hearing from a lot of people about Austin. I'd always wanted to visit, and now it just seems like the perfect opportunity, just to come down, eat a lot of great food, meet a lot of great chefs, and check out the local scene.
How often do you get to come down here? Where do you like to eat?
With the restaurants? well, it's still pretty ugly right now. [Laughs]. I've been down three times in the last two months: got a couple days at SXSW, hung out at some back alley concerts, had a great time. I met Paul [Qui], Austin's Top Chef alumni, and he was very gracious. I also met Matt [Clouser] over at Swift's Attic, which is kinda similar to what we do: sort of Americana with a nice twist to it. So they've been incredibly gracious to us, and we always go over there to eat. I've really just been inundating myself in what's going on. The girls took me to Sway last time I was here, and I was pretty blown away by that. I love Clark's. I come from a seafood world so I love what they do. I just try to take more and more of Austin in.
How does Austin compare to San Diego and Arizona, where you've got your other restaurants?
Austin has a lot of similarities to other cities. We don't have the food trucks like you do here in San Diego, but we do have a lot of cool chefs who are opening up-and-coming venues. Some of our unique neighborhoods are very much like Aus-tin. Scottsdale isn't like Austin at all. It's very big and spread out, and architecturally it's a lot different, with that desert sort of [theme]. Austin is a lot more like Portland, with the small houses and the cool neighborhoods, where everything is very unique and older; whereas in a city like Scottsdale, everything seems very new. San Diego has a lot of parks and cool places to hang, which lends itself to similarities between Austin and San Diego. We're a smaller city, too: even though San Diego is in Southern California, we're nothing like the rest of Southern California. [Laughs]. We're hidden down here, away from the crazies in Orange County.
What are you planning to do at the festival besides your demo and some taco-rocking?
The festival is a great opportunity to get to try a lot of different chefs' foods, while getting to know them and picking up on the vibe. It's great to have everything all in one place, instead of having to go to all the different restaurants individually. This is a great, quick glimpse into a lot of different things, you know? I also look forward to putting names with faces: I've been reading a lot on the chefs down there, but I'm excited about being able to talk to them and say hi. For the most part, chefs are pretty cool. They're all committed to having fun and making great food and making people happy. We all know that we work super hard, so it's going to be really great. I'm looking to make some connections there with my team; that way we kind find out who the best to buy from is, so we're not starting at ground zero. It's a great way to inundate ourselves with a lot of different people in the scene very quickly.
Any opening date set for Searsucker?
We haven't set an opening date yet. I personally think we're going to get the keys around mid-May. It'll probably be late May before we fully open. It'll give us more time to really get in there and dial our stuff in without getting too busy right off the get-go. We'll be able to dial ourselves in before we get introduced to the whole community.
Talk to me about this 'Fabric of Social Dining' thing, the Searsucker philoso-phy. Part night club, part restaurant?
That's the social dining that we've kind of come up with here in San Diego. Essentially, my partner James owns this giant nightclub in town, and back in the day I used to trade him dinner for bottle service, and things like that. Now we've got families and we've got other things to do. We're not going out and getting crazy every night, but we still want to go out and drink and have those conversations you have while you're having fun. And that's essentially what Searsucker is: even our entrees are meant to be shared. We're not rushing tables to get out of there. We have music going on, live and DJ, and along with our craft cocktails, it's just a really great place to be. The music isn't so loud that you can't have a great conversation; to me, the dining experience is as much about that as about the food, as the memories, as the atmosphere, as the laughter, as the whole entire experience.
I hope all that downtown construction doesn't become part of the 'fabric of social dining.'
I've been down to the Warehouse District, and I'm really happy that we have a big fancy sidewalk on our side of the street now. The building just has so much personality, and with it we're able to expose a lot of the themes that are important to us. The building was really chopped up when we moved in, but we opened up the kitchen counter so [customers] will be able to talk to the chefs and see what's going on. We can also do tastings back there for about eight people. The building is just gorgeous: I love old buildings, especially the vibe and the history that it all brings together.
Aesthetically, what's the plan for the restaurant?
It's going to look like our location in San Diego. I grew up on a ranch in Oregon. I used to be the high school rodeo champion. School was like 30 minutes away, and I used to ride horses after school. Our designer asked me all about my life, and I described raising cows for the butcher and things like that. So what he eventually designed was kind of an "Urban Cowboy" type of thing. It's got ropes and lots of visual artwork in there, along with really comfortable, big wood-salvaged tables. It's just a very relaxed, inviting atmosphere.
—Emma Kat Richardson
· Brian Malarkey [Official]
· All Searsucker Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All Austin Food & Wine Festival Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
Brian Malarkey. [Photo: Austin Food & Wine Festival/Official]