Q&A: Brian Malarkey is ready to wow with Searsucker
Brian Malarkey emerged from the San Diego cuisine scene with the first Searsucker, expanding into Del Mar and Austin before firing up the stoves at his Vegas location. Oregon-born Malarkey came to national attention as a finalist in the third season of Top Chef, and later as a judge/mentor on The Taste. Now he’s partnered with Hakkasan Group to create a social dining experience with a secret entrance to recently opened Caesars Palace superclub Omnia, which debuted a mere month before the dining world descends on the Strip for Vegas Uncork’d, April 23-26. He spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about his Las Vegas experiences so far.
What was opening day like at Searsucker? What were some of the highlights?
Brian Malarkey: When they took down the all the paper on the windows and you could actually see all the people coming and going, it was exhilarating. I think the best part about the opening was the incredible staff we have here. There’s so many great industry people in Vegas. It was the best service staff we’ve ever hired, the best line cooks. It was just an incredible scene. We’ve never had so much confidence on opening day. We had our highest sales of an opening day for a restaurant ever, and it’s just really been off to a rocket start already.
We had to reschedule our opening day interview because you lost your voice the night before due to the exhaustive, intense preparations.
We spent endless hours there for a solid two-and-a-half weeks, and then on the first day we stayed open until 2 o’clock for late night. That certainly contributed to me being exhausted. I still don’t really have my voice (laughs).
What kind of milestone is this in your career as a restaurateur?
This is obviously the highest part of the mountain I’ve ever been to. The view is beautiful. Very exciting, with Hakkasan’s partnership and leadership. It’s really been phenomenal, and it’s been our smoothest opening, like I said. I couldn’t ask for a better piece of property. To be at the front door of Omnia, such an incredible establishment, is amazing.
You’re coming into Vegas at the start of our food festival season. You’re right there in the midst of Vegas Uncork’d, with the Grand Tasting traditionally taking place at the Garden of the Gods pool area. How do you feel about opening at this time?
We’re thrilled. This is a great launching pad for us. It’s a great opportunity for me to be around the chefs in the surrounding area in Caesars, and it’s a perfect time. If we were a month behind schedule it wouldn’t be so much fun, but I really think we have a lot of traction. I’m proud right now, but I’ll be even more proud to cook and entertain for all the chefs and the foodie clientele.
And what do you plan to serve at the Grand Tasting?
Stout-braised beef cheek with crispy beef tongue over white cheddar grits and pickled watermelon radish. We’re making fun of ourselves. It’s a little “tongue-in-cheek.”
Who are some of your colleagues participating in Vegas Uncork’d? Do you have friends from out of town that you’ll be mingling with?
I know a lot of chefs. I’ve met them in passing, but I have a lot of line cooks out there that have worked for us so it’s really fun. It’s kind of a reunion to get together with some of my old staff who’ve gone out there to work. They’re a tremendous group of people, and as far as the upper echelons of the head chefs, I haven’t met a lot of them so that’s why I’m very excited. I get to meet a lot of my idols.
I read this anecdote that stated your grandmother cooked for James Beard. Was your grandmother an influence in terms of passing on her techniques or passion for cooking?
My whole family loves to cook. My father was always the big meat eater—whole prime ribs and whole pigs, crawfish bakes and stuff like that. It was always about bringing people together and entertaining. My grandmother’s house was very proper, lots of copper pans and stuff, and fingerbowls—a really fine dining element. And my grandmother had a house on the Oregon coast in a little town called Gearhart. James Beard had a summerhouse just down the road. I’m not saying I was sitting under their aprons or anything, but my grandmother always said she had a wonderful time cooking for James Beard—but she was so nervous she’d burn water.
I understand you went in a few different directions before you decided on culinary. You were studying business and then you looked into theater a little bit, and your dad was in business. Do you think your experiences affected your approach to the kitchen and dining room?
I think all of those early things really contributed to what it takes to run a restaurant. There’s the entertainment element from the theater arts standpoint, and no matter how great a chef you are, if you can’t run your numbers, you’re not going to be in business for long. I did dig an early foundation and it definitely established who I am and where we’re going.
Earlier in your career you had a fabric motif that you worked into the names of your restaurants. (Will you be) … leaving that, and how do you define the next phase of your career?
I’m not leaving it behind because there’s a Searsucker here also. We’re really gearing it up because when you come to Searsucker … I mean, you come to Vegas to really have a great time and have this amazing over-the-top experience, and Searsucker’s menu really lets you have that. So we’re really having a good time putting all these new dishes on the menu catering to our Vegas market. The cool thing about Searsucker is it’s not a cookie-cutter concept. It’s a chef-driven concept, so we had JP, our chef here, Jean Paul (Labadie) and I work in … I’m convinced the chef should never stop learning. That’s why I really love this industry. The fact that I get to cook with him and learn from him, I get to learn from our sous and other people in the kitchen—you’re always constantly evolving.
When was the idea of opening a restaurant in Vegas first proposed to you?
That was with our partnership with Hakkasan. They had told us they had this great place at Caesars Palace and they asked my thoughts. I said I was to the moon and back. I was just blown away with the idea of it. It’s surreal at this point. It’s a lot of fun. I had this dream the other day that I opened a restaurant in Vegas (laughs). I don’t know if I’m going to wake up. I’m enjoying the dream, so just let me keep it going.
Speaking of Jean Paul, at what point did he enter the picture as chef de cuisine?
Just about three months ago we started we started interviewing people around town, and (Jean Paul and I) had one thing in common—we both went to Western Culinary Institute, a Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated school in Portland, Ore. And his passion … he’s just exuberant. He loves what he does and reminds me of myself a lot. You need that to inspire your cooks and inspire your kitchen and inspire your front of the house, and your management. And someone that’s always keeping me abreast of the trends, and what’s available and what fish you can get, what produce is happening. Those are the people I enjoy cooking with.
He’s fairly embedded in the cuisine scene here too. He’s been at a lot of places that are very respected by gourmands in Vegas.
As soon as the dust settles he’s taking me on a real in-depth tour of Vegas. I’m really looking forward to that.
What kind of influence does he have on the menu?
We kind of really opened with a core menu of stuff that I really created back at Searsucker San Diego… We’re walking right now. We’re starting to feel our momentum. We’re going to start jogging a little bit; eventually we’ll be running. Searsucker has a bit of a Southern style to it, and he worked for Emeril LaGasse for a long time, so I’d like to bring in some of that Southern idea and tie it into my playfulness. It’s all about that food that tastes incredible. We have really nicely plated food, but we spend more time thinking about the flavors than the look. So often now, you have people that spend so much time on the look that you need directions on how to put the plate together. Our food doesn’t do that. Our food brings people together for good conversation and laughter and memories, and the food is just a component of that. Our food is a facilitator of great memories and good times.
Part of what’s very important about creating the atmosphere is the design. You’ve worked with Thomas Schoos before, but how soon did the “cowboy culture” motif come into play? Is that something from the original Searsucker that you’ve blown up into a bigger theme here?
Well, it’s kind of blown up more in the press now. We read a lot about this “cowboy cuisine,” and I almost expect to walk into my place and see people with six-gun belts with their server in a hat. It’s a little cooler “cowboy” than that. It’s just got a little bit of a rustic-ness to it, and approachability. And that’s the way I look at it. We have some ropes and the cool chandeliers, but it isn’t screaming boots and saddles and spurs. It’s just kind of the idea of the cool cowboy, somebody that wants to hang out after working the ranch all day, settle down with a great drink and a good plate of food. That’s what it is. It’s not cliché cowboy. The idea of a restaurant called Searsucker comes from my love of summer suits and horseracing, dressing up but not feeling like it’s stuffy. You’re always having a good time, and you get a cocktail in your hand. It’s about good food and good memories. Right now the press has really grabbed onto the cowboy and “Brian Malarkey rode into town.” It’s fun and I’m enjoying it, but it’s kind of just a lifestyle. It’s not so physical.
I didn’t get the impression of “cowboy cuisine.” It seemed more of an evocation more than a top-to-bottom thematic thing. There seems to be a design predilection for things like ropes and certain textures. Is that favored by the designer or is that something you’re into?
Thomas interviewed me before he built the restaurant. He asked where I came from and what I was going to cook, what my thought was. I grew up on a big horse ranch. The design is like you came into my house. I wanted an open kitchen so I could watch the people that eat my food. We wanted a lounge area where people could come early and stay late together and have that great cocktail and hang out. It’s social dining, where maybe you’re sitting really close to the table next to you and you’re like “Oh, what’s that dish like?” You get to meet people and hang out and laugh, and have a good time. He built the restaurant to kind of be my house. You can see the kitchen and get to know me. You can sit at the chef’s counter. We wanted it to be vibrant and a little bit loud. You hear the glasses clinking and the people laughing. It’s a good time.
I was going to ask you, “Where does Searsucker fit in the Vegas culinary landscape?” but I think you answered that. Do you want the same kind of social dining atmosphere that you have at your other places?
That’s exactly what we want. There’s a culture, and we brought our trainers from San Diego and Austin to help us train everybody up here. It’s hard to pinpoint what that culture is, but it’s just a confidence of throwing a party. That’s what we really brought out here. People really grasp it. You’ll go there and you’ll hear the server and they’ll be exuberant about a dish. Our idea is to entertain the locals, and the tourists, as guests of the city, will come visit us. I was so excited to see how many locals came to visit us (in San Diego) from the Las Vegas area. Those are the people we want to cater to because those are the people who tell their friends to come check it out. Those are the people we need year-round to be our friends and our guests.
Did that help you see yourself having a presence in Las Vegas in the future?
We have a huge population of industry people that come to San Diego to decompress and get out of Vegas for a while … I knew Vegas would be excited about us, but so many people—bartenders, cocktail servers, all these people coming from Vegas for a few days—just coming into Searsucker and they’re loving it: “My gosh, we’d love to have one of these in Vegas.” And so we already have sort of an infrastructure of locals in Vegas.
So you knew your menu would work over here, basically. I was looking at the menus for your other Searsuckers and I noticed a lot of symbiosis. Some of the dishes were different and some were similar, but what are some of the newer menu innovations we’re finding on the menu for Vegas?
Right now in Vegas we’re really working on this late-night menu that’s got a lot of flavor but a little more smaller bites. So we’ve got a hamachi tostada that we’ve put on the menu, we have this aqua fresco—kind of a cucumber jalapeno ceviche, shrimp ceviche—that’s really great. And then I want to start pushing it with some wild game, wild boar chops. … And some more shared steaks and stuff like that, because people are coming in and really kind of requesting that stuff. We have a lot of different styles and people that are coming to the restaurant, and you have the people who are going to a show that want to come in for an early dinner and indulge a little bit more. Then you have people wearing black cocktail dresses going to the club afterwards, so we have a very broad menu that makes a lot of people happy.
Can you name a couple of signature dishes, or items you feel reflect your heritage with food the best?
The eggs and bacon (green eggs and ham) is one of my favorite dishes—braised pork belly with a soft-poached egg on brioche with a brown butter hollandaise. That’s not the cocktail dress food at all, but it’s incredible. People absolutely love it. And the thing about it is, our food is meant to be shared. We try to get everyone to order their entrées as shared, because when I go out to dinner, I want to try your dish, and my dish, and that dish and that dish. Everyone orders some smalls, you put it in the middle, you try a bite of this and you try a bite of that, so you get a little bit of everything. Our shrimp and grits really just kind of says “Searsucker” to me. When we came up with the name, I went down to Louisville, Ky., I went to New Orleans, I ate shrimp and grits everywhere I could and I really wanted to put that as a signature item on the menu.
I love shrimp and grits.
We do it really well. I’d love to cook it for you sometime.
I’m looking forward to that, and hopefully green eggs and ham. That piqued my interest.
Dr. Seuss was a San Diegan, so that one was for him.
You had a relationship with Michel Richard, right? I went to an event at his restaurant here (Central by Michel Richard, formerly at Caesars Palace), and he made some special desserts. Did his passion for dessert make an impact on you?
He has a passion for incredible plating, really great flavors and French technique that I learned a lot from. That was the first restaurant that I ever worked at, the Citrus in Los Angeles. It was him and Alain Giraud. I learned that French technique, which is the style of the butchery, the blanching of your vegetables, the hard cooking. Great technique, and he had the ability to make food look like art. I really learned a lot. That’s when I was inspired, and that’s when I knew I really wanted to become a chef, working in his restaurant, because it was so fun and so energetic, and such a team, and such amazing products we were putting out. That’s what really inspired me.
If I had one last meal before being launched into space on a five-year mission and could dine at Searsucker with a blank check, what would you recommend?
I would invite all your friends and family that you’re going to miss the most and order the whole menu, and just drop it in the middle of everything.
What sort of challenges does having a relationship with Omnia nightclub entail?
I don’t think there’s challenges. I really feel that they’re going to make us much better, and they’re going to give us a platform for a customer base and a company base, and a sense of pride. Omnia’s arguably one of the greatest nightclubs the U.S. has ever seen, and we have a secret back door into it. You can come eat with us, and we can get you into the nightclub. It’s pretty impressive.
You’re taking your last reservations at 11:30 p.m. How late is “late”?
We’ve been playing with it. We’re going to take it to 2-2:30 a.m. right now. That’s where we’ve been going. It seemed to work better on the Friday and Saturday than we did on the Sunday. We’re just going to keep playing with it and keep adjusting the menu. It’s going to take us a while to figure out what people order on that menu. It’s evolving. We’ve never done this late-night menu before, so we’re just really trying to figure it out.
Have you been able to spend much time at Omnia?
I walk through it during the day and I marvel at it. I’m like “Oh my gosh, this place is amazing. I’ve walked guests in there, but right now we’re very focused on the restaurant operation and being focused on that, and the idea of me going in there and getting too crazy at Omnia … I’ll save the big celebration for down the line a little bit. The wife and all her girlfriends came into town Saturday night and I got them a table on the terrace, and they just had a tremendous time.
Yeah, I figured being a family man you wouldn’t be going nuts in there.
Do you know what I really enjoy? What I do enjoy is I’m meeting all these big name DJs. They come in and eat dinner before they play.
Do you see yourself spending a lot of time in Vegas in the future?
It’s the best commute ever. We both have the best airports ever. I can get to my San Diego airport in seven minutes, and I can get to the airport from Caesars in seven minutes. Some people drive farther than that to get to work. It’s just so much fun and there’s so much energy, and it’s such a statement for us—a trophy piece. So we’re really going to have a fun time with it.
So do you see yourself maintaining a presence on the culinary landscape in Vegas for years to come?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do.