Brian Malarkey has been a lot of things: respected seafood technician, "Top Chef" reality TV competitor, overexposed celebrity, restaurant empire builder and restaurant empire downsizer.
From 2007 to 2013, Malarkey was San Diego's top dog, the most talked about, sniped about, gossiped about chef in town. Until he wasn't.
Now, on the eve of opening his most ambitious venture to date - Herb & Wood in Little Italy - Malarkey is trading in his trademark fedora for a new hat: that of the underdog.
His star eclipsed, Malarkey is looking for a fresh start, knowing he has to prove himself again. In the past few years, the dining public has moved on to shinier objects, and the shiniest of all these days are his Kettner Boulevard neighbors Richard Blais, of Juniper & Ivy, and Javier Plascencia, of Bracero, a few blocks south.
Like Malarkey, Blais and Plascencia are hard-driving multi-taskers who have cultivated stardom while opening multiple restaurants. Unlike Malarkey, Blais and Plascencia haven't allowed their fame to overshadow the food.
During a recent hard-hat tour of the airy, cottage-chic 7,000-plus-square-foot Herb & Wood, Malarkey, 43, openly poked at the notion that he's more celebrity than chef.
Flashing a roguish grin, he quoted a year-end predication I had made on the dishy website San Diego Eater: "Brian Malarkey, back in the kitchen, reminds San Diego that he can really cook."
About 20 minutes later, he randomly repeated it again, but denied that it had stung his healthy ego.
"I like that challenge," he said. "I'm excited about getting back in the kitchen. I love to go in and shake the pans."
"Less pizazz, more substance"
Malarkey's excitement seems authentic and warranted.
Herb & Wood, located in the former design house Mixture, is a cavernous converted warehouse that's been transformed into an elegant, but homey, blue and white space by longtime partner Christopher Puffer. The long-delayed opening - it was originally set to debut last fall - hasn't dampened Malarkey's enthusiasm for being smack in the center of San Diego's culinary epicenter.
"We couldn't have a better place at a better time," he said.
The kitchen will be staffed by what he calls his "A Team," made of many of his former line cooks and headed by co-chef Shane McIntyre, formerly of Searsucker, Malarkey's first high-profile eatery in the Gaslamp Quarter.
He described the menu and the approach to Herb & Wood as "less pizazz, more substance."
"There will be lots of citrus pop and vinegars, no silly garnishes, no silly microgreens."
And no silly names. Eating at one of Malarkey's restaurants used to mean having to enter the Alice-in-Wonderland-like world of the chef's mind, with quixotically named dishes and preparations that aimed more for clever than culinary clarity.
Herb & Wood's menu indicates that Malarkey is serious about getting back to basics and serving straightforward food.
One of the eight vegetable dishes is a simple plate of roasted baby turnips, with greens and chimichurri; one of five wood-fired pizzas is lamb sausage and broccoli rabe, garlic confit, mozzarella and asiago. There's a roasted half chicken, chickpea stew, and avocado with ciabatta bread, tomato, candied jalapeño and cilantro.
On a tour of his kitchen, he ticked off a long list of ingredients he and his staff will be making by hand, including pasta, ice cream, bread and butter. They'll slice their own crudos, butcher their own meat, cook on lots of wood and have their own herb garden. But they won't have a deep fryer or a freezer.
"It's really back to the craft, everything is made in-house," he said.
"It's an extremely ambitious project that goes against the economical things we've done in the past."
Too big, too fast
The Bend, Ore., native came here as the opening chef of Oceanaire, the upscale seafood chain, in downtown San Diego. He quickly gained a reputation for pristine, flavorful preparations - and an epic crabcake - as well as an appealing penchant for greeting customers in the dining room.
Boyish and charming, with a mischievous air, Malarkey got picked for the 2007 season of "Top Chef." He was articulate and hyper-energetic and had a quirky sartorial style that all made for good TV. And though he was eliminated in the finals, he parlayed his "cheftestant" stint into 15 minutes - and then some.
He became a blogger for "Top Chef" and San Diego Magazine. He appeared on "The Real Housewives of Orange County." He started appearing in magazine ads and was brought back to Bravo for a season of "Top Chef Masters."
In 2010, he opened Searsucker to much anticipation and amid swirling chatter that his growing celebrity and flitting from project to project was dwarfing the cooking. Then, as now, he addressed his doubters.
"I enjoy going on TV, I have a great time. But if the restaurant isn't great, I don't have any credibility," he told the Union-Tribune's Peter Rowe.
Searsucker was crowded from day one and was the first of five fabric-named restaurants he launched in quick succession: Gingham, Gabardine, Burlap and Herringbone all followed. Every few months, it seemed, Malarkey was announcing a new project.
One day, he remembers, he got a call from David Cohn, president of the Cohn Restaurant Group. The two had met years before in Seattle, where Malarkey was the chef of Oceanaire. With dozens of restaurants, Cohn knows a thing about expanding and said he advised Malarkey, "friend to friend," to slow down, that he was getting too big, too fast.
Herb & Wood
Where: 2210 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy
Phone: (619) 955-8495
"I've been there, I've gone fast, but never quite that fast," Cohn said.
In 2013, three of the fabrics were torn off: two places were shuttered, one rebranded. His star was seriously dented.
"I take no pleasure in being right," Cohn said last week. "Believe me, in cases like that, I'm more than happy to be wrong."
That same year, Malarkey was booted off the low-rated NBC show "The Taste," where he had been a judge alongside mega-celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Ludo Lefebvre. He was told he lacked "firepower."
Within months, a recently opened Searsucker in Scottsdale, Ariz., was closed, and it looked like Malarkey's brand would collapse until a majority stake in the restaurant company was bought by Hakkasan, a global upscale hospitality group. There are now Herringbones and Searsuckers from Las Vegas to L.A. and Austin, Texas.
Malarkey said his days of opening restaurants before they're ready are over. He uncharacteristically isn't considering other project ideas so he can hyper-focus on Herb & Wood. He considers the restaurant (a non-Hakkasan project) "the pinnacle, the top tier" of his career and is painstakingly perfecting every detail of its soft opening in the coming week.
"It's going to be great," he said, beaming in the dining room. And pointing out the open kitchen, he noted, "as usual, I like to be part of the action."