"People always ask how do you cook your turkey, how do you cook your turkey? And I go, once a year, like you," Brian Malarkey quips, punctuating the statement with his infectious laugh.
It's refreshing to hear that a Top Chef finalist with 15 successful restaurants under his belt—including Animae, a wagyu steakhouse in downtown San Diego that earned its first Michelin Plate award this year— fumbles around the kitchen like the rest of humanity when it comes to the holidays. It's just that Malarkey's fumbling results in culinary magic.
"I always have fun every year with the turkey. I smoke it, I spatchcock it. I roasted it upside-down one year. Every year I try something new and unique," he explains.
Last Thanksgiving, that unique take on holiday classics turned out to be crucial. While Malarkey's Southern California restaurant dynasty, which also includes San Diego's Herb & Wood and Herb & Ranch in Irvine, was closed to diners, they pivoted to something they'd never tried before: takeout meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve. The experiment was a success. Around a thousand people showed up to purchase them on each holiday, rolling in and out of the door on a steady conveyer belt of cheer and good tidings.
This year, with their dining rooms open again, Malarkey expects the holidays to be one for the books. "The community is coming in full force," he says. "I call it the Roaring '20s part two."
The chef and his family, they'll probably be there, too. "We always love to come down. If I make the staff work on New Year's Eve, the family will come down on New Year's Eve. If I make the staff work on Christmas Eve, my family will show up on Christmas Eve," he says. "I do draw the line at brunch on the morning of January 1st though," he adds slyly.
Malarkey's wife of nearly 20 years, Chantelle, and their three kids (13-year old Hunter and 11-year old twins Sailor and Miles), are regular fixtures at his restaurants. Of his six Southern California eateries, Herb & Sea in Encinitas is their favorite. "They love it because it has creme brulee and pizza," Malarkey laughs. "At Animae, they're like 'what is this food.'"
But even if the kids don't always recognize their dad's culinary skills, Malarkey has no shortage of acolytes. During the pandemic, he launched interactive virtual cooking classes complete with pre-shipped boxes of ingredients so that students can cook along with their mentor. A custom menu is tailored to each group of 20 to 500 students.
Virtually entering the homes of strangers taught Malarkey something, too. He realized there was an important aspect of cooking that many home chefs had completely missed: they were using the same extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in everything they made.
"EVOO is a big buttery chardonnay," he explains. "It's not for everybody and it's not for everything. It is so fatty and so round and so flavorful, if you use it for everything, everything tastes like that. When I cook chicken, I want it to taste like chicken."
So Malarkey tackled the problem head on and launched a cooking oil line, a portion of the proceeds from which are donated to Golden Rule Charity, a nonprofit supporting workers in the hospitality industry. Chefs Life sells just three varieties of cooking oil with bottles that clearly describe exactly how to use each one: a blend of EVOO, avocado and grapeseed oil for dressings and aiolis; a blend of avocado, olive, sunflower, and grapeseed oil for sautéing, frying, baking and roasting; and plain EVOO for finishing, drizzling, and dipping.
That last style is just right for finishing Malarkey's butternut squash soup, a seasonal classic he makes with coconut milk and garam masala. "You have to figure out how to get some umami flavor in there," he explains. "Garam masala has so many flavors it takes it to the next level."
Make enough of it and this dish can go from soup to sauce to vinaigrette with minimal effort.
"You know what soup is? It's a thickened sauce," Malarkey says. Thin it out with a little butter and pour it over rosemary-crusted lamb chops or roasted chicken or broccolini, he suggests. Or make a vinaigrette out of it by adding some blending oil. But whatever you do, he warns, "don't just look at soup as soup."
// Experience chef Brian Malarkey's cooking IRL at his various restaurants located in Southern California; brianmalarkey.com/restaurants.
Recipe: Brian Malarkey's Butternut Squash Soup
"Don't just look at soup as soup," says chef Brian Malarkey, who recommends thinning this recipe with butter to make a sauce or adding some oil for a vinaigrette.
1 medium butternut squash
16 oz chicken stock (Malarkey recommends Swanson)
1 cup coconut milk
1 spoonful of Greek yogurt
1/2 of one medium yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp garam masala (The Spice Hunter)
EVOO finishing oil
Salt to taste
Peel the butternut squash and cut in half. Remove the seeds and cut the squash into medium squares.
In a pot, sauté the chopped yellow onion, garlic, and garam masala until soft but not to the point of caramelization or browning. Add the squash and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and turn the pot down to medium. Cook for approximately 20 minutes or until the squash is soft. Add the coconut milk and cook for another 10 minutes for the flavors to come together.
Fill the blender up halfway with the mixture and make sure the lid is secure, it will be hot.
Blend the mixture on high to a smooth consistency and return it to the pot. Repeat with any leftover mixture. Return the blended soup to the pot. Season with salt to desired taste. Garnish with Greek yogurt, cilantro, and EVOO finishing oil to serve.
Thank you to our partners at The Spice Hunter.