The Boss of Sauce: Top Chef Brian Huskey
“I love cooking because of the gratification of pleasing people. You know immediately if your food was great. You know even faster if it’s shit,” says Brian Huskey, 33, who emerged among the top five in Top Chef’s Season 11: New Orleans.
Recently, Huskey took over at West Hollywood’s iconic Formosa Café, a historic landmark that opened its doors in 1925 and has served celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Clark Gable.
Underneath Huskey’s white uniform is a lot of ink. His first tattoo, “7-14-08,” on his left wrist pays homage to a friend’s passing. Across his left forearm is his life motto, “No fire, no heat. No heat, no life,” along with tattoos of pots and pans. His most recent is a wishbone on his left hand for good luck. On his right bicep is an “L.A.” tattoo and an outline of the state of California, where he was born and raised.
Both of his parents were born in Korea (Huskey’s surname originates from his father’s stepfather). Brian’s father moved to the U.S. at a young age, attended elementary school in Sacramento, grew up in North Las Vegas where he began working at age fourteen, graduated from Sacramento State University, and joined the military before pursuing a career in real estate.
His parents met while Brian’s father was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Marines. His mother, who attended the prestigious Ewha University, defied an arranged marriage to wed Brian’s father. “Their wedding pictures are kind of sad. No one from my mom’s side was there because she disobeyed her parents. That was just the culture back then. If you were from a well-to-do family, then you married a well-to-do family’s son. But he actually became their favorite son-in-law,” says Huskey.
The oldest of three sons, Huskey cites his parents’ influence on his early development of a refined palate. “My parents are big foodies. It was pretty cool to travel to places like Spain and Italy at a young age and get cultural awareness and education through food. My mom is an awesome cook, and my grandmother was too. Growing up, my mother always cooked at home during the weekdays. On Sundays, my parents took us out to nicer restaurants in L.A. By the time I was 18, I’d been to Valentino’s, Providence, and Mélisse.”
“I was very fortunate in that my parents paid for a lot of my way. At the same time, they made me learn the value of a dollar. They were like, ‘Go get a job. If you want to go out with your boys or girlfriends, you need to make your own money,’” says Huskey.
As an undergraduate student at UCLA, Huskey began working as a short order cook at Du-par’s, a diner-style L.A. chain. He also worked at L.A. Korea, a fast food Korean stand within the same complex (Farmers Market on 3rd Street and Fairfax) and Woo Lae Oak’s defunct Beverly Hills location.
“I always enjoyed being in the kitchen. It’s somewhere I can get lost and it’s very therapeutic, especially in the morning when there’s no one there and it’s quiet,” says Huskey.
With an economics degree, he secured an internship at Merrill Lynch but decided to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. “I was like, what am I gonna do with my life now? Coming from a college preparatory high school, it was like, I’m gonna go into finance, you know? White-collar work. I’d been in L.A. for the first 22 years of my life. The more I thought about it, I decided to move to San Francisco.”
After culinary school, he secured a position at Rosewood Resorts’ Caneel Bay, a five-star, five-diamond resort on St. John in the Caribbean.
“I’m an ocean guy. I love the beach. I swam with sea turtles by day and cooked at night. Coming from L.A., you’re conditioned to be on a tight schedule, always on the grind. The Caribbean was about the appreciation of life. When I first showed up to the island, I’d ask questions like, ‘Do you know where this is?’ and was immediately shunned for not saying ‘Good morning’ before I asked. That’s a big cultural difference,” says Huskey.
After a year in the Caribbean, he moved back to Los Angeles and worked for the Patina Group at Café Pinot in downtown L.A. as a line cook and then a sous chef.
A couple of years later, he was asked to be the opening chef at Leatherby’s Café Rouge in Costa Mesa (Orange County).
“There’s a lot more blood, sweat, and tears when it comes to opening a restaurant compared to joining one that’s already running. You’re creating systems at all times. If you decide to put your pot here, then that’s where they’ll go at all times. A successful, happy kitchen is one that’s very clean and organized,” says Huskey.
After working for the Patina Group for four years, Huskey became the chef de cuisine at L.A. Prime, a steakhouse on the 35th floor of the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles. From there, Huskey helped to open Eva, a 45-seater on Fairfax and Beverly owned by Mark Gold, whom he considers a mentor.
“There are a lot of sacrifices to being a chef. You’re always working holidays, Fridays, Saturdays, days that everyone’s hanging out, and during off-hours. It’s not as glamorous as the media makes it out to be. People are misled to believe that you go straight from culinary school to being a rock star. It’s a lot of hard work that takes time, perseverance, and commitment. Passion is what daydreamers talk about,” says Huskey.
In episode 5, Huskey talks about hitting a low point: getting a DUI and spending 24 hours in the Men’s Correctional Facility. “I was about to turn 30. For a long time, it was just grinding, working six days a week. Ten-hour days were like half-days. You get really tired of it. After a while, I started questioning why I was doing this.”
“I got burnt out. Around 2009, I left the restaurant life and went into catering. I ran a company called roomforty. I only lasted there eight months. It was like, the grass is greener-this is not what I want to do. But it was cool because I got my life back in the sense of being able to attend weddings, birthdays, big milestone events.”
“When you work for a catering company, everything is very organized. Great pay, easier hours. You know a month in advance that you have a wedding coming up, and you can prepare. At a restaurant, you’re super busy, and the next thing you know, someone calls out. There’s a lot of moving parts. Also, a restaurant never closes, a lot of them,” says Huskey.
Then, Huskey met Ricardo Zarate (Food & Wine magazine’s 2011 Best New Chef, People’s Choice) through another chef. He helped him to open three restaurants, Picca (among GQ’s “Ten Best New Restaurants in America” in 2012), Mo-Chica, and Paichē prior to competing on Top Chef.
“It was the opportunity to learn from one of the nation’s best Peruvian chefs. Cooking is the most universal language. Techniques are the same across the board whether you’re cooking French, Korean, or Peruvian food. Technically, I knew what I was doing. It was just a matter of learning his flavor profiles. For the last three years, I’ve been fine-tuning the flavor profiles of Peruvian flavors,” says Huskey.
TOP CHEF SEASON 11: NEW ORLEANS
“A little over a year ago, one of the casting producers hit me up. He got my number from a friend who’s an agent for William Morris. My friends always said I should be on Top Chef, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do or needed for validation. But the opportunity came, and I thought maybe it’s meant to be,” says Huskey.
In February 2013, he began the application process. “Oh, it was gnarly. You’ve got to do green screen interviews, submit a tape, fill out an application as thick as the Bible, do a background check, psychological tests. There are a lot of liability issues, and they want to make sure you’re stable.”
“If you’re really talented but a dud on the camera, you’re probably not gonna get selected. At the end of the day, it’s about a corporate network making money. They need people that viewers can relate to, and people with different chemistries so they can create a storyboard,” says Huskey.
Three months later, he was asked to be on the show. “I flew away in May 2013, and no one knew where I was for seven weeks. It’s pretty hardcore in terms of confidentiality. They take away our cell phones. We have no Internet access. If we had our cell phones, nine times out of ten, most people would tell their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands or whatever. If one little thing gets out, you’re bringing down a ten million dollar tv show.”
It was his first time in New Orleans. “You literally show up, and for the first two days, you’re stuck in a nice hotel room by yourself. On day three, you meet everyone,” says Huskey.
“I was with 18 other badass chefs. Half of them were better than me on any given day. It was awesome to walk into an environment where everyone was pretty much on the same level. In other kitchens, you’re always the top guy or the second or third.”
“Mentally, I was as ready as I could ever be. In any reality show, you don’t want to be the first to be eliminated. That was my biggest fear. After the first elimination process, I got more comfortable with the process. Your food shines when you’re comfortable,” says Huskey.
He won two consecutive QuickFire Challenges (episode 7 with duck and mussels with flavors of Asia and episode 8 with jalapeño and serrano hot sauce with lime and yuzu juices).
“There’s no real way to train for Top Chef,” says Huskey. “It’s about your whole experience. You can’t be the best overnight. It’s about conditioning, practice over time, repetition. It was the training I had over the last ten years that made me prepared. I’d done the hotel thing, catering, the refined Michelin star dining thing. I thought these experiences would help me in the competition because in Top Chef, there are many situations where you’re not in the most ideal conditions.”
“Patience is key to being a modern chef. In the old school days, it was more accepted to just yell. Nowadays, you’d get sued for acting the way chefs did twenty years ago. Cleanliness, being organized. You’ve got to be levelheaded, make decisions on the fly. Be a leader. The kitchen is controlled chaos. If people working under you see that you’re frazzled, it gets the team worried.”
“One of the reason I think I did so well is time management. That really showed. If you didn’t have good time management, you’d never do well on Top Chef, no matter how tasty your food was.”
A typical day while filming Top Chef? “Aw, man, it was rough. It’s a production schedule. A lot goes into tv. One episode takes two to three days to film. Any given day was at least a 14-hour day. You’re pretty much in solitary confinement and only get to see the other chefs and the production crew,” says Huskey.
“I got a lot closer with the people in the top five because once you’re eliminated, you get taken to another house and have to stay there until entire season’s done filming, so you don’t see them anymore. You get a stipend, and they take you on little trips in New Orleans. It’s like a paid vacation in a sense.”
“Every season, there’s someone from L.A. Prior to getting on the show, I knew Nyesha [Arrington, from season 9], Marcel [Vigneron, season 2’s runner-up] and CJ [Chris Jacobson, season 3]. The chef world is a small community.”
“Top Chef is not for everyone. Just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you’ll do well on the show. Just because you’re on Top Chef doesn’t mean you’re the best. I just take everything in stride and take it as a blessing. I did the best I could and learned from it. It was a growing process,” says Huskey.
POST-REALITY: LIFE AFTER TOP CHEF
“I wouldn’t say Top Chef changed my life, but it definitely made me more recognizable. It’s crazy to see how excited people get just because you were on tv. I’m pretty much the same guy. I just had the opportunity, a national platform, to showcase my creativity and talent,” says Huskey.
After Top Chef, he returned to Paichē. A couple of weeks later, he became part of the opening team at Zarate’s newest restaurant, Blue Tavern, in Santa Barbara.
“I had a committed salary, a plush gig. When you’re working seventy hours a week, you don’t have time to take on other things,” says Huskey.
Yet, offers continued to pour in. He has received numerous inquiries about his hot sauce, which he creates in small batches for L.A. night market events and for occasional private parties. He’s currently developing plans to produce his hot sauce on commercial levels for sale at boutique stores.
“Right now, in the summer in L.A., there are a lot of food events and charity benefits, and it’s been humbling to have a lot of people reach out to me. Without Top Chef, the growth curve would have been a lot slower.”
He also takes opportunities to mentor others in the kitchen. “If I can get a cook to replicate my dish better than I do it, I don’t look at him like, ‘That son of a bastard!’ but it’s more power to me because I’m a great teacher and he’s a great cook.”
“Maybe it’s the pressure I put on myself, but I’m under the magnifying glass now. There’s a need to stay on top of things and elevate my food every day. Never be stagnant. Never think you know everything,” says Huskey.
FORMOSA AND THE FUTURE
Four months ago, Huskey was approached by third-generation owner Vince Jung to take the culinary reins at the Formosa Café and decided to make the leap of faith.
“In September, a new Top Chef season’s going to start. There’s probably going to be another chef from L.A. I’m going to be the old guy. So, it’s about being able to cultivate all the opportunities that are coming now. When you’re under a chef, it’s a brigade system, a hierarchy. It’s never your culinary voice completely. Anyone who’s artistic works really hard to eventually be able to have their own canvas,” says Huskey.
At the Formosa Café, Huskey has been showcasing his Asian/Latin inspired bar menu. “Many chefs open restaurants and they only last one or two years. One of the characteristics of success is to understand your demographics and what you’re trying to develop as a concept instead of force-feeding people. I developed the menu by feeling out the crowd, the nuances of what people wanted.”
Instead of tortilla chips for the nachos, he uses wonton chips and incorporates edamame as an addition to black beans. Instead of traditional lime juice, the guacamole contains yuzu juice.
“It’s been fun. If I’m doing private gigs, no one really knows where I’m cooking unless you book me. It’s only for private clientele. Now I have a bar menu that runs every day, and I can connect to the general public,” says Huskey.
“Fans have been hitting me up on social media, and I do my best to communicate with as many as I can. That’s the beauty of the Internet-the world has become a lot smaller. People are like, ‘I’m in town and I’d love to try your food.’ And they show up.”
Huskey is also working on a fast casual concept he plans to open in downtown Los Angeles, where he’s been a resident for the past three years. ‘Think L.A. Café [a counter-serve downtown L.A. café with 24-hour delivery] meets Fish Grill [a kosher fast casual establishment] meets Mohawk Bend [Echo Park gastropub frequented by hipsters],” says Huskey.
He notes a gap in the food culture of downtown L.A. with a plethora of fine dining restaurants and ethnic-driven takeout food. “There’s nothing in between. That’s what I’m trying to deliver. The idea is to rewire people’s ideas of what American food is. If you have Chinese food today, most likely you won’t want it tomorrow because you don’t want the same food two days in a row. The idea is not to upsell food as Japanese or Peruvian flavors but just delivering well-executed food. My canvas is a charcoal grill with protein, starch, and vegetables. It’s all about my marinades and sauces, being known as the Boss of Sauce.”
“One of the biggest things I learned from chef Ricardo, who opened four spots in three years, is that if you run concept-driven restaurants, it makes a lot more sense in terms of longevity and profitability. The competition’s stiff, and to sustain yourself so you’re still profiting five years down the road is very difficult,” says Huskey.
When he’s not in the kitchen, he enjoys dining at L.A. restaurants Bestia, Son of a Gun, Faith & Flower, Shin-Sen-Gumi, Jinya Ramen, and the taco truck El Chato. His favorite soup is yukgaejang (“I just had that for lunch. I brought it from K-town for me and the steward.”). He also loves soondae and Korean barbeque and is a big fan of seafood.
Huskey’s advice for aspiring chefs? “No matter how good you think you are, make yourself vulnerable. Stay humble. Ask questions. Always have fun when you cook. It shows in your food.”
Huskey will be one of the featured chefs at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival on August 24.
Born in Seoul, Grace Jahng Lee is a writer of prose and poetry based in New York City.