Chef Brian O’Malley’s resume is a virtual timeline of positive impact and service to the culinary community. From establishing the Annual Culinary Awards in 2006, to the recent relaunching of the Open Kitchen Program as director of Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College, O’Malley believes in the work of not only educating, but supporting the restaurant industry. But unlike many of the minds he melds, his own journey didn’t start in a kitchen.
O’Malley had a clear path, advisors and professors ready to guide him to it, and a family that believed in him every step of the way. He knew his future was in building, but after receiving an education in architecture, he found the life he had constructed wasn’t structurally sound.
“I came home to tell my Dad that architecture wasn’t going to happen. He could have said a lot of things, but all he said was ‘Let’s go get some lunch.’”
Sitting across from his father at Brass Grille, he knew he could very easily be the one being grilled, but that’s not what the lunch was about.
“We ordered corn fritters and we ate. It wasn’t a lecture about his disappointment,” O’Malley said. “He just wanted to take me to lunch. It was kind of exactly what I needed. Just to sit with my dad and have a meal.”
Since his days in the Boy Scouts, O’Malley understood the value of hard work. Holding down three jobs through his days at Creighton Prep, two simultaneously, he had been instilled with an honorable spirit, and could never be accused of coasting.
“Ultimately, I attended four colleges. I kept thinking I would find my way,” he said. “If I just shifted one more thing, change one more thing and suddenly it would all come together for me. There was just no amount of working harder that was going to make this the right path for me, but I really loved architecture. It didn’t make sense that I could love it and it not be the place for me, but it just wasn’t. It was my one unrequited love. We all get one, right?”
While many students coming out of a rough college experience find themselves falling into bad habits, depression and making mistakes they’ll be recovering from for years, O’Malley found himself falling on the right path.
“I had worked in a couple of restaurants in high school, but never in any way that seemed profound or had me believing I would end up in a kitchen. It hadn’t even occurred to me as a permanent profession, it was just something every kid does. You bus, wait tables, maybe tend bar. Almost part of just the standard hazing ritual of life. But around age 22 I started to really find my way in the field.”
Working three- to six-month stretches in restaurants gave O’Malley the humility and experience he needed to start to understand the industry. When he was offered a chance to helm Bojo Grill on 13th and Jackson, he couldn’t have known it would be a life-changing experience.
“It was the first time I truly saw the possibilities. The first time I had real agency,” O’Malley said. “As head chef, I could make decisions, and those decisions were affecting so much more than anything I had done up to that point. Before, my whole role was to make sure things are coming out of the kitchen on time, making sure I’m communicating, but most things were largely out of my hands.
“Suddenly, I could make decisions about the menu, about the culture of the place. What kind of energy it would have. I started to really see things for what they could be, and I started seeing people who work in kitchens a little differently, too.”
Having his first taste of leadership was enough to get O’Malley hooked. Not on the power to control people, but on the power to empower.
“It became kind of a mission to see people excited. I saw how you could really pump people up, and if you pump up the guy working right beside you, he takes that on to the person working beside him. You’ll start to see this energy kind of crawling throughout this place you work. You see it happen with gossip and with negativity, but when you see that it’s just as easy to infect everyone with excitement, that’s the kind of power I can really get into.”
After developing some of his talents, and an affinity for the high energy of the back of the house, O’Malley saw the perfect opportunity to take his new ambitions on a trip. For two years, he honed his craft in Greece before heading to Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado.
He soon enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. The school is famous for turning out another well-known teacher, Alton Brown. O’Malley earned his bachelor’s degree before deciding to stay on as a teacher himself.
“Teaching. That was it. It was the culmination of everything I had learned. Architecture wasn’t a mistake or a waste. I had learned so much. And I learned a lot by failing that endeavor, too. It gave me so much perspective that I was able to bring to the students and teachers I worked with.”
While his culinary education taught him the technical tricks to a perfect meal, it was the struggles in architecture that taught him the compassion and patience he needed to help his students build on their strengths, compensate for their doubts, and identify their clearest paths.
“There is all of this argument about nature versus nurture,” O’Malley said. “It’s a good argument to have. People should keep having it, but it seems unwise not to consider that it’s probably both. And not only that, but that you can kill nature. You can take it right out of someone. Whether that’s through burnout or discouragement.”
“It’s nature that brings people into this field. It’s this field that crushes them when they aren’t properly nurtured.”
In the culinary industry, burnout is a common factor in the health and longevity of everyone from the executive chef to the hostess. O’Malley started seeking ways to help restaurant workers learn healthy ways to vent and to circumvent this occupational hazard.
“Customers always blame the person they see if they have a bad experience,” he said. “That’s just human nature. So the hostess gets blamed if the place is too full, the bussers get blamed if tables aren’t turned over fast enough. Wait staff gets blamed if food is cold or comes out wrong. The sous and the line cook, the prep chefs, there are so many moving parts in every plate that gets served, and every step comes with its burdens of blame and frustration. That’s a perfect recipe for burnout, and it will ripple through a place and tear it apart.”
To Your Health
And what does the chef prescribe for those suffering the signs?
“I know self-care has become kind of a catch-all phrase. It might even be cliché right now, but it matters,” O’Malley said. “You have to find some way to manage the intensity of your passion. No matter what that passion is, if you don’t find a way to temper it, it will absolutely become your downfall. You’ll hate it, you’ll resent it, and it will eat you alive.”
He acknowledges the high rates of self-medicating with alcohol, drugs and other forms of destructive behavior within the field.
“It’s not only prevalent at home and in private, it’s just kind of the culture now,” he said. “Coping mechanisms aren’t some dirty little secret. The staff will take shots together during shift break. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a shot, but when that becomes the part of the day you’re living for, then it’s a problem. You’ve got people on their feet for 12, 14, sometimes 20 hours at a time. It’s exhausting, and then you add booze.”
Chef, Feed Thyself
He stops shy of suggesting an end to shift shots.
“I mean, some places will have a yoga teacher come in, but honestly the kind of people who can fight through this kind of work environment aren’t the kind of people who can be forced to sit still and meditate. I know a few of them have taken up tai chi. It helps with their breathing, with their movement and balance. That makes a lot of sense … but forced meditation is never going to help anyone.”
O’Malley attributes his patience, gregarious demeanor and fortitude on his ability to stay clear-headed.
“Not getting into it (drugs) when everyone else was gave me a little more insight, I think,” he said. “It ensured that I could see when things were starting to wear me out and I could take a break. I feel like some people were using substances to mask the pain and fatigue and they just don’t feel it coming until it’s too late.”
Fit to Flambé
O’Malley also emphasizes the importance of being prepared mentally and physically for the task at hand, and that task will vary wildly from one day to another.
“You may be lugging a side of beef one day, balancing boiling pots and flames for 10 to 12 hours at a time. You get to the end of that shift and you get a call that a party of 30 is coming in tomorrow. You’ll have two choices, turn down a potentially lucrative opportunity or stay up another 24 hours and get it done. Most of us wouldn’t think twice, until we spend four days recovering from it.
“I’m not saying you have to be Mr. Universe,” he added, “but you have to be in good health, you have to be sleeping fairly regularly, and your heart, mind and body have to be able to withstand a really taxing environment. That just doesn’t happen if you’re not taking care of yourself. If you’re burned out and you do this, you’re setting yourself up for some really permanent issues. There’s too much talent around here, and it breaks my heart to see people set up that way.”
Love Thy Neighbor
When O’Malley decided to take a position with Metropolitan Community College’s culinary program, it was an opportunity to address the stress before it broke another spirit.
“I would sit across from these students and just listen,” he said. “I remember sitting across from my own advisors when I was struggling in college, and watching these students puts me right back there. It puts me right back at that table at the Brass Grille, knowing my dad didn’t know what to say to me, but just so grateful he was willing to listen. Sometimes I don’t have an answer. Sometimes all I can say is ‘You know what, that really sucks. I’m listening.’ And a lot of the time, that’s all anyone needs. They need to know that someone is cheering for them. Someone wants them to succeed, even if it’s not here. Even if it’s not in this program or in this field.”
O’Malley has since moved on to working directly with the teachers, but understands that the mission remains the same. Feed the teachers. Teachers feed the students. They feed the support staff. Support staff feeds the customers.
“Every single thing we do results in one plate in front of one customer,” he said. “Everything. The conversations I’m having today become the lessons. Those lessons guide the general manager. The GM supports the chef. The chef communicates with the front of the house. It all comes together on a plate and is set down in front of one customer. Every single thing we do is on that plate.”
While the man may not find himself in a kitchen as often as he used to, and rarely works directly with students anymore, the lessons and support he has offered some of Omaha’s most prestigious chefs will continue to cause a shift in how they and we perceive food.
“We have this opportunity to impact cultural change. That means relationships with each other,” O’Malley said. “It means cooperation, communication and looking out for each other, from the farmer to the dishwasher. And with that opportunity comes responsibility. We have a real chance to make a change. We’ve got to take it.”
It’s easy to see why people turn to O’Malley when they’re feeling a little lost. When he is done giving a pep talk, you feel as though you’ve been given an assignment. Take care of yourself. Take care of those who are counting on you and live a life in which you feel nurtured. And recognizing the chance you’ve been given, you simply reply: Yes, chef.