Last August, the 33-year old was named the 14th “Best Home Chef in America” from “MasterChef,” Fox’s reality TV cooking show. Hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, “MasterChef” slices hundreds of America’s best home cooks to 40, who are diced to 20 TV contestants, who then compete to be crowned “America’s Best Home Chef.”
O’Brien garnered his spot even though he “never auditioned for a television show before, but apparently, I’m good at it,” by plating his grandmother’s meatloaf recipe, scalloped potatoes and white corn salad in three minutes for a panel of food critics. The panel – and the camera – “loved” the food and the novice.
In addition to plating a meal, contestants were required to lack any formal training or experience cooking in a restaurant, a feat completed with ease for the former magazine and advertising salesman and career counselor. Cooking was always just a “hobby and creative outlet,” that began at age 13.
“I cut and cut and cut and cut fresh strawberries – today I would use an immersion blender but with age comes wisdom – sprinkled the now pureed strawberries with cinnamon and sugar, poured it as a sauce over ice cream and a chef was born!”
Sporting a bachelor of arts in psychology and a master of arts in human behavior – both from National University – O’Brien says that he attended traditional college to become financially successful.
“I was so good at college, my alma mater hired me as an admissions advisor where I remained for six years while earning my master’s” he said. “Education and business know-how came naturally and cooking always challenged me, but I loved it.”
Compelled to follow his inner voice, O’Brien paid “big bucks” to a career counselor “who told me what I already knew, I want to become a chef.” A Pacific Beach pub crawl led to the discovery of the San Diego “MasterChef” auditions and for the first time he “dropped everything to pursue food.”
“I quit my job, said goodbye to my family and friends, and traveled to LA to pursue my dream of becoming a chef,” he said. “’MasterChef’ was a full-time job. Contestants were not allowed access to the outside world. All cell phones were taken away. We didn’t have keys to our rooms. When we weren’t filming, we studied. We were warned that filming could take up to 12 weeks. It was stressful. Everyone wanted to win. I was persistent and consistent because that’s what chefs strives to do – stick with it and move forward, no matter what.”
Appointed team captain to 10 contestants after winning the show’s first challenge, O’Brien directed a crew to plate and expedite an “elegant” lunch for more than 100 Huntington Beach lifeguards. Despite winning more than 70 percent of the votes for crispy skin seabass with bamboo rice, grilled corn salad and fried eggplant with sweet chili sauce, the endeavor was everything but smooth.
“We had to cook as fast as we could in a really hot kitchen on the beach,” he said. “We had to meet the expectations of the lifeguards and present our food to chefs Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi and Aaron Sanchez. Halfway through the cooking, Ramsay pulled me aside and yelled… a lot. He even threw an undercooked seabass filet in the sand. It was bad. It was a huge blow to my ego. I questioned my ability to lead.”
But O’Brien tapped into his education in human behavior to stay calm.
“I understood that in order to effectively lead my team, I needed to stay calm. I couldn’t let Ramsey distract me from the task at hand. I took the criticisms and re-strategized the problems at hand.”
O’Brien’s team won. He was again tagged as the “guy to beat.”
“I knew then that I could hold my chops against the best home cooks in the country,” he said.
However, O’Brien’s winning streak didn’t last. Four peanut butter and jelly cannoli’s failed to impress the judges and fell short of the required six.
“One judge commented that my cannoli wasn’t classic enough,” he said. “I thought, ‘What do you mean it’s not classic enough? This show proves how good you are as a chef. Do you want me to duplicate a cannoli that someone else made? Do you want a lemon ricotta cannoli? What? ’I had one bad day in the kitchen. And that’s all it takes.”
Donning his “MasterChef” apron, O’Brien remained undeterred. Disqualification fueled his passion to learn. Food Network became his best friend along with books, TV shows, DVDs and “everything I could get my hands on.”
“I’ve learned so much from self-study,” he said. “I study everything. I practice every day. My entire life revolves around food. I spend every waking moment wanting to learn more.”
William Sonoma cooking classes and weekend brunch at the University of San Diego followed suit. Serving 600 students made-to-order eggs and a vegan brunch as part of a two-man team “was exhilarating and crazy.”
“The hustle – the chase of the adrenaline rush to prove myself worthy was addicting,” he said.
O’Brien says that he’s graduated from the desire to be artistic to the desire to show the world that he can become one of the best chefs in America, “a leader in the food world.”
“I’ll give it my all,” he said. “I’m everything they say one needs to be to be a great chef. I’m talented, organized and meticulously clean. I’ve taught myself the ins and outs of cooking. I even know how to deglaze a $300 pan to save it from getting burnt. A great chef works harder than anyone else. That’s my goal. I’ll prove myself in every kitchen I cook in.”
Sharing his “flavor with the world,” O’Brien’s developing his signature cuisine, California comfort food, “elegant, Michelin Star quality macaroni and cheese.” The art of food sustainability is also highlighted because “people need to know that the food they eat affects the planet.”
“How many understand what bycatch from seafood is?” he said. “It’s a chef’s responsibility to teach food sustainability and better the planet one plate at a time. Our culture is unhealthy due to poor nutrition. Chefs can change that. I know how to cook healthy and be healthy.”
O’Brien walked his own weight-loss path through proper nutrition, losing 39 pounds in 62 days.
“Being healthy is easy when you put high quality food in your system,” he continued. “Quality ingredients make healthier and happier people. I’m always happy. You can’t cook when you’re mad.”
Future goals include owning 20 acres “in or around San Diego” to raise livestock and fresh ingredients to serve from farm to plate in a restaurant next door to his home.
“I have aspirations of learning everything I can and working my ass off to become an award-winning chef,” he concluded. “I can conquer any feat put in front of me. They say you never work a day in your life if you love what you do. I love cooking. I love food.”