"Hold on," Brian Huskey said. "I'm trying to do a flavor bomb."
The head chef at the Tackle Box, a new eatery at Corona del Mar State Beach, also known as Big Corona, rushed into the kitchen to add charred green onion aioli atop a grilled shrimp roll during a private meet-and-greet at his latest venture. Clam chowder simmered in pots, and additional crusty brown rolls cooled on racks.
A gust of wind on the hot afternoon brought relief to the crowd of about 50 friends, family and colleagues who sipped watermelon agua fresca drinks while waiting to taste an item off his newest menu.
"We're just getting ready, but this is already fun," Huskey said.
He's used to the heat.
Huskey, who has helped open Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles, was among the top five finalist contestants on Season 11 of the TV show "Top Chef," which filmed for those weeks in New Orleans. He won two consecutive Quickfire Challenges during the cooking competition for his duck with mussels and jalapeno and serrano hot sauce.
Today, he's running a beachfront concessions stand, serving up American classics along with items that have a Peruvian, Asian and California blend.
The beachfront building, which is owned by Ed Lee, co-founder of Wahoo's Fish Taco, is totally devoted to the Tackle Box. But one side will be used to sell fast-food snacks, including hamburgers and ice cream, and only from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend annually.
Tackle Box serves up a range of breakfast and lunch items and snacks, from a hamburger and cheese steak sandwich to Asian-inspired dishes like pork belly banh mi, poke and falafel. Side dishes include house fries and chips, an assortment of pickles and a fruit salad. Agua fresca, soda and water are also offered.
The average check with tax is $15 to $25, Huskey said.
"I wanted to make it fun with a twist on my travels where food is approachable and relatable," Huskey said. "It's food I enjoy eating and the masses like to eat."
Huskey, who was born in Pasadena, studied economics at UCLA and later earned a degree in culinary arts at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
His passion for food took him to the Caribbean to explore different kinds of cuisine. Today, he incorporates his international travels into his recipes.
Huskey met Lee last June at a fundraiser for Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that works to end child hunger in the U.S., at the Montage in Laguna Beach.
Lee, who took over the beach concession building in 2012 and has invested about $120,000 in upgrades, said he favored Huskey's food and had the same vision of bringing a twist to the typical beach fare of hot dogs and hamburgers.
Huskey said he will operate the kitchen, and his brother, Andrew, will handle the front end of the business.
"We're excited to get this started and be a part of the Corona del Mar neighborhood," Andrew said. "We're getting a good buzz from the locals, so it's great to be in the community and enjoy this backdrop."
The quick-service restaurant launched pop-up trials at the site in mid-June and officially slid open its windows July 10.
Lee said business can only be aided by the change in city parking fees. When parking cost $15 at Big Corona, locals were discouraged, but last fall, Newport Beach decided to allow visitors to play hourly rates from $1.50 to $4 instead of the $15 flat rate.
Huskey said the eatery, which offers a few tables under umbrellas, has plans to expand its patio. He wants Tackle Box to be a destination spot for visitors and an expanded backyard for area residents.
"I'd like for this to be an institution in Corona del Mar in the next 10 to 20 years," Huskey said. "I'm always learning, and I love a challenge. I'm very blessed to have this."
IF YOU GO
What: Tackle Box
When: 9 a.m to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Where: Corona Del Mar lifeguard station, 3029 E. Shore Ave., Corona del Mar
Information: (949) 723-0798 or visit tackleboxoc.com