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Chef Doug Turbush Shares Insights on Food Culture, Locale, Management and a New Venture, Stem Wine Bar

By Christy Simo

Like many chefs, Doug Turbush got his start working in a restaurant as a teenager. But he hated it – at the time. Still, it was all he knew and his parents insisted he go to college, so he got a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from the University of Wisconsin. While there, he took a cooking class as one of the restaurant management courses and discovered that he actually loved cooking, especially the discipline and organization of it.

He graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., did a stint in Minneapolis at Stephen Pyles’ restaurant Goodfellows, and spent a year traveling around Thailand cooking. He joined Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in 1999 as chef de tournant at Nava under Chef Kevin Rathbun, where he was eventually promoted to Executive Chef. In 2005, he became Executive Chef at Bluepointe. He opened Seed Kitchen & Bar in East Cobb County in 2011.

This fall, Turbush and his team are opening up Stem Wine Bar next door to Seed. Currently at 170 seats, Seed is also expanding its private dining room to seat up to 24.

Recently, Restaurant INFORMER had a chance to catch up with Chef Turbush and get his insights on food culture, restaurant locales, management style and more:

As a chef, what inspires you?

Travel, really. I got to live in Thailand for a year. That was a pretty amazing experience, being able to completely embrace an entirely different culture, and a culture that’s really a food culture. So I like to go to countries where food is the culture. I just got back from Spain, and really that’s just so different from what we have here.

How would you describe your cooking style?

Bold flavors. Obviously we’re driven by local ingredients, and I’m pretty diverse. I don’t like to put a lot of boundaries on it. That’s kind of why I ultimately opened my own place.

What would you say is the best advice or tip you’ve received?

Great service begins and ends in the kitchen. You have to bear that responsibility as a chef. You can have the greatest general manager out there and willing customers, but if the timing isn’t right in the kitchen, you’re never going to have great service.

As a chef, what’s your philosophy as far as managing people in the kitchen?

Seed is a lot busier than I thought it would be. We’ve got a lot of young kids in here, which is something I’m not used to and didn’t expect, but we start them in the prep kitchen, and they earn their stripes and move their way through the salad station.

We’re still learning our management style up here –  it’s different than Buckhead. There, you had a whole pool of talented cooks to choose from. If you lost one, you just asked a buddy to bring their buddy, and that was that.

We treat them fairly and we provide a great opportunity to learn here. We’re working closely with culinary schools, and it’s been great. Mostly local schools, but we’ve had one or two from the CIA in New York. But mainly we’re working Le Cordon Bleu, and Chattahoochee Tech is right down the street here.

How is running the restaurant in East Cobb different than running a restaurant in Buckhead?

Well you get to go to bed earlier (laughs). It clears out around 9 p.m., 9:30 every night. We always have a great lunch business – everyone comes at lunch. East Cobb never really had a restaurant that they embraced that did the upscale-casual thing, and they’ve embraced us. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

I’ve lived here 13 or 14 years now. Me and my wife, we’d go out, we’d say, “Where are we going to go out to eat tonight?” And we’d end up staying in and cooking; we never really went anywhere. We didn’t want to drive in town, so what else where we going to do? So I put a lot of thought into what this market might want. So far, so good.

What made you decide to ultimately open a restaurant in that area?

I was tired of the commute to Buckhead. I was tired of the Buckhead scene. I really wanted to open a restaurant of my own. It made sense from a quality-of-life standpoint to do something close to home. But mainly the No. 1 trigger was… I was always looking at the Johnson Ferry corridor. That’s where it is, and that’s where you need to be. And literally, the day I saw the Whole Foods sign go up, I thought, well, they’ve got millions of dollars of market research already done for me, and that’s the client I want – the guy who goes into Whole Foods three times a week. So that’s really what pushed me.

Before opening Seed, you were at Bluepointe. What are some things that are different running a restaurant on your own than when you were working for a restaurant group?

There are a lot of things you don’t see that you quickly discover. You go from being the guy who runs the kitchen to being the guy that these 49 employees are looking to for answers and guidance. Bluepointe had 25 cooks and that was a big responsibility, but it has doubled. So that’s been interesting, but it’s been awesome.

How did you end up financing the restaurant?

That is and was the biggest obstacle. I’ve had years of experience cooking and knew I wanted to do it, but I always figured I had to go find some rich investor to do the thing. But I started digging into SBA [Small Business Administration] stuff. I started going to the SBA downtown. There’s guidance there, and that guidance helps a lot.

The organization that helped me a lot was the Small Business Development Center in Kennesaw. I had already developed a business plan, but they sat down with it and said, “Well, these look OK, but let us give you something that’s going to really help you.” So they gave me P&Ls [Profit and Loss statements] – I had P&Ls already done, but they took it down to the month for three years. And they did it for free – well, I guess I pay tax money, but they provided me with CPA-looking documents that I could take to the bank at no cost.

So that was the biggest catapult that got me some real attention from some banks in what was a pretty terrible economy when I was trying to do this. But they [the banks] really took me seriously once I had a serious set of numbers for them to look at. I ended up getting a half-million dollar loan to do this. So we got some landlords, an influx of money. I gathered up the $100,000 down payment from what I’d saved and from my family.

What were some of the other challenges in opening a new restaurant?

There are daily challenges. A start-up… what I didn’t know is the whole SBA thing. I knew they [the SBA] were there, but I didn’t think it was for the average Joe. But they really are out there just to help the economy. I remember standing in front of the Cobb County board and them asking how many employees we were going to have, and I said,  25. And they said “Oh that’s great!” and now here I am with double that number.

Tell me a little bit about your new wine bar.

It’s called Stem Wine Bar. It’s right next door [to Seed]. It’s actually connected to the space. It’s about 40 seats. It’s European small plates, local charcuterie, artisan cheeses. It’s got about a dozen different small plates on the menu, about 41 wines by the glass, 70 or 80 wines total. We’ve discovered there is a wine-drinker market here in East Cobb, and we wanted to give them a new experience.

What made you want to locate it immediately next door to Seed?

There was an empty piece of real estate right next to me, so that was part of the reason. I didn’t want anyone else to take it. But it made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. Now we don’t have to build another production kitchen, and you can draw from staff who’s already here. Seed was attracting a lot of people. They’re going to find out about Stem because it’s right next door; if we were down the street, not necessarily. I have a great management team, and we have a great passion for wine and paring food and wine. It was the logical next concept for us.

Stem shares a kitchen with Seed?

Yes. We’ll do some production in this kitchen, but Stem does have its own little kitchen, mainly just for service.

What’s the one item you must have in your kitchen?

I always have six or seven different soy sauces. People are always asking me what the differences are between them and how to use them. So I think that’s what I have to have.

What would you say is your favorite restaurant in Georgia outside of your own?

Probably Rathbun’s. That’s kind of where we frequent. He was a big mentor of mine.

Who is the most inspirational person in the restaurant world?

I like Danny Meyer. He’s obviously a successful restaurateur in New York, and I just love his approach. I read his book [Setting the Table] and love his approach to running a business. He’s very careful, and his expansion (his second concept) took him 17 years to open. It took me only 17 months, so I’m not really following his advice (laughs). But just the focus he puts on the quality of the product and the quality of the service that’s being delivered — it’s an inspiration.

What’s your favorite thing about the restaurant industry?

The hours. No, just joking. Every day is a blank slate, and you really don’t know what you’re getting into. You’re either built for that or you’re not. I kind of enjoy it and thrive off it.

If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?

I’d do something simple like a nice rib-eye and a good Cab.

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