Brent Turnipseede, executive chef at Traverse, at The Lodge at Breckenridge, has worked in some of the most prestigious restaurants in Dallas, Austin, Vail, and now, Breckenridge. After 15 years of experience, he knows kitchens in and out, and below, he talks about the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to being a chef — and why he loves it so much, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
What inspired you to become a chef?
My inspiration for cooking began at an early age, when all of the Turnipseede families would go down to my grandparents’ house in South Texas for Thanksgivings and Christmases. It was here that four generations and five different families all cooked together under the same roof, creating some of my most fond and delicious food memories to date. Always poking my head in for smells and tastes, my passions for good food and great company with friends and family were instilled in these gatherings.
How did your life in restaurants begin?
I grew up working in restaurants; my first job ever was a host at Tony Roma’s Steakhouse when I was 15 years old. I waited tables and bartended all through high school and college, finding the restaurant setting the most natural environment for me to thrive in.
Upon graduating from college with a business degree, I worked as a headhunter for medical surgeons in Dallas for almost two years. Recognizing that I wasn’t pursuing my true passion, I quit my stable office position and enrolled in culinary school in Austin, Texas in the fall of 2005.
My first kitchen job ever was at the renowned Siena Ristorante Toscana in Austin Hill Country. It was there I learned the art of fresh pasta, Italian sauces and classic flavors and plating styles. From there, I moved to Dallas and worked at Abacus Restaurant with Kent Rathbun, Omar Flores and Tre Wilcox.
What inspires your cuisine?
My cuisine is inspired by the bounty of nature and what is all around us. Living in Colorado, it is easy to be inspired on a daily basis with the grand views and beautiful landscapes. On the flip side, our growing season here is considerably shorter than elsewhere, so finding ways to incorporate produce that is in season but grown elsewhere definitely helps to influence my cuisine. As far as flavors, growing up in Texas has a strong and lasting impression on my cuisine. Bold flavors, smoke, spice and traditional Southern recipes that I grew up on always seem to find their way into my cuisine.
Why did you move to Breck?
I began working at The Lodge in August 2014. We began to do in-house caterings for weddings, even though the restaurant wasn’t fully completed. I commuted from Vail for the first five months and moved to Silverthorne in mid-January.
Prior to living and working in Summit County, I had been in Vail for the past eight years. It was bittersweet leaving Vail, as I have made some life-long friendships and relationships over the years, but having the opportunity to build a food & beverage program from the ground up was too lucrative to pass up — not to mention the view from our deck at The Lodge is the best in the state!
What do you love most about being a chef?
The opportunity to create new and different things on a daily basis. There aren’t a whole lot of other jobs that allow such freedom of creativity and artistry.
I also love being able to work with my hands and finding pleasure and satisfaction in the smallest details: intricate knife cuts, beautiful sauce designs, perfectly organized food storage areas, and the “dance” of working on a well-functioning kitchen line with other chefs.
Maybe above all, I love hearing the feedback from a happy (and stuffed) guest who has experienced my food and cooking.
What is your cooking, and management philosophy?
My cooking philosophy and management style go hand-in-hand. Humility, mutual respect and a hard-working attitude are the top three attributes that I strive for in my own personal management style, as well as qualities that I look to instill in my employees. Always being willing to learn from anyone, and always being ready to take on any task no matter how big or small are traits that any successful kitchen employee needs to have. Patience and remaining calm in the face of chaos are traits that any leader in the kitchen should strive for.
How do you continue to evolve?
I am constantly striving to evolve as a chef through any means available. Reading publications and cookbooks, researching new restaurants, experimenting with new ideas and products, finding new vendors and consulting with colleagues are methods I use on a daily basis.
The desire and willingness to grow and learn are the first step in evolving in any position. Once you have that desire burning within you, it’s addictive to find new ways of thinking and cooking — and nearly impossible to stop.
I also keep an extra close eye on the food scenes in certain cities, staying up to date on restaurant openings/closings, food trends and movement of chefs. It’s fun to see some of my colleagues that I worked with in Dallas and Austin a decade ago who are now receiving various honors, such as James Beard nominations and awards.
What challenges did you have to overcome on your way to “the top”?
There have been many challenges to overcome since that fateful day I decided to quit my job, take on student loans, and enroll in culinary school. While TV does a great job of glamorizing the chef life, in reality, it is a much different world than what is usually seen by the general public.
Coming out of school, the starting wages for chefs/cooks are extremely low, and the road to making a decent and livable wage is a long one. Depending on where you are working, and especially in the city, competition for jobs and advancement is very high. In addition, most chefs spend 8+ hours a day on their feet with no break, in 90+ degree temperature, and rarely get to hear any personal feedback from the guests. The kitchen takes the blame, doesn’t get the praise, and works more hours for less money than the front of the house. There are only two acceptable reasons why a kitchen employee can (miss) work: you’re either in jail or dead!
Over the last decade, I have worked countless hours off the clock, worked over 400 hours in one month, worked sick, worked injured, worked through third-degree burns, work through stitches from cuts, and work every holiday imaginable without getting to spend time with family.
All things considered, this is still my dream job every day, and I wouldn’t imagine doing anything else.
What would you say to kids who want to become executive chefs?
The life of a chef is not for everyone, and I would definitely encourage any kids interested in pursuing this life/career (because it is intertwined) to spend some significant time in a professional kitchen any chance they can get.
In the professional world we do working interviews called a “stage.” This is unpaid time spent in the kitchen, designed to benefit both the applicant and the employer, so that cooking styles and capabilities can be assessed. This is always welcome in most kitchens no matter what level of experience, and especially in mine as I love sharing my passion, knowledge and work habits with anyone interested.
What has having a newborn son brought into your life?
My son is 1 month old today, and his birth has already changed my life. First and foremost, I have learned to be more patient. This is immediately beneficial when dealing with employees and guests, for many reasons that you can probably assume.
He has also allowed to me feel an unconditional love that I’ve never experienced before, and this translates into my work via an appreciation for each person and part of the operation. Slowing down and taking the time to acknowledge and recognize the work each person does is vital for any organization/family, and I am striving to do this in my personal life as well.
How do you balance family and social life with the demanding schedule of being a chef?
It’s extremely difficult for a chef. In the last decade, I have only spent one Christmas and one Thanksgiving with my family — and that was because they traveled up to Colorado from Texas to visit.
Times when families usually spend the most time together are usually the times when restaurants are the busiest. The restaurant becomes your family, in a sense. I spend more time with my co-workers than I do with my own family. Obviously this isn’t how I want to live my life forever, but it definitely makes me appreciate every second I do get to spend with family.
What was your worst, or funniest, “screw up” in the kitchen?
One of the funniest screw-ups I have seen in the kitchen involved some freshly made cornbread. The restaurant I was working at used cornbread in a variety of different applications, so we would make giant batches of about eight trays of cornbread at a time. When I went to cut into the cornbread, I realized it wasn’t the right consistency. A horror came over me, thinking I had accidently mistaken my cornbread for some of our pastry chef’s cakes, however when I double-checked the recipe I realized I had forgotten one ingredient: the cornmeal. I basically made 30 pounds of savory, unsweeted “cakebread.”
Guilty indulgence when it comes to food?
Guilty indulgences for food would have to be any animal skin, I just can’t help myself. Salmon skin, duck skin, chicken skin, pork skin — it’s all delicious when cooked properly and made salty and crispy. Other than that, it is usually all of my Southern staples that I have a hard time finding up here: fried chicken, BBQ brisket and good Tex-Mex.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you do?
I literally couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing if I wasn’t a chef. Over the years I have absolutely considered other career options or jobs (especially in times of financial hardship or periods when I felt overworked and burned out) and have never been able to come up with a viable alternative.
As I mentioned earlier I did work as a headhunter for surgeons for two companies — Martin Fletcher and Merrit Hawkins. I was able to travel around the country, I was paid well, I worked standard 9-5 M-F, and I could afford to take time off when I desired. Even so, it wasn’t for me. I need to work with my hands, and I need to see something tangible and beautiful that I create on a daily basis.
Along those lines, the only other job I can think of that would fulfill those needs is an artist or a carpenter — but I can’t draw or carve.
What do you love doing outside of the kitchen?
I enjoy spending time with family and friends, cooking food and enjoying beverages. I ski when I can in the winter, and over the past two years have become a huge fan of ski-biking as well. In the summer I like to play disc golf and real golf and love spending time on the river. Year-round I love to go bowling, try new restaurants, and am an avid movie and music fan.
To meet Brent in person, and perhaps let him know how great his cuisine is, head up to Traverse Restaurant, in The Lodge at Breckenridge.