David Turin likes to tell a story that dates back to 1983, when he was about to open his first restaurant in Hyannis, Mass.
Turin, 56, and now an award-winning chef, received a letter that a chef was going to start a program on some sort of television food network.
“I got a letter in the mail that they wanted a resume, and I just laughed,” Turin recalled. “It was on the South Shore. Emeril Lagasse was the chef right next door, and he accepted.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Chef Emeril Lagasse became a staple in the fledgling Food Network, and seemingly overnight, everyone became a “foodie.” For his part, Turin has made his own mark, most recently as the 2012 Maine Restaurant Association Chef of the Year. Turin says he enjoys the Food Network and other culinary shows on television, and has done many segments on the WCSH show “207.” But Turin tells his employees to keep matters in perspective.
“I keep telling my people, ‘Guys, you’re going to eat it, you’re not going to hang it on a wall,’” says Turin.
Turin owns four southern Maine restaurants: David’s and David’s Opus 10 are in Monument Square in Portland, David’s 388 is in South Portland and David’s KPT is in Kennebunkport. The Cape Elizabeth resident has been a restaurant owner for 33 years.
“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “I have a good time about 80 percent of the time.”
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Turin as a child saw his father cook and his mother entertain.
“So you can naturally see why I became a chef,” he said. “I spent a lot of time tinkering around the kitchen.”
More than even the food, however, Turin has a lot of his mother in him. That’s what keeps him flitting from restaurant to restaurant, from kitchen to kitchen.
“I like hospitality,” he said. “Being a chef is second. I’m socially uncomfortable unless I have a plate of hors d’oeuvres in my hand.”
Turin is about food, not flamboyance. Following a couple of years as executive chef at Boston’s Bay Tower Room, which at the time took in the 13th-largest dollar volume of any restaurant in the country, Turin turned to the Massachusetts coastal town of Newburyport. He then ventured north to Portland in 1994. In the city’s arts district, Turin began creating what he calls “refined comfort food” at his eponymous restaurant.
“If it’s super esoteric, I have less interest,” Turin said. “I just wish the molecular science study on food would go away.”
Turin says that refined comfort food requires a little more preparation and presentation than standard-variety comfort food. He points to an example on his menu: pepper-crusted sushi rare tuna with peanut soba noodles and Szechuan dipping sauce.
“That’s a highly stylized dish,” Turin said. “The flavors go really, really well together.”
Turin says the Portland and Kennebunkport restaurants are the largest, and have the broadest appeal. David’s 388 offers smaller portions and smaller prices.
“We offer a seven-course dinner at David’s Opus 10 – carnivore or vegetarian,” he said.
Turin spends half of his work week – about 25 hours – in the kitchen.
“If I could just cook, I would be so happy,” he said. “It would be just great.”
As for baby boomers’ taste in food, Turin says they still like burgers, “in every form.”
They tend not to be trend followers, he said.
Turin is not even thinking of retirement, though there are some things he won’t miss.
“There’s a lot to do,” he said. “One of the things I’m leaving right now is the power of administration, and organization. I have young, enthusiastic people with me. I’d like to expand, to create opportunities for them.”
What’s his favorite thing to prepare in the kitchen?
“You can put anything in the world on a pizza,” Turin said. “I like making pizza, and I like baking bread. Then as soon as we get warm weather, I think, cold accompaniments to hot dinners.”
Turin said he was surprised when the Maine Restaurant Association named him Chef of the Year last year, during a ceremony at Holiday Inn by the Bay.
“I thought they were fooling me,” he said. “I said, ‘Really?’”
The Maine Restaurant Association didn’t have any doubts. In its May, 2012 newsletter regarding Turin’s award, the organization noted: “Chef David Turin has established himself as a Portland icon, with his flagship venture, David’s, being among the most successful restaurants in the city. Located in Monument Square, David’s is open weekdays for lunch and nightly for dinner. Diners can watch the creation of their dishes, drawn from many of the world’s cuisines, prepared in the open kitchen.”
Larry Grard is a staff writer at Current Publishing.