Growing up in Wisconsin, Doug Turbush never imagined he would become a chef.
“It wasn’t the typical story, learning to cook at my grandma’s knee,” Turbush said one afternoon, propping his elbows on a table at his newest dining venture, Stem Wine Bar in Marietta.
Located adjacent to his wildly popular Seed Kitchen & Bar in the bustling Merchant’s Walk Shopping Center, the intimate 40-seat “speakeasy” is anchored by a horseshoe-shaped bar with sparkling rows of glassware that give it an inviting aura that’s both glitzy and comfy.
In many ways, the sophisticated drinks and small plates destination epitomizes the big changes Turbush brought to the east Cobb dining scene when he opened Seed in November 2011.
In October 2013, two new restaurants landed not far from Seed on Johnson Ferry Road. Local Three partners Chris Hall, Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner opened the Southern-flavored Common Quarter with former Muss & Turner’s operating partner Chris Talley. And Zeal Modern Eatery, from general manager Michael Braver and managing partner Scott Sawant, joined the scene with another lively bar/restaurant concept.
“We opened Muss and Turner’s in 2005 and saw the reaction people had in the Smyrna area,” Turner said. “That gave us a sense of the possibilities in other areas. When Doug opened in east Cobb to such excitement and praise, that certainly got our attention. We were super excited to bring another option to the neighborhood and affirm what Doug was bold enough to come out and do.”
Call him a pioneer and Turbush shakes his head, expressing Midwestern modesty in a soft voice that betrays touches of irony, too. But as longtime east Cobb residents, Turbush said he and his wife, Pranee, who’s originally from Bangkok, Thailand, always wondered why there weren’t better dining options in the area.
“We’d drive around the neighborhood and get frustrated because there was nowhere to go eat,” Turbush said. “But we’d see all these BMWs and Mercedes and wonder, ‘Where do these people go to eat?’ So, yeah, we thought we could probably make something work here.”
Turbush’s long journey to opening Seed started after high school, when he decided to pursue a degree in hotel/restaurant management at the University of Wisconsin in Stout. “When in doubt, go to Stout,” Turbush, 41, said with a laugh and a shrug.
“But we had to take cooking courses to get a hotel/restaurant degree. One of the instructors, who was a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) grad, and a typical 300-pound, white hat, hard-core chef, pulled me aside one day and said, ‘You know, you’ve really got a knack for this. You should consider going to the CIA.’ Then he helped me get a scholarship.”
After graduating with honors from the CIA, Turbush spent a year in Bangkok, where Pranee worked for Coca-Cola. They came to Atlanta after she took a job at the company’s corporate headquarters.
Turbush landed at the Buckhead Life group’s Latin-influenced Nava in Buckhead, working for Kevin Rathbun, and later at its nearby Asian-fusion-influenced restaurant, Bluepointe. In all, Turbush worked for Buckhead Life for 12 years before he decided it was time to do his own thing.
“Ultimately, what I was in search of was freedom,” he said. “Freedom from a theme. Freedom from a particular cuisine. I wanted to knock down a few borders, and cook what I wanted to cook. I wanted to create my own sandbox — create something I wanted to play in every day. If I want to cook something Indian or Thai, today, I’m going to cook it.”
That notion resonated with critics, who have praised Turbush’s deft ways of shifting between Asian Mediterranean and Southern flavors while maintaining a personal style. Customers have responded by packing the place every night.
“We have regulars like I’ve never seen in my life,” Turbush said. “We get people in here three or four times a week for dinner. That’s probably the strongest and most surprising thing about the neighborhood. You can check it on Open Table and find some people have been here 200 times in the past year. Where do you see that?”
Seed’s success was one of the main reasons for opening Stem, Turbush said. “We probably started talking about doing something like Stem two months after we opened because we were turning away 70 or 80 people every night.
“But I didn’t want to just have an overflow space. I wanted to create a different dining experience. You can pop in here for a snack before a movie. Or come here for dessert and a glass of wine. But you can also make a full meal.”
As to the future of dining in east Cobb, Turbush is both realistic and optimistic.
“I think we’re still in the beginning stages of building a dining scene like you see in Roswell,” he said. “We don’t have the quaint downtown. We have strip malls. That’s the reality. But we’re seeing that there’s the customer base for what could be a number of good restaurants. And we get people from Buckhead. People will drive any distance in this town to go have a great meal.”
STEM WINE BAR
1311 Johnson Ferry Road, Suite 516, Marietta, 678-214-6888, www.stematlanta.com.