John Turnbull, the Brooklyn-bred executive chef at Madre (214 Franklin St.), loves traveling all over the world and learning about different cuisines.
Turnbull was raised in South Brooklyn, but is currently a Greenpoint local. After crunching numbers as an economics major in college, he decided the finance world wasn’t for him and wanted to try his hand at cooking, starting at the very bottom as a delivery driver.
He’s worked at Antica Pesa (115 Berry St.) and Llama Inn (50 Withers St.), and is now bringing inspiration from all over the world to Madre.
Greenpointers spoke with Turnbull to hear all about his exotic adventures, a few favorite dishes at Madre, and his love for our diverse Greenpoint neighborhood.
Greenpointers: You weren’t always an executive chef. You started your tenure in the restaurant industry at the very bottom as a delivery driver. What made you want to be a part of the food world so badly?
Chef John Turnbull: It has always been a passion of mine. When I was in college, I was living with a bunch of guys and we needed to eat. Somehow, I became the cook of the house, and it slowly became a passion.
When I came back to New York, I had odd jobs here and there. I said, let me see what the restaurant world is like. I learned on the job. The first place I was a delivery driver was Dos Toros. I was 23 and just took a job. When I got back from delivering, I would poke my head in the kitchen and ask if they needed onions chopped or anything, and they said yes. I started from there.
Then, I found a job in Williamsburg at Antica Pesa (115 Berry St.). I worked there for almost three years, and became a junior sous chef. I learned everything there, and I fell In love with Italian food. After that I went into the Michelin world. I worked at The Nomad. And then after that, I went to Italy for eight months, which was really cool.
Greenpointers: You also worked at another local restaurant, Llama Inn, as a sous chef. Why did you switch from Italian to Peruvian?
Chef Turnbull: My thing is that I love to travel. I don’t get a ton of time, but every year I make it a point to take a two-week vacation and go somewhere interesting that is affordable and has incredible food.
For example, my first trip was to Peru. I came back thinking that Peruvian food was the best food ever, so I got a job at Llama Inn (50 Withers St.). They make awesome contemporary Peruvian food.
Greenpointers: And how did you finally end up at Madre?
Chef Turnbull: Two years after my trip to Peru, I went to Spain. When I came back, this job at Madre opened up. It’s not quite Spanish, but we have some things like pulpo and croquetas. We can play with pretty much anything. It’s like a new American concept, but I try to lean toward Mediterranean and Spanish flavors.
Traveling is my biggest inspiration. I just got back from Thailand and I’ve been going hard on fish sauce lately.
Greenpointers: Will the menu at Madre soon have a dish that is Thai-inspired?
Chef Turnbull: We use fish sauce in certain recipes, in places where it is not overpowering. I can’t make Thai food here; it doesn’t fit. But I am probably going to put a dish on soon that is wrapped in a banana leaf, and steamed, but with Mexican chilies, instead of Thai chilies. You can learn a technique, but make it in your own way, too, which is something really special.
Greenpointers: What is your favorite Madre menu item to cook currently?
Chef Turnbull: I’d say any of the fish dishes. It requires attention to detail. Right now, we have monkfish. It’s a delicate fish and is super ugly. But, once you clean it and give it the love it needs, it tastes like lobster. It’s sustainable and affordable. Plus, I like butchering fish.
Greenpointers: What dish would you recommend to locals going to Madre for the first time?
Chef Turnbull: Probably the ceviche. And people love the banana soufflé. That’s something that not many people do. We’re proud that we have a soufflé. Everyone loves the croquetas. They are classic. Those are stand outs. And maybe the octopus. We’ve had that on the menu since day one.
Greenpointers: Where do you go in the neighborhood when you’re not working? Do you have some favorite Greenpoint restaurants (other than Madre)?
Chef Turnbull: I like some of the older spots. I love Amber Steakhouse (119 Nassau Ave.). It’s old school. I also love Greenpoint Fish (114 Nassau Ave.). Those are my fish guys, but, I also love their happy hour oysters. I also love the old school Polish joints. On my days off, I like to keep it more low key and casual. But also still delicious.
Greenpointers: What’s your favorite thing about the restaurant scene in Greenpoint?
Chef Turnbull: I love that it’s so diverse and ever-changing because there are always new things opening and closing. Its approachable. You can get high end stuff, like Oxomoco (128 Greenpoint Ave.) which has a Michelin star, but then next door, there’s Karczma (136 Greenpoint Ave.) where you can get a $15 lunch plate that feeds you for days. The diversity is amazing.
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