After sixteen years at Vesta Dipping Grill, chef Kenny Turk bids Vesta -- and Denver -- farewell
Seven years ago, on a Thursday in November, not long after Connor Gushen, a sous-chef at Vesta Dipping Grill, had moved to Denver, the scent of roasting turkeys wafted through the air. It was Thanksgiving, a day when families congregate around the dining room table and squawk about politics and each other. Gushen, who was on his own and bereft of a family in Denver with whom to squabble, didn't have plans. But fellow sous-chef Kenny Turk wasn't about ready to let Gushen spend the day on his own. "Kenny invited me and a handful of other line cooks with nowhere to go to a Vesta orphan Thanksgiving at his house with him, his wife Lisa and Cordelia, their daughter, and I remember being so grateful and learning from Kenny how strong the family vibe of Vesta really was," says Gushen.
So many other Vesta staffers, past and present, have similar stories about Turk, who, after an unprecedented sixteen years on the line at Vesta, is leaving that galley -- and Denver -- later this month to move to Albany, New York.
Turk, who began his career at Vesta in April of 1999, when he was just 27 years old, is described by his colleagues, including owner Josh Wolkon (Wolkon is also the owner of Steuben's and Ace) as the "intangible" MVP; the sous-chef behind the scenes; the unsung hero of Vesta."
Turk, reflects Wolkon, "has brought antics, tomfoolery, practical jokes and positive energy to a small kitchen that thrived in his presence, and with every successful business, there seems to be that one person who has the ability to bring smiles to those around them, and Kenny is that guy, always lightening the mood but professional when necessary." Turk, he adds, "can work each and every station with skill and ease, and he's incredibly handy with kitchen challenges involving electrical currents or plumbing."
Twice a year, shares executive chef Brandon Foster, "Kenny pulls all the ceiling tiles down in the kitchen, then cleans and/or replaces them, and then puts them all back. It's a terrible job, and one of the few things I've never done here...sounds like that'll change soon," he surmises.
Turk can "handle a misbehaving ice machine, cooler or oven, for example, all the while showcasing his skills at making sausage and salamis," says Wolkon, adding that while Turk sidesteps the spotlight, "he's been vital to the success of Vesta's line" while cooking under former executive chefs Matt Selby and Wade Kirwan and, now, Foster.
"I don't view myself as any more hardworking than anyone else, but I'll admit that I'm the guy who does the jobs that no one else wants to do -- the guy who will fix all the things that are broken, and that's just part of being the best sous chef I can be," explains Turk. As for shunning the limelight, Turk, who despite being one of the most hilarious guys on the planet with a sharp wit and a genuine ability to poke fun at himself, insists that being front and center isn't his goal. "I don't want to be in the limelight, and nor am I expected to be in the limelight," he claims. "My job is to do what it takes to make our exec chef look the best he possibly can."
And he performs that job, says Wolkon, without any pomp and circumstance -- and sans emotionally-charged antics. "Kenny never brought drama to a drama-filled industry; a cameo from Kenny in the dish pit wasn't unheard of; he was the first to jump into the dumpster if we needed more room; and when former employees think back to their best memories, favorite people, and funniest stories of their time at Vesta, Kenny's name will be mentioned often," insists Wolkon, noting, too, that Turk's mustaches -- an oft-seen site at Vesta, especially during the restaurant's annual Mustache Festival -- are legendary.
Still, while Turk, by his own admission, is the kind of guy who's perfectly content in his clogs, Selby, who was the exec of Vesta for fifteen years (he's now the exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar), cooked at the James Beard House several years ago, and while he had an impressive roster of kitchen cohorts from which to pull from on his journey to the famed New York temple of gastronomy, he chose Turk.
And anyone who's ever been to the Beard House knows that the size of the kitchen all but commands comradery -- and a shrugging nonchalance for bumping butts. In the Beard House kitchen, it's best to cook among friends. Turk was unfazed by the pressure, the culinary cognoscenti and the fact that he was cooking in a kitchen that breeds enormous prestige. "Choosing who to take the the Beard House was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make, but Kenny grounded me, which allowed me to the enjoy the moment with him; there's no one I would have rather had with me than Kenny," admits Selby, adding that Turk taught him, among other things, to "speak your mind and trust your gut -- and yourself -- and not to always worry about what other people might think about you."
And, attest Turk's colleagues, to provide comic relief on nights when Vesta's kitchen is slammed, which is the norm rather than the exception. "Kenny's best quality is making people laugh when they're down; he can cheer someone up in the blink of an eye, and he also makes some of the grossest comments that you've ever heard," reveals Steven Cox, another sous at Vesta who will take over Turk's position when he departs.
I know this from firsthand experience. "If you ever find yourself in a a stressful situation, and you need to focus, you start whacking away at your balls," Turk tells me. "It's testicular stimulation, and it gives you a burst of energy that makes you focus, and while it might hurt a normal human being, I've been touted as a man of steel -- 60 percent steel and 40 percent dolomite -- so I'm actually stronger than steel," he asserts, acknowledging that the ball whacking only happens two, maybe three times a month. "I only do it in the heat of battle, and it's usually just ten to fifteen whacks -- just enough to make it inspiring to those around me," he adds.
"I've seen him punch himself in the balls while smiling...many, many times," collaborates Rob Bowman, a server at Vesta and instigator of the Mustache Festival. Bowman, who says that the name "Turk conjures up odd images of Ottoman raiders descending upon some poor, unsuspecting village in Turkey," predicts that if "Turkey were a high school, Kenny would be its mascot, and he'd be screaming down a hill swinging knives, while his other hand would be furiously punching himself in the balls, provoking a kind of existential dream in his enemies. He can punch himself in the balls over and over. I can't emphasize this enough," stresses Bowman.
Turk is also renowned for what he calls "his wild tales and outlandish stories," including one that involves his blind eye; no one knows if it's his right or left, including, he admits, his wife...although he could be fibbing about that. "It's true that I'm blind in one eye, but which eye is my most tightly guarded secret, and my wife doesn't even know, because she says I'm always cross-eyed," deadpans Turk, who will tell you that his blind eye is a result of one of three things: "I was born blind in one eye because of a folded retina, and my parents didn't even realize it until I was two years old; I was attacked by a bear in the woods who took a swipe at my leg and hit my eye instead; or I was attacked by a shark in the ocean while snorkeling." But he does confirm this: "If you look deeply into the eye that's blind, you'll see your own death," he declares.
"Some us wish we could get a straight answer from Kenny when we ask him how he lost the vision in his eye, but the story changes every time and often comes with a warning that if you look into the wrong eye, you'll see your own demise," says Doc Noe, the director of marketing and human resources of Secret Sauce, the parent company under which Vesta, Steuben's and Ace are all umbrellaed.
In addition, says Noe, "Kenny's horrific handwriting and somewhat creative spelling has been referenced by more than one line-mate, especially those who have had to read one of his prep lists or recipes."
And then there's the matter of the "astronaut training" of newbies, which, according to Foster, is Turk's (mostly benign) hazing of incoming line cooks. "When I first started at Vesta, Kenny defined it as being able to tolerate anything at any time," recalls Foster. The "training," he reveals, involved "tests like turning up the heat on the flattop so I'd burn the pita bread if I wasn't watching it closely enough; rearranging my station while I was in the walk-in; and tugging at my arms and my chef coat while I was trying to ladle sauces into two-ounce cups."
In fact, once the new guy -- most of them spend the first several days learning all the sauces -- had just gotten comfortable on the line, Turk admits he'd "tickle, prod and poke him, all in an effort to make him focus on the task at hand." According to Turk, the "astronaut training" is about "overcoming your fears and phobias in order to make you concentrate, even when you're wielding a knife."
Training cooks, notes Noe, "is at the core of a chef's responsibilities," and it's "fair to say," he adds, that "Kenny has, in several ways, influenced many culinary careers," including the paths of chefs who have formerly commanded the line at Vesta -- Wade Kirwan and Brandon Biederman, the chef of Ace and Steuben's, for example -- and chefs like Paul Reilly and Drew Hardin. "They've all learned a thing or two from Kenny," says Noe.
Turk, he adds, is the "calming force behind Vesta's success, the quintessential man behind the scenes, the guy quietly cooking in the center of the storm." He "approaches each day at Vesta with the same intentions he's had from day one: to do his job well, so well, in fact, that you don't even notice," asserts Noe, noting, too, that Turk is "also something of a kitchen counselor," a sentiment that Foster, Vesta's exec chef for the past year and a half, agrees with.
"Kenny has always been the one who can talk me down," says Foster. "He'll always listen and let you vent, and he'll help you through anything and everything, and his energy and passion for craziness and fun is unmatched," he adds.
"Kenny is one of the most honest and genuine people I've ever met and worked with, and I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't worked under -- and alongside -- him," says Gushen. Furthermore, points out Gushen, "Kenny never forgets how to have fun, and he's basically like a big kid, except that when you really need someone with age, wisdom and experience, he'll give you whatever you need, be it the good listener or good advice giver."
For his part, Turk, who attended the Art Institute of Colorado and graduated with a culinary degree, confesses that when he first stepped on the line at Vesta, he didn't know much about anything. "When I came to Vesta, I was so green and, to be honest, I went in there blind -- I knew nothing about Vesta -- but all of us were just kids who were having fun while building an extremely successful restaurant," he says. "We grew up together, had kids together and got married together," adds Turk, who actually met his wife on the line at Vesta. "I trained her and taught her all about the sauces, and we dated secretly for five months before finally coming clean, and in 2003, we got married."
Wolkon, who promoted Turk to sous-chef in 2001, says that his departure will leave a lasting impact. "I'll be forever grateful for the time, energy, loyalty and dedication that Kenny has given to Vesta, our community and the growth of the Denver food scene," he notes. And while the nation's culinary climate is often obsessed with naming the next "celebrity" chef -- even if he can't cook worth a damn -- Turk, insists Wolkon, is the real deal. "Kenny is a local celebrity who's stayed true to what he does best: cooking and smiling," says Wolkon.
"I have this image of Kenny's grin when the shit hits the fan," shares Bowman. "You'll be in the weeds with chaos all over the place and everyone's a bit on edge, but then Turk looks up at you with with this madman grin of 'Isn't this just fucking nuts?' -- and It's fantastic, because it sends down waves of calm and odd little shivers of fear in everyone. It's him saying that everything will be okay," Bowman says. "Everyone knows that he gets shit done. He's earned what he has, and if you're in the trenches with him, he'll make sure you get out in one piece and that you win the battle -- thank God he's on my side."
Turk, whose last night at Vesta is Thursday, has a difficult time finding the right parting words. "It's so hard to sum up the last sixteen years...it's hard to explain, but I hold Vesta really close to my heart -- I wouldn't be the man I am today without Vesta -- and I'm going to miss all the people I love, respect and admire, and I'm going to miss all the hot girls, too," he jokes.
The move, he says, is due to the fact that his wife, who works for Whole Foods, was offered an opportunity in Albany that was too good to pass up, and family time, says Turk, is his main priority. "The reason why I've stayed a sous-chef all these years isn't because I couldn't be an executive chef -- I can -- but there's so much responsibility that goes along with that position, and it leaves no time for my family, and family time is a lot more important to me than being in a restaurant day in and day out. You have to lay down ground rules for yourself, and one of my rules is making sure I have personal time," explains Turk.
His future plans aren't solidified, but he has a few ideas in mind: "I'm going to retire -- at least that's what I'm telling everyone," he says. "It's nice and juicy, don't you think?"
Then again, he confides, "maybe I'll train for American Ninja Warrior, or maybe I'll be a personal chef -- the overpaid prep cook. That would be perfect." On a more serious note, says Turk, "I'm going to be a stay-at-home dad, at least during the summer, and spend some quality time with my daughter, who's eight."
We often hear restaurant industry staff -- chefs, especially -- insist that their galley mimics a family environment. "That's pretty much always horse shit," contends Bowman. "It's usually a loose association of people stuck with each other, but that's not true of Vesta," he promises. "We love together and party together; we've watched our kids grow; we've grieved together, and Kenny is my brother, and I love him. We all love him; we love his family; we love his devotion; and we love his sweetness," he says.
"Remember the punching himself in the balls thing?" asks Bowman. "Nothing will ever hurt Kenny, because he can handle anything, and that's ultimately what made him a hero of Vesta," he explains. "You need someone who will always come through? Someone who will take your side and defend you through anything? Ask for Kenny Goddamn Turk, but avoid that crazy look in his eye; I highly suspect it's contagious," warns Bowman.
On a side note, adds Bowman, Turk is allegedly absent of body hair, which has become a standing joke in Vesta's kitchen, and the crew won't let him go without addressing it. "Why is his body so hairless" wonders Gushen. "I think he has some sort of selective alopecia areata," concludes Bowman. "Kenny insists that he razors his ball sack clean, but I don't think Kenny can grow pubes. What this ultimately means about him, I'm not sure, but while no one needs an abundance of them, not being able to grow pubes is vaguely revolting," he jokes.
"I like to keep it trim down there," retorts Turk.
All joking aside, Turk's fiercely loyal sidekicks all agree on one thing: "We'll all miss Kenny dearly, and the kitchen just won't be the same without him," says Noe. "We'll miss him terribly," echoes Bowman.
And on Thursday night, when the Vesta crew bids Turk farewell, there will undoubtedly be tears. But make no mistake: Thursday will also be a party, as is customary when a staffer leaves Vesta. Expect a DJ, and, says Turk, "pies in my face," specifically one with "with whipped cream, fish sauce, turmeric, maybe a delightful hint of lavender and maybe even some food coloring." Oh, and if you show up at Vesta on Thursday -- the goodbye bash will start around 9:30 p.m. -- Turk teases that you might even witness some ball whacking. "My balls are tough as nails, so take your shot," he taunts.
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