Owner and chef Thomas Zippelli discusses the new Turn House Grill in Columbia. (Andrew Michaels, Baltimore Sun Media Group)
At 6 years old, Thomas Zippelli found his way around the kitchen while cooking with his sister and Italian grandmother every day when their parents were at work.
It was those early days spent around the stove that Zippelli says prepared him for his own culinary quest as the new owner and executive chef of Columbia's Turn House restaurant and bar in Harpers Choice.
The Turn House replaces Coho Grill after nearly 30 years. Zippelli purchased the restaurant 23-year owner Chuck Sachs in July. The reinvigorated restaurant will open under its new name Oct. 15 with a change of scenery, including new decor, layouts and menus.
"It's really interesting because once you're the chef, you're cooking less," Zippelli said. "It's very humbling actually because I'll put together a dish with one of my sous chefs and I got very lucky with the kitchen staff that I have. We inherited and hired some really good people."
An Ellicott City native, Zippelli has returned to his roots in the new leadership role, bringing back cooking tales and techniques from his time at popular New York City and California hotspots, Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park and Napa Valley's The French Laundry.
Zippelli said he studied the culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and interned at Eleven Madison Park, later becoming one of its many prep cooks, also known as commis chefs. Although the restaurant's fast pace and high precision was a bit of a culture shock compared to the classroom setting, the now 27-year-old was immersed in a world of cooks from Korea, Brazil and Lithuania.
"I got my butt kicked for the first year and a half and then figured it out," he said. "You just learn from watching people. You just work your way up. That's how you gain a respect for it. It helps you figure out the kitchen a little bit more."
Three years later, Zippelli moved to the West Coast to work under chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in the middle of Napa Valley. Unlike the back-ups and fail-safe techniques required at Eleven Madison Park, Zippelli said everyone was in charge of themselves at the French Laundry, clocking in around 8 a.m. and working until 2 or 3 a.m. the next day.
Chefs walked across the street to a farm every morning, he said, to pick the day's vegetables.
Working with Keller was a dream come true, Zippelli said, and he recalled receiving Keller's cookbook, The French Laundry Cookbook, as a 10th-grader at River Hill High School in Clarksville.
"Keller's cookbook opened my eyes to what food could be. I got that cookbook and I was like, 'How do you even do this?'" Zippelli said. "From that day, I was determined to go there."
At the Turn House, Zippelli plans to continue supporting local farmers for his own restaurant, buying produce and meat from neighboring businesses. The restaurant purchases their beef from Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg, Zippelli said, where he'll often stop by himself.
About 80 percent of the restaurant's products and produce is purchased within the county, a community Zippelli says was originally known for its farmland. In his eyes, it's always more efficient and responsible when businesses help other businesses.
Dan Burns, Columbia Association sport and fitness director, said Zippelli's work was truly impressive and will be a great asset to the future of the restaurant and the golf club.
"We were wowed by his experience as well as the concept and vision for his restaurant," Burns said. "Our ultimate hope is that the restaurant will be a place where golfers will relax after a round, but also where anyone in the community can enjoy a nice, fresh farm-to-table dinner in a beautiful setting."
Tucked away by the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, Zippelli said he plans to put the restaurant's outdoor dining area to good use – it's one of the largest outdoor dining areas in the county – and take advantage of the peaceful view.
"What I like best about the location is the fact that a lot of restaurants in town are either at the mall or in the parking lot of something," Zippelli said. "The fact that we have this beautiful setting and a natural backdrop is really beneficial for us. We're really just trying to find our rhythm and find out what this restaurant will become."