Mixing things up in the chemistry lab turned into a successful career as an executive chef in Las Vegas for a Grantsville High School graduate.
Clayton Turnbow, 40, a 1997 graduate of Grantsville High School, is the executive chef at Charlie’s Bar and Grill in the Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Before moving to Charlie’s, Chef Turnbow worked at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen and Bar at Caesars’ The LINQ Hotel and Casino.
In less than six years at Fieri’s restaurant, Turnbow rose from the bottom rung chef tournant to sous chef and then finally he became the top executive chef in Fieri’s Vegas kitchen.
Turnbow will be one of four of Fieri’s chefs to be featured on the 2019 Christmas Day airing of an episode of the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games.”
Turnbow’s cooking career started with high school chemistry.
“I liked high school chemistry and did well,” he said. “I liked mixing things together.”
After graduating from high school, Turnbow eventually headed to Utah State University in Logan with plans to major in chemistry or possibly to prepare for a career in anesthesiology.
“College chemistry was different,” he said. “I found that I sucked at chemistry.”
By chance, Turnbow said he enrolled in a cooking class and found that he enjoyed cooking.
“It was like chemistry, you mix things together, but then you go to eat what you mixed,” he said.
Cooking may run in his family, according to Turnbow.
“My mom was a from scratch baker at Soelberg’s in Grantsville,” he said. “I used to help her mix things and bake at home.”
After two years in Logan, Turnbow was married to a girl from Logan. He was faced with a decision, continue at USU or pick up and move to Las Vegas to train as a chef at LeCordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
He, and his wife, chose Cordon Bleu and Vegas.
“It was a good decision,” Turnbow said. “It might have been expensive, but the doors it opened were worth it.”
Turnbow completed an internship at Ritz Carlton in Las Vegas and graduated summa cum laude with an associate degree in culinary arts/chef training in 2007.
He worked as a cook at the Ritz Carlton Lake Las Vegas for three years. The lead cook at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for four years. He helped open the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas as master cook.
“My purpose all along was to learn how to prepare the style of food that I love,” Turnbow said. “I love homegrown American style food.”
Turnbow found a mentor in Fieri, although at this time he had not met Fieri, the winner of Food Network’s “The Next American Food Network Star.”
“I liked him,” Turnbow said. “I liked his food. I would ask myself ‘How would Guy do this?’”
When Turnbow got the chance to apply for a cook position in one of Fieri’s kitchens, he said he was very excited.
The application process included a written test, largely on food safety, and a practical knife skills test.
At the end of the skills test, one of Fieri’s chefs that was helping with the test asked Turnbow why he as applying for the cook position and not a sous chef position.
He applied for the sous chef position.
This time the hiring process included what turned out to be a last minute tasting where he had to dishes just from the name of the dish off of the restaurant’s menu.
During the process Turnbow met Fieri, whom Turnbow described as the “coolest chef ever.”
“He’s a normal human being and that’s how he treats people,” Turnbow said.
Some people don’t realize that Fieri is a chef, trained classically in France, according to Turnbow.
A month went by after the tasting and Turnbow had not heard from Fieri’s staff.
“I just figured they didn’t like me and I didn’t get the job,” he said.
Then on a Friday night around 10 p.m. his phone rang.
Turnbow said he answered and somebody asked, “Why weren’t you at work today?’”
A little confused, because he thought it was somebody from his current job calling, it turned out the caller was Chef Pascal from Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen and Bar.
When everything was cleared up, Turnbow started to work for Fieri as a chef tournant, the bottom rank of sous chefs, in the hierarchy of chefs.
After a year as chef tournant, Turnbow became the executive sous chef. After three years with Fieri, Turnbow was promoted to executive chef.
Fieri’s place at Caesars was not a small operation.
“We brought in around $16 million a year and has between 1,200 to 2,200 covers [people served] each day.”
Turnbow described the Vegas Bar and Kitchen as a gastropub with a sports bar feel.
“We had a lot of TVs so you could watch games,” he said. “It looked like a dive — a rustic dive, the kind of place you would see on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.’”
The menu was a “quick pick up menu,” Turnbow said.
“We delivered good food,” he said. “American pub food, burgers, salads, fried foods, nachos, and then we had entrees like steak, salmon and barbecue.”
Turnbow said he loves barbecue. During his career he has found time to enter and win awards at several Kansas City Barbeque Society events.
It was not uncommon for Turnbow to put in 12 to 16 hours a day on the job, working six and sometimes seven days a week, he said.
“As executive chef you deal with the politics of culinary and it weighs down on you,” Turnbow said. “You deal with issues with cooks and union rules and regulations. I had to keep two bosses, Caesars and Guy, happy.”
However, Turnbow said the working — the kitchen commotion and busy-ness — was fun.
Feeling a little burnt out after nearly six years with Guy Fieri, Turnbow took some time off to reconnect with his family, which now consisted of his wife and four boys, ages 14 through 7.
“It was great to reset with them and find out who they are,” he said.
After five months of staying at home with his boys, Turnbow was ready to go back to work.
Looking online, he found a position listed at a restaurant connected to a sports book at the Wynn in Las Vegas.
Turnbow started working as the executive chef at Charlie’s Bar and Grill at the Wynn in Las Vegas in July 2019.
“They were trying to find their identity,” Turnbow said. “And it gave me a chance to develop my identity as a cook with American style food. We redid the menu from the ground up.”
One of Turnbow’s additions to the menu was a peanut butter and jelly burger.
“It’s really gluttonous,” he said.”It’s everything you enjoyed as a child, peanut butter, jelly, American cheese, two patties, and Ruffles potato chips on a bun.”
He also added a doughnut burger.
“It’s about playing with the balance of sweet and savory and texture,” he said.
His experience with Fieri helped him as he rebuilt the menu with classic but funky food, Turnbow said.
“It’s like Guy says, ‘go big or go home,’” Turnbow said.
Turnbow said he has always been fascinated with the way people connect to food emotionally and the way that food connects people.
“Every event that makes you happy or sad, there’s food somewhere,” he said. “When you eat that food it brings back those memories. Food is so personal and intertwined in our lives.”
Turnbow tells a story about two girls that came into Charlie’s Bar and Grill and ordered the PB&J burger.
“They were crying and asked to meet the chef,” he said. “So I walked out to the table and one of the girls said, ‘This has been a hard week for me. But when I ate the burger it brought me back to when I was a child. She hugged me and we shared a moment, because of food.”
Food Network lists the “Guy’s Guys” episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” as airing at 9 p.m. on Dec. 25.
Chef Turnbow, from Granstville, will face off with four chefs from four of Guy Fieri’s own restaurants in two rounds of culinary combat.