Aspen Times Weekly: Chefs share their turkey day tales
GATHER ’ROUND, dear readers! In honor of Thanksgiving, top chefs present memories that are happy, heartwarming and hilarious:
Working in Detroit at a luxury hotel, we had a fundraiser every Thanksgiving. Companies bought tables for the event, and each table had its own turkey that the sponsor would carve for guests. Usually we would cook around 100 turkeys. The logistics of pulling this off perfectly are intense. First, we brined the turkeys for 24 hours — finding cooler space was a challenge. Then we rinsed the turkeys — finding an ample-sized sink was another feat. Next, we transferred the turkeys to sheet trays with resting racks, making sure not to crowd the pan — finding oven space for these birds was trying. They required constant basting, too. The toughest part was ensuring that all turkeys were cooked in time to finish the rest of the side dishes in the oven. It was a challenge but rewarding to see a full ballroom with a perfectly golden-brown turkey at each table. — Chef David Viviano, Trecento Quindici Decano at the St. Regis Aspen Resort.
As a kid, the meal depended on which side of the family we visited that year: the Italian side or the Polish side. The Polish event was much bigger and more traditional — no pierogies — everything made from scratch and desserts over the top. The Italian side did not care for turkey. My grandfather did the cooking, and he would spend most of the day tending to the stuffed breast of veal. I remember the constant basting, all day long — he paid such careful attention to it. I was too young to help, but I was always there to taste the sauce. The veal was served with pasta and my grandfather’s red sauce — a tomato-based meat sauce, what people now call “Sunday gravy.” We use it at the hotel for the meatballs. — Chef Rob Zack, Hotel Jerome.
A family vegetarian eats turkey yearly — and insists on cooking. One year I took my wife, and the turkey was so overcooked and dry that we had to go get takeout after the meal. Never trust a vegetarian cooking meat! — Chef Matt Zubrod, bb’s.
I was an 8-year-old child adopted from Seoul, South Korea, when I was introduced to Thanksgiving in northeast Pennsylvania in 1979. I was barely able to speak English, so this holiday was an overwhelming barrage and vivid kaleidoscope of images, sounds, smells and tastes: my Ron Jaworski Philadelphia Eagles jersey, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” the colorful table settings and holiday pastries. My initial exposure to classic recipes was from my mostly German/Polish family. I helped in the kitchen. There was the turkey, pre-brined and broiling in the oven from early morning, requiring obsessive basting with herbs, spices and Yuengling beer. Deviled eggs, homemade cornichons, Pennsylvania Dutch chow-chow. Heavy cream and horseradish mashed potatoes with giblet gravy via the Betty Crocker Cookbook — my first introduction to roux. Green bean casserole with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and canned fried onions.
But the stuffing/dressing was, and continues to be, my favorite dish by far. Maybe I was attracted to the knife skills required for the mirepoix or the tantalizing aroma of the stock or the cadence of my adoptive parents’ gentle explanation of adding caraway and kielbasa to the basic “Joy of Cooking” recipe. When I began my career as a chef, I was pleasantly surprised: Memories from this American holiday served as an introduction to foundations in culinary technique that would have a long-lasting impact on my palate and understanding of food. — Chef Adam Christopher Norwig, personal chef/caterer and mercenary for Caribou Club.
Years ago, my business partner and I offered a “Master Chef Thanksgiving Day Emergency Support Service” to the community. It was mostly call-in based; however, on occasion we would travel to severe situations to help folks out. On one such occasion, a dear friend had purchased a local, free-range, organic, hand-fed, overly coddled turkey. She had no idea how to work with it, not to mention the anxiety of overcommitting herself to preparing a wholesome dinner for everyone in her family. Over the years she’d watched her mother prepare store-bought Butterball turkeys, completely butchered for immediate use, including the handy temperature pin that would pop up when ready. Of course, this animal was nothing like it: freshly butchered and wrapped in cloth and paper. I arrived at 9 a.m. to help her — oddly, not with the turkey but to support the logistics around the other festive accouterments.
When I arrived, something smelled, well, foul. Not wanting to be rude, I simply asked what was cooking. The turkey, she replied, and proudly shared that she had gotten up at 5 a.m. to inject it full of butter and seasoned liquids and put it in the oven. Still, something smelled awful, and I was having a hard time shaking it. As we were setting the table, there was a horrible explosion in the kitchen. Fragments of something — in the moment unidentified — blasted both of us, the table and, literally, everything in sight.
Despite my shock and disorientation from the blast, the most noticeable concern was the looming smell of something rotten. As we made our way to the kitchen, we noticed turkey parts everywhere. The oven door, connected only by one partial hinge, was still in motion from the impact of the blast.
Doing culinary deductive questioning, I ascertained that my dear novice friend had purchased a freshly butchered, NON-GUTTED turkey. Apparently, the local farmer failed to mention this to her, and she had no reason to know this. The awful smell, and the heating and ballooning of internal entrails, loaded with injected butter and seasoned broth, made for an impressive, oven-destroying turkey bomb.
After a bottle of wine, I called a few chef friends over to clean — and, really, to share the crime scene with others who would never believe this. — Chef David Avalos, True Nature Healing Arts, Carbondale.
As a chef in resort and destination areas, I’ve always worked holidays. So when I moved to Chicago in 2011 and my own restaurant was closed on Thanksgiving, I thought, “Wow! This is my opportunity to begin creating holiday memories with my wife!” Indeed, after 16 years of being together, 2012 was our first Thanksgiving celebration. With the nontraditional nature of my schedule, we felt it appropriate to have a nontraditional meal: roasted whole black bass with crispy duck-fat fries, mushrooms and spinach, washed down with a fantastic bottle of Meursault. I do not anticipate another Thanksgiving meal like this for another 14 years, but I’m glad to be back in Aspen, serving up holiday memories for our guests. — Chef Bryan Moscatello, The Little Nell.
My Grandma Cecil was a baker who ran a little café in Arkansas in the 1950s. On Thanksgiving she would rise at 2 a.m. and begin baking pumpkin pies to fill preorders for her café customers. My grandpa built a rack with a wooden lip to fit the backseat of her car so she could transport as many as 100 pies without them sliding off the shelves. Most of my friends had pumpkin, and maybe an ambitious pecan, pie for dinner. Grandma Cecil made sure we had coconut cream and chocolate cream, both with meringue 3 inches tall. We also had pumpkin, pecan, mincemeat and chess pie (kind of like pecan-pie filling without pecans — so sweet your teeth hurt). Cecil inspired my career in pastry. Neither of us would have ever guessed that I’d be making raw, gluten-, sugar- and dairy-free pumpkin pie today, but I’m loving this opportunity to create dessert in a healthier way. — Chef Pam Davis, True Nature Healing Arts, Carbondale.
I can’t remember the last time I actually celebrated a holiday as an adult. So that brings me to my childhood. My father is the eldest of seven. For Thanksgiving, we’d travel to my grandparents’ house in northern Virginia and meet with all the siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts from all over the East Coast. It was huge. My grandfather has a wood shop, and if weather permitted, we would set up his handmade croquet set in the front yard — after playing touch football, of course! Being from Wisconsin, my grandparents always had salamis, sausages and cheese to munch on before dinner. My aunt would make her Buffalo chicken dip. Grandpa was known to pour nice, cheap beer over any meat he was cooking.
The meal was potluck, and once everything was ready, it was kind of a free-for-all. The food was always good but nothing gourmet. It was more about us all being together. After dinner, a table would be cleared for the traditional game of smear (a card game that I still don’t know how to play). The adults would sit there until 3 a.m. sometimes, just drinking, laughing and playing. It gives me a nostalgic and warm feeling, thinking about those times. Everything was simpler. That’s why I try to make Thanksgiving in my restaurants just as memorable — to allow families to not worry about anything but being together. — Chef Aaron Schmude, Plato’s Restaurant at Aspen Meadows.
I had my first Thanksgiving celebration with friends when I came to New York. The guys who roasted the turkey were Indian, and they did an awesome job with the stuffing: celery, carrots and curry. It was traditional but a bit untraditional and really, really good. Pumpkin pie was something I hadn’t really seen (in Austria).
This year, we’ll be in Europe for the Feast of Saint Martin. We eat roasted goose with stuffing, potato dumplings with braised red cabbage, cranberries and lingonberries. It has a different meaning than American Thanksgiving, but at the end of the day, it’s about family. I really do cherish that. — Chef Andreas Fischbacher, Allegria Restaurant, Carbondale.
Amanda Rae is thankful to spend Thanksgiving with her aunt, uncle and cousins in Denver. Email amandaraewashere@ gmail.com.
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