Aspen Times Weekly: Talking Turkey | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Talking Turkey

by Amanda Rae

GATHER 'ROUND, dear readers! Here, for my second annual Thanksgiving edition of Food Matters, top chefs present memories that are happy, heart-warming, and hilarious:

THIS IS A SEASON when many stop and reflect on what they have with gratefulness. The best life lesson my mother taught me is to show thankfulness for all of life's experiences, small and great. A busy single mom from a family of chef-restaurateurs in Germany, she taught me the excitement of trying new foods, the delight of exploring new cultures, to not fear what we do not know yet. This is why I never fear cooking.

For us, Thanksgiving was not a set day to be celebrated. But Mom made it a special day for us — a way to connect to the outside world. It was only the two of us, so off we would go, out to dinner. But not just any dinner. As a young girl in Colorado Springs, stepping into an old-world Chinese immigrant's restaurant was like stepping into something out of a San Francisco novel — the sound of the bashing cleaver, the wok rattling as the chef frantically tossed its contents, a bit of smoke in the air, the chatter from the kitchen in a language I did not understand.

Every year we went for a special dish: Peking duck. The whole bird would arrive at the table on a beautiful platter, just for the two of us. The skin lay above the meat in a crispy shell; a beautifully sweetened, orange Szechuan-type sauce on the side. The old man who owned this restaurant with his wife would bring the duck to the table and honor us with a bow. I marveled at how gentle he was. I could feel his love of the craft. We were always grateful for such a gift.

That is what I am thankful for: The people we connect with every day, who shape us for the better.

—Karen Roderick, private chef

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THANKSGIVING IN New Orleans is a big event. The entire family goes to my cousin's house. We potluck it, and each dish kicks ass: baked sweet potatoes, with marshmallows, of course; stuffed blue crabs; oyster dressing; green bean-and-bacon casserole; shrimp-and-eggplant pie; and giblet gravy. The highlight of the day is always deep-fried turkey. We inject and then rub her down with spiced, herbed Cajun butter and seasoning 24 hours before frying the turkey outside. It comes out so tender and full of flavor. We use our crawfish boiler, which doubles as a turkey fryer when crawfish are not in season. At Ricard we'll use my pressure fryer, one of my favorite new toys and the reason why our Southern fried chicken and wings are so damn good! —Will Nolan, executive chef of Viceroy Snowmass

WE DIDN'T HAVE Thanksgiving in France. Oh, but we ate turkey on Christmas!

—Mawa McQueen, chef-owner of Mawa's Kitchen

CHEFS ALWAYS try to reinvent themselves with new ideas. But as a cook, my mom reinvented before she needed to! My memories of Thanksgiving were to bring turkey, potatoes, bread for stuffing — everything you'd need to create a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — to my mom's house the day before. Later, when we showed up to help, she'd already made the meal! But instead of mashed potatoes, she would make crunchy potato tacos. She would cook the turkey, make mole, and then make tamales and enchiladas. She would do stuffing, bind it up with an egg, and make dumpling soup. All we wanted was a traditional turkey; we got all these creative Mexican innovations before we could use the meal to re-create awesome leftover creations ourselves.

—Susie Jimenez, private chef

MY FIRST THANKSGIVING was in 1989 in New York City. I had come from my native Austria and knew nothing about the celebration. The day started easy enough with the usual preparations followed by lunch service. At one o'clock our chef told us to take a break and get something to eat. Not knowing what was to come, I thought this was a strange request. I should have known that something was about to occur, as the day before we had prepped and cooked 70 turkeys, mountains of sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, and strange red berries that I had not seen back in Austria. The senior chefs had warned me about this big holiday, but, being 22 years old, I was not too concerned. After all, we cooked for 500 people every day.

Returning from break, I was told that one of the employees had decided to not show up for work. I looked at Peter Schweiger, our executive chef and fearless leader. "No big deal. The guy is slow anyway," he grunted.

The next thing I know, the ticket machine starts spitting out tickets: trrr, trrr, trrr. (In those days, the printer was a noisy machine that would rattle without mercy.) Soon enough, the expediter could not keep up. Pulling and shouting orders, he let the machine rattle on, stacking 10 tickets at a time. The pace got ever faster! We found ourselves working at maximum speed — 12 turkeys, two schnitzels, three steaks medium-rare, one steak medium, four lemon chickens, 14 veggies. On and on, our expediter belted out orders. The hours wore on. There was no letting up, no break. Chefs burnt their hands, cut themselves, and the tickets kept coming in an avalanche. At 6 p.m., the board was still full of tickets. Food was everywhere. Finally, around 8 p.m., after 1,600 plates and with an entirely exhausted crew of just 10, the ordeal was over.

There would be many more challenges in years to come, but I will always think back fondly of this experience. We were each from different countries, striving for our own American dream. But this battle made us more than just a part of a team. Bonded in our shared struggle, we became a family reflecting the very essence of Thanksgiving.

—Martin Oswald, chef-owner of Pyramid Bistro & Catering

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, the last time I was in Chicago for Thanksgiving with my dad's side of the family, we decided to fry a turkey. It was the first time any of us had done this; I'd just started out cooking. We looked on the Internet and talked to other people who had done it before. (Oh, and the whole family likes to drink a lot when we get together; Captain and Coke was preferred at that time.)

So we're all standing in the driveway of my cousin's house in the suburbs, and we're already behind because we've been drinking all day. We thought we had thawed the turkey enough. We doubled the amount of oil that was supposed to be in there, and we probably had the temperature too high, too.

When we dropped in the turkey, the fryer immediate began flowing over and sparking. There wasn't a full-on explosion, but pretty close! The burner caught on fire, and the driveway was smoking. Thankfully, we knew to keep a fire extinguisher close.

We ended up with going without turkey that Thanksgiving. I think we had burgers instead.

—Jonathan Leichliter, executive chef of Justice Snow's

TWICE in my cooking career I have had to wrestle dogs for both turkey and roast beef stolen from atop lavish Thanksgiving tables. At one point, a dog replaced the poultry leg in his mouth for my hand. A stare-down ensued. I won, but the moral of the story: Please lock your overzealous dogs in the bedroom during Thanksgiving dinner!

—Allen Domingos, co-owner of Epicure Catering

Amanda Rae is thankful for a loving family, badass Aspen friends, healthy(ish) knees, and a promising winter forecast. Happy holidays! amandaraewashere@gmail.com

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