11/10/2010 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thanksgiving At Restaurants: A Look Inside

New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton writes today on what he describes as the mostly-in-New-York phenomenon of the restaurant Thanksgiving, which can actually be the biggest day of the year for those the city's restaurants that choose to be open. Sifton explains:

It is a curious feature of New York that it may be the one city in the United States where it is perfectly normal, though by no means mandatory, for restaurants to be open for the holiday feast. Manhattan restaurants are crowded enough on the fourth Thursday of November that it's possible to imagine widespread panic if they were not. The turkey is so large, after all, and our ovens so small. Some of us have no choice but to eat out.

Jennifer McCoy, the pastry chef at Tom Colicchio's Craft, writes on HuffPost on the peculiar dynamic of working in New York's restaurant industry and its Thanksgiving call of duty:

Thanksgiving is a chef's holiday. I don't know a single chef who doesn't love it. Yet every year, I find myself at work on Thanksgiving instead of enjoying the holiday at home with family and friends. Such is the nature of the service industry, and most holidays, I don't much mind missing. (I'd rather bake 1,000 pies before attempting to hail a taxi on New Year's Eve in Manhattan.) But every November, when Turkey Day rolls around, I wonder when I'll get to celebrate my thanks--as in someone else cooking dinner while I sip mulled cider with a splash of rum.

So this year, I've cooked up a new plan: I've decided it best not to fight the inevitable--overseeing the production of 16 gallons of cranberry sauce and 48 pumpkin pies--and to embrace the holiday as best I can while working. And if there is any place to do that, it's at Craft.

I started my mission by teaching a recreational class at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). Sixteen home cooks and I plowed through recipes for pumpkin pie (made from fresh roasted sugar pumpkin, mind you), cinnamon-raisin bread pudding with bourbon sauce, comice pear-cranberry crisp and honeycrisp apple clafoutis. It was a wild mess and a true triumph. It was also the entire Thanksgiving dessert menu at Craft, completed in just four hours. Being able to orchestrate that much food production with a group of amateurs makes professional cooking seem a breeze. A nip of brandy and a slice of pie afterwards was also quite nice.

Next on the list is November 25th: A memo has just been sent out to all staff members at Craft to be dressed and ready to eat at noon on Thanksgiving Day. Sure, it's not my family I'll be sharing the day with. And yes, I will have already spent six hours baking and have about ten more ahead to get through dinner service. But, I think my coworkers are just grand and toasting the holiday (with a nice glass of Burgundy, I hope) and their likes will do just fine. It doesn't hurt that our staff meal will the same menu as our guests will enjoy just hours later. Better yet, it doesn't hurt that my chef is making Tom's famous foie gras stuffing.

Impressively, the best of the restaurants offering Thanksgiving menus have found ways to keep their fare as traditional and comfortable as possible, despite some preparations involving more complicated techniques and unlikely ingredients than found in the typical American home kitchen:

In cooking and serving Thanksgiving meals, restaurant chefs say, they must balance tradition against stasis, their own style of cooking against the desires of the customer.


"It's a very important holiday to American people," [Daniel Boulud] said. Balancing his cooks' ambitions for the meal against the expectations of guests is important, he added. "So whatever they do, we must use traditional ingredients," he said.


Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, who own the mini-empire of Frankies restaurants as well as Prime Meats in Brooklyn, said they would open only Prime Meats. Mr. Castronovo said, "We'll give people the classic dinner, but we'll we do it our way: with a pretzel-dumpling stuffing, and a confit of the leg, like rillettes." He paused. "But if you hate turkey, and I do," he said, "we do other stuff as well" -- the restaurant's regular menu.

Have you ever done Thanksgiving at a restaurant -- in New York or elsewhere?