With today's fast-paced fine dining kitchens and a demanding restaurant clientele, I often forget that the real purpose of eating out for many is usually more about the companionship than the food. But once a year, on Thanksgiving, I get the rare opportunity to sit down with friends and family and enjoy a feast the way everyone else does.
Professional chefs have all become accustomed to eating standing up, at the oddest of hours, usually at the opposite time than the rest of the civilized world goes about the ritual. Lunch is usually 2:00 for a chef, after the regular lunch rush, and dinner might be closer to 11:00. For my family Thanksgiving, however, I enjoy a place at the table, civilian attire and a welcomed break from the typical pace of restaurant life. It's a chance to be normal for a day.
That's not to say that I don't cook the meal. I usually prepare most of the dishes for the 35 plus who gather, but in the big picture that's a reasonably stress-free meal, knowing exactly how many people to prepare for and what time to serve. Contrast that with a Saturday night service where 200 diners all order different items at different times, and a buffet for 35 suddenly becomes a welcomed reprieve.
Our family Thanksgiving menu has evolved over the years into an eclectic spread that may seem strange to the outsider, but each element has it's own story and significance to us, so we stick with what works. As people begin to arrive, we start with a standing seafood appetizer station complete with chilled shrimp, oysters on the halfshell and occasionally even a little caviar. It's one of the only opportunities to gather everyone together, so splurging a bit on this big meal is not uncommon. My two-year-old daughter will probably try her first oyster this year. The seafood is usually accompanied by California chardonnay or my father's famous Bloody Mary concoction. I always pick the freshest Maine oysters from Browne Trading Co, a supplier that I found while in culinary school in Vermont. Any leftover oysters will be soaked in hot sauce overnight and fried for an early lunch the next day. The shrimp are from my favorite Texas supplier and I whip up a Creole remoulade sauce that I learned while working in New Orleans. Usually a Champagne mignonette type of sauce tops the fresh oysters.
When it comes to the buffet, the wheels really come off at our house. I start with a wild turkey, usually harvested on Monday of that week if I'm lucky. The tradition of harvesting a wild bird started when I was 13 and bagged my first turkey, and ever since I've been refining my skills in coaxing out all of its' finest flavors and attributes. We also roast a store-bought bird, but I'm glowing with pride every year that the smoked wild specimen receives more praise than the domestic bird, which is now usually the case. Two batches of gravy are always required, since the question of giblets-in or giblets-out will never be fully answered. The mashed potatoes are rustic, meaning the skins are still in there and flavors of roasted garlic and plenty of butter and cream are added for decadence. My Aunt has been bringing her famous creamy mushroom casserole for years and it still tastes as wonderfully rich and savory as the first time I tried it back in the 70s. The vegetable is usually baby green beans, tossed in garlic and olive oil at the last minute, but left slightly crisp to the tooth and sprinkled with slivered toasted almonds. Tossed green salad, fresh rolls and homemade cranberry sauce usually round out the main spread.
On a separate counter, desserts make the perfect treat before watching football and chasing kids around the yard. Pumpkin spiced cheesecake is always a family favorite, which I always top with amaretto or bourbon-spiked whipped cream. The rest of the table is typically adorned with a veritable potluck of different sweets brought by everyone in attendance.
What makes this day so special to me is the chance to actually sit down and slow down to a normal pace of life. We say our blessing as a family, we eat at our own pace, we laugh at how cute the kids act at their little table as they mimic our every gesture. As a chef, the opportunity to not only sit for a meal, but to gather with friends and family on equal footing is a welcomed experience, even if tomorrow is Friday, and the frantic pace is sure to fire up again soon. For one day, I get to be on the other side of the service industry, and I never have to do the clean up!