Cherishing Thanksgiving: Chefs on food and family
It seems that, no matter who you are, most warm Thanksgiving memories begin with family, friends and plates piled high with rich, delicious dishes.
Whether you augment your stuffing with oysters or trade your traditional turkey for Cornish hens, everyone has their own recipes for making Thanksgiving Day special, including Milwaukee chefs, whose Turkey Day celebrations aren't so different from yours or mine.
It's no surprise that some chefs do at least a portion of the cooking for their family feasts.
"When I was young, Thanksgiving dinner usually featured goose," recalls Kevin Sloan of The Pabst and Riverside Theaters. "At some point we switched to Cornish hens. My mom always enjoyed cooking and has skills in the slow-cooking department, but I usually step in for the vegetable prep, beans or Brussels sprouts, carrots or anything else that's gross when over-cooked."
Dan Jacobs of Wolf Peach used to always head up the cooking for his family's Thanksgiving dinner, but now he prepares just one or two items each year.
"I always do the Brussels sprouts," he says. "It's funny because my dad thinks he hates them, but every year I catch him going back for seconds. Someday I'll call him out."
Of course, when it comes to the question of who does the cooking, you might be surprised to learn that SURG Pastry Chef Kurt Fogle doesn't usually take the lead on his family's desserts.
"Typically for Thanksgiving I cook only savory food and leave the baking up to other members of my family – my Grandpa Bob makes better pies than me," he admits.
"My Thanksgiving specialty is stuffing. I made it once 15 years ago and have had to make it every year, the same way, ever since ... with sage and onion croutons, celery, onion, pork sausage and chicken stock. "
Tradition is a powerful aspect of Thanksgiving Day feasting. Many chefs observe traditions that have been passed down in their families for generations. For others, traditions stem from beloved food memories that have created an imprint upon their hearts and minds.
"I remember visiting my friend's place and her mom was making sweet potato pie. It still had tender chunks of potato in it and I loved that texture," recalls Buckley's Thi Cao.
"I believe I may have eaten half of the pie while at their house. Her mom called it 'soul food' and got a kick out of the fact that I'd never had sweet potato pie, let alone soulful food before. I asked for the recipe and she actually gave it to me. I've made it for Thanksgiving for my family ever since."
For Wil Borgstrom of the Lowlands Group, tradition has a bit of a different ring. For him, 2012 marks the first Thanksgiving in 26 years that he'll be at home, spending time with his family.
"I am really kind of freaked out," he remarks. "Our family tradition has been my wife and three daughters coming into one of my restaurants in the early afternoon. I remember my favorite Thanksgiving was when my mom was still with us and she came in and loved all the food ... she had never eaten in a restaurant on Thanksgiving before."
He admits that being at home will be a bit of an adjustment, and that he'll miss showing up at the restaurant at 3 or 4 in the morning to start the turkeys roasting. But, his plans for Thanksgiving with the family won't fail to be a delicious food-filled affair.
"This year, I will shuck our favorite Malpeques and Beausoleils oysters as an appetizer," Borgstrom tells me. "I'll bake butternut squash and roast Brussels sprouts and heirloom carrots, make hand-harvested wild rice stuffing with morels that I foraged in the spring off our farm."
Borgstrom also plans to brine a heritage turkey in cider and prepare a duck confit with tart cherries. His wife will open the wine, and his three girls – Hannah, Alexandra and Eleanore – will be assigned to the task of doing the dishes after dinner.
"They don't know that yet," he remarks. "It's kind of a surprise."
Coquette Café's Nick Burki says that he is always in charge of the gravy at his house, as well as carving the holiday turkey. He says he loves to make his grandmother's recipe for stuffing, which calls for plenty of flavorful turkey giblets; but, he also takes charge of a number of other traditional dishes, including sweet potato Dauphinoise and sauteed Brussels sprouts with bacon. For dessert, he normally makes pecan pie and cranberry walnut tart.
"My favorite part of Thanksgiving is a combination of being off of work, getting together with family and friends and enjoying their company," Burki says as he tells me about his feast. "Eating, drinking and more eating ... and football. I also love the post-turkey nap."
Napping isn't usually part of the deal for Justin Aprahamian of Sanford, who observes a classic Wisconsin Thanksgiving weekend tradition.
"I usually try to take the week off to go deer hunting with my dad, something we've done basically every year since I was 11 or 12," Aprahamian explains. "I always think of the week of Thanksgiving as an important time of year in that sense. For the last several years I usually cook up a good portion of venison. For a few years in a row it was a whole leg braised into a homemade mole sauce ... this is how my mole started for the restaurant menu."
It's a keen reminder that, as delicious as our Thanksgiving dinners can be, the most important part of the day should be the time spent together with family.
"My favorite things about the day are simple," Sloan expounds. "Seeing the family, the smells of the kitchen moving through the house, the fireplace and watching football with my dad. With the arrival of my niece and extended family as of late, the celebration of the day has moved around and some of the traditional ingredients are left behind, which is kind of a bummer. Nonetheless, wherever the celebration takes place this year, I'm sure I'll enjoy the company, as well as not being in the kitchen all day."
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