Photo collage by Tania Bou Samra. Photos courtesy of Noëmie Carrant and Angel Barreto

Chef FeaturesNational

How America’s Chefs Celebrate Thanksgiving in 2021

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How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? With a traditional turkey and all of its fixings? With delicious food that reflects your family roots?

Curious (and hungry) to see how others celebrated November’s most anticipated Thursday, we asked a host of Resy chefs across the country for their Thanksgiving memories and recollections. From embracing American culture as immigrants to vegan revamps, from reclaiming the holiday to traditionalist extravaganzas, here’s how they celebrate.

The following quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

 

Bun Cheam, Executive Chef at Red Hook Tavern

New York, NY

“I’m a Cambodian immigrant. We came over to America in 1989 when my uncle sponsored us. I grew up in an Asian household and we didn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving. But since everyone was off from work that day, we would gather at my grandparents’ or uncle’s house and do a huge potluck.

“Every auntie and uncle would have the thing they made the best. My mom would make these stir-fried noodles with roast pork. My dad would make his famous fried rice. My grandfather, his baos. My grandmother would fry tofu skins stuffed with pork, jicama, onions, and garlic chives — all the kids would look forward to that one.

“Once I was a teenager, I wanted to have all the things other families had for Thanksgiving. So, I brought the turkey. It was really dry the first time I did it. The gravy was greasy, the mashed potatoes were wet. It was a little bit of a disaster, but I made it better and better each time, and finally, making the turkey just became the thing that I did.

“I haven’t had a chance to celebrate with my family because I’m working here in New York, but they still cook the turkey. My uncle does it in my honor, and every time he makes one, he sends me a picture and goes, “It’s better than yours!”

“But yeah, for the Thanksgivings of my childhood, I introduced the turkey. I added that American twist.”

 

Photos courtesy of Sophina Uong
Photos courtesy of Sophina Uong

Sophina Uong, Chef and Owner at Mister Mao

New Orleans, LA

“The best Thanksgivings have always been with my brother, Patrick. When we were in our late twenties, we hosted Friendsgiving dinners where he would select all the libations for the evening and I would cook the formidable turkey, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, and marshmallow Peeps candied yams leftover from Halloween — yes, Peeps!

“We would set the tablescape with foraged branches from the San Francisco Presidio. Our friends would bring more side dishes and endless desserts. Every guest that would walk into our party had to take a shot of my favorite, frozen Aquavit and pomegranate seeds, with me, so by the end of the night, I was usually pretty frisky and ready to dance on our amazing rooftop where you could admire the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We thought we were so cool then in the ‘90’s, as young wannabe foodies in such an amazing city that really taught me to appreciate the cultural diversity San Francisco offered. That’s why our menu at Mister Mao is so much fun for us: We try to have something for everyone. We love when guests dare each other and up the spice levels. We’re open for Thanksgiving this year and maybe, just maybe, I’ll cook up some marshmallow Peep yams to share with our employees.”

 

Jorge Guzmán, Chef and Owner at Petite León

Minneapolis, MN

“My wife, my son, and I, are no longer doing the holiday as it’s been viewed by the public. We’re taking the opportunity to take that day and cook food that pertains to our culture, the Mexican culture. And I think that will start a new tradition in our family.

“We’re going to research and learn about the Indigenous population in our area and the Indigenous population from where I grew up, the Aztecs. We’ll use it as a day for thanks, still, but use it as a learning opportunity to help educate our son as much as we can and learn about our people and our customs.

“If I’m making mole, that goes back thousands of years. And turkey does too in the Mexican culture, especially where I’m from.”

“Last year we cooked mole poblano and lamb shank. It was a very different Thanksgiving than we’ve ever had. Normally, you’re cooking turkey and the traditional foods you see people do year in and year out. But those foods have no cultural significance to me. But if I’m making mole, that goes back thousands of years. And turkey does too in the Mexican culture, especially where I’m from. Pavo en relleno negro (a turkey stew) is a very traditional dish from the Yucatán that itself is from the Mayan population. To cook food like that helps educate anyone who’s at our table.”

Photos courtesy of Mariah Pisha-Duffly
Photos courtesy of Mariah Pisha-Duffly

Mariah Pisha-Duffly, Co-Owner at Gado Gado

Portland, OR

“I come from a family of real hippies. Organization, repetition, and consistency weren’t the most valued things in my family.

“For Thanksgiving, there’d be years where we did a full spread with neighbors with turkey and stuffing, and probably something from a hippie cookbook. Like the Enchanted Broccoli Forest is definitely something we cooked for Thanksgiving more than a year. It’s a casserole that has potatoes in a baking pan, and then there’s broccoli sticking out of the potatoes — it’s supposed to look like an enchanted forest. It is exactly what is sounds like, and it’s from a purple cookbook from the 70’s.

“There are a lot of memories of things like that, of cranberry sauce in a can with all those little ridges. And there have also been years where my family is hanging out and spending time together, and we realize at 4 o’clock that we haven’t actually made any food, so we just order Chinese food and that’s what we do for Thanksgiving that year.

“I will say, my family — like a lot of other families — will always, always, always listen to Alice’s Restaurant. Even if we’re eating Chinese food and smoking weed at Thanksgiving, that’s the one constant.”

 

Angel Barreto, Executive Chef at Anju

Washington, D.C.

“I grew up in a military family. We moved every two years, so for my parents, it was always very important for us to have two sit-down dinners every year: Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“My mom always made the same core dishes for Thanksgiving: My dad’s mom’s Puerto Rican-style beans and rice and her mom’s cornbread stuffing, collard greens, candied yams, and macaroni and cheese — those were all from her childhood. When we were younger, she used to roast the turkey, but as we got a bit older, she started deep frying it with a fantastic Cajun marinade.

“I was very fortunate to grow up with someone who was such a fantastic cook. I tell people she’s one of the reasons that inspired me to cook. My mother’s in the military and saw a lot of the world, and she was always super inquisitive about food and cooking. She was always watching PBS and all these cooking shows.

“That’s why Thanksgiving always revolved around her food. Even still to this day, when I go to her house for Thanksgiving, I don’t cook. My mom does because she enjoys it. It’s iconic for me because it reminds me of my childhood, it reminds me of my grandparents, it reminds me of family. And for us, that’s what Thanksgiving is — we eat, we play games, we spend a lot of time bonding, and we’ll watch whatever big blockbuster is out in theaters”

 

Quetzal Alvarez, Pastry Chef at La Josie

Chicago, IL

“Thanksgiving’s never been a holiday of importance during my upbringing in Toluca, Mexico. I arrived in the United States 15 years ago and that’s when I first began to adopt this celebration. But it was when I married and had two little girls that Thanksgiving became truly significant for me.

“We find joy participating in a gathering where we can reflect on our gratitude for growing as a family. My husband and I have now fully embraced this holiday and continue to create memories with our children. For our celebration, we like to reunite with our large family.

“We keep it interesting by not subscribing to traditional Thanksgiving foods. Every year, we put new dishes out on the table. As a pastry chef, I take charge of the pastries, while my husband, a chef, oversees the savory foods. This year, I’m looking forward to baking a pumpkin coffee cake, a recipe that I came up with at La Josie for a past dessert. I decided on this cake because I knew both my family and our guests at the restaurant would love it. We consider them family, too.”

 

Photos courtesy of Ayesha Nurdjaja
Photos courtesy of Ayesha Nurdjaja

Ayesha Nurdjaja, Chef and Partner at Shukette

New York, NY

“My mom is Italian and my dad is Indonesian. My dad passed away a few years ago, but he used to cook Indonesian food, my mom Italian, and my brother and I — well, we were courageous eaters from a young age. But both my parents had the utmost respect for Thanksgiving.

“Back in the day, it seemed like an entire day of the oven being held hostage to the turkey. My mom and my dad came up with this recipe where they’d baste the turkey, and my dad would put a little soy sauce for color, but you don’t taste it.

“Next, the carrot soufflé. After it puffs up, my mom puts this walnut crumble on top, kind of like the topping you’d find in a pecan pie. The brown sugar turns into this hard caramel, so you need to break into it — it’s like a crackly crunch on top, and then the soft carrot soufflé underneath. It’s just dynamite.

“She always bakes something delicious, like coffee cake. There’s always a cocktail — bourbon sours are the thing we do most on Thanksgiving. And we always have seeded semolina rolls from a bakery called Cuccio’s on Avenue X in Brooklyn.

“She goes all in, you know what I mean? It’s not just a holiday where she’s just doing a good job. She gives it her all and you can definitely taste it. I’m down to eat at someone else’s Thanksgiving, in addition to my mom’s. Not as a substitute. Those dishes only rear their heads once a year, so she’s not getting away with not making them.”

 

Pinky Cole, Founder of Bar Vegan

Atlanta, GA

“I’m Jamaican, and we’d spend a lot of the holidays on the island. I grew up vegetarian, so I didn’t have meat or anything like that. We ate a lot of vegetables: cabbage, curried chickpeas, Jamaican patties, lots of Caribbean food. Back in the States, we always had a lot of people in the house during the holidays. We’d have a big gathering around Thanksgiving with anyone who’d come over from Jamaica, with food and drinks and laughter. We’d make a good Jamaican rum punch and talk about anything from finances to business ideas and then go on playing games.

“I’ve been vegan for about eight years now and I’ve been recreating traditional Thanksgiving dishes into vegan ones.”

“I’ve been vegan for about eight years now and I’ve been recreating traditional Thanksgiving dishes into vegan ones. In my home, my Thanksgiving is always about all of the sides: We make collard greens that taste just as good as if they had meat in them, and I make a really good vegan potato salad.

“Last year, we did a bunch of different mushrooms — oyster, maitake, shiitake —and we grilled them on an open flame grill outside, with a special vegan butter sauce and garlic. It was so good. It wasn’t turkey, but it was our meat — mushrooms have that texture. It made a hearty Thanksgiving meal, and we weren’t missing any meat. And it’s not like we make a vegan version and a non-vegan version, we just made stuff with vegan mayo and my family didn’t even notice the difference!”

 

Junior Borges, Executive Chef at Meridian

Dallas, TX

“I’m from Brazil and moved to the U.S. when I was 20 years old. Half of my life now has been in the U.S., and for me, my mom, and my sister, the first couple of years we were here, we used Thanksgiving as an opportunity to really embrace the American culture and integrate ourselves in being part of what it was like to live here. To give thanks for everything that we had.

“Food-wise, we really did the traditional Thanksgiving setting. In Brazil, Christmas is traditionally when you eat turkey, but we shifted, and we’ll do something else now. We’ve embraced the whole turkey for Thanksgiving! However, we always had little things that reminded us of growing up in Brazil, like the sweet cinnamon bread my mom used to make, which we’d always serve with turkey.

“And I love mashed potatoes. I don’t get to cook them at home a lot, so I always look forward to doing mashed potatoes and stuffing, those are my favorite. That and the gravy. I usually do this turkey neck gravy — I cook the neck, pick all the meat, and fold it into the gravy. It’s very meaty.”

 

Photos courtesy of Josh Elliott
Photos courtesy of Josh Elliott

Josh Elliott, Executive Chef at Orno

Coral Gables, FL

“Everything Thanksgiving represents for me is what is important in my life today: My family first, and to have that time with them.

“I’m very much a traditionalist. When I get a chance to cook Thanksgiving, whether it’s at the restaurant at the hotel or at home with family, the turkey and stuffing are my two favorite things. After that, I love the dessert table. I’m a big sweets guy, and my mother-in-law makes this chocolate pecan pie that’s become one of my favorites.

“Having these dishes only once or twice a year makes it more special. Even that silly old sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, I love. There are certain things we have as a family only a couple of times a year, but the whole day of being there, eating, hanging out, everyone taking a nap, it’s just a great day. And then you have leftovers! My most favorite thing about Thanksgiving: Knowing you’re going to be eating that food for two to three days. You can make the turkey sandwich with cranberry and stuffing. Or a slice of pumpkin pie when you get home from work. We’re not going to do that in my house any other time of year. And that’s the most fun.”

 

Govind Armstrong, Executive Chef at The Lobster

Santa Monica, CA

“Thanksgiving was definitely the holiday where my mother would pull out all the stops. It was a little challenging, but she always pulled through. She was a really good cook, she loved entertaining, and loved having all the kids around — that was the most important thing for her. There’s five of us children and there were times when it was impossible to get everyone together. The most memorable meals are when we could all eat together.

“It was a traditional Thanksgiving meal with the turkey fully dressed, sweet potatoes, green beans, and all of the fixings. My favorite was definitely the cornbread sausage stuffing she would make — she’d always pull out about every single herb that we had in the garden: thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, it was super flavorful and moist. The cranberry sauce was always out of a can — that cylinder would come out and we’d slice it and fan it out on a plate. It’s a little cheesy, but I still love it to this day, it’s one of those things that’s reminiscent of my mom’s Thanksgiving.

“I have kids of my own now. I remember our oldest daughter who’s going to be 10 years old, the first day that we brought her home was Thanksgiving and I still managed to a get a little Thanksgiving dinner on the table. And that’s way back when it was just us three. Now, I have two other kids and it’s kind of a different scenario: little wild, little crazier, but always fun.”


Noëmie Carrant is a Resy staff writer. Follow Resy on Instagram and Twitter.

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