While most of us are wrestling with the usual holiday dilemmas — to stuff or not stuff the turkey, who to seat next to whom, are four desserts enough? — those who make their living in professional kitchens are likely working the hardest.
Whether they are preparing for family members they haven’t seen in months, or planning and cooking for 150 hungry customers, the holidays are some of the busiest, most high-profile days of the year for chefs. We spoke with four local professional cooks to talk about their traditions, what it’s like to work on days when it seems as though everyone else is relaxing and a few tips to take your own festive meals up a notch.
For Hong Kong–born chef Rosa Ross, 80, cooking for Christmas is frequently a fusion of Macanese, English and Italian fare. Macanese for her Macau heritage, English for her upbringing and Italian from years spent living in Milan in the 1960s. She recalled that when she was a girl, midnight mass on Christmas Eve would be followed by a feast that included shrimp-flavored broth with rice noodles or a Macanese fish pie. “It had a very savory filling flavored with turmeric, wine, ginger and scallions,” she said of the pie. “The crust was a little bit sweet.”
The following day’s table would feature dishes like Yorkshire pudding and an English-style roast. Later in life, she would make tortellini or ravioli, a carryover from when she and her husband lived near Lake Maggiore.
After opening presents, they would visit with relatives and repeat the indulgent process again. If someone wasn’t home, the family would leave a calling card, a welcome excuse to shorten the ritual.
One constant, no matter where she was in the world or what age, was her mother’s Christmas cake, a light-colored fruitcake made with raisins and dried currants. Her mother would mail the confection to wherever her daughter was living.
All those cultural dishes mean two things — a lot of effort and even more leftovers. “I hate them,” she admits of the latter. But to make good use of the remaining roast beef, she’ll put the meat on some “good bread” and top it with mango chutney.
A much less labor-intensive dessert than fruitcake are crisps made from gyoza wrappers (or egg roll wrappers, if you can’t make it to an Asian food specialty store) that are fried and topped with powdered sugar. Ross demonstrated how to make the traditional treat in her East Marion home. First, heat a bit vegetable oil in a wok over high heat. When it begins to bubble, drop in the gyoza skins, one or two at a time. Twirl the dough using a chopstick and quickly scoop out the crisps with a slotted spoon.
“You don’t want them to brown,” she explained. “As soon as they crisp up, they are done.”
While the wrappers are draining on paper towels, stir together two parts powdered sugar and one part water, then drizzle over the crisps.
Holidays were always celebrated the following Monday for chef John Ross (no relation to Rosa) and his family, the North Fork farm-to-table dining pioneer recalled.
On Thanksgiving, the chef, now 73, would be hard at work in the kitchen of Ross’s Restaurant, serving about 100 to 150 customers. Two-thirds of them ordered the turkey dinner, he recalled. Working the holiday was a must for nearly every year the restaurant was open, from 1973 until he sold it in 2000, he said. Thanksgiving was the bright spot in an otherwise gray November. “The off-season on the North Fork is tough,” he said. “It was then and it is now.”
In the early 1970s, at a time when home cooks were beginning to rely on their brand-new microwave ovens and frozen TV dinners, Ross made a name for himself by cooking from scratch. His menu changed every day, which was almost unheard of in this farming community at the time. In one summer special, he guaranteed corn four hours fresh from the stalk. And Turkey Day brought local Brussels sprouts and housemade cranberry chutney.
Inside the restaurant (now O’Mally’s, in Southold), there was carpeting, long Naugahyde banquettes and “dusty rose” linens. It gave an upscale feel, fitting for the celebratory day, he said. And although at the time he considered it beautiful, he admits, “It was totally what restaurants don’t want today.”
There was the year he ran out of turkey so he had to steal the bird his wife, Lois, had prepared for their three children. And the year his takeout restaurant featured turducken — that is, a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck, which is then stuffed inside a deboned turkey. His friend, the late Norm McCullough, a surgeon at Eastern Long Island Hospital, helped stitch them all together.
“You can’t imagine the labor involved,” he said, of the 52 turduckens they prepared. No wonder they were $100 each.
Although he embraced tradition when cooking at his restaurant, today he is more experimental with his Thanksgiving meals. Selections he’s chronicled in his biweekly column for The Suffolk Times have included a dinner with a capon as the centerpiece instead of a turkey, and serving guests tender poussins (baby chickens), which, at about a pound each, nicely serve one person.
“Those other meals have been a lot of fun,” he said. “Every year there is a new fad for cooking turkey.”
For many chefs, working nights and weekends at a restaurant can mean missing birthdays and engagement parties, beach days and barbecues and countless other family gatherings. Stephan Bogardus, chef at the acclaimed North Fork Table & Inn, in Southold, knows this well. But Thanksgiving and Christmas, both days when the restaurant is closed, are designated family days.
“The holidays are a time when that space [between him and his family] is lessened,” he said. “It’s all about family, community and food.”
Bogardus, who is 29 and a Cutchogue native, notes that he plans to prepare much of the holiday meal — “cooking for 20 people is easy for me,” he says — and serve it platter style. “We have the traditional items. Then we have the wild game segment, which usually contains goose and deer,” he said, explaining that the custom was started by his father, Henry Bogardus, who would serve wild game harvested during hunting trips to Hancock, in upstate New York.
And for Bogardus, who worked at the Southold restaurant under the late chef Gerry Hayden and is an avid hunter, how the meat is procured is as important as how it is prepared.
During deer season, he gets up before daybreak, puts on clothes that have been washed in scent-blocking detergent and stored outdoors and heads for his hunting spots (don’t ask him to share the locations). He uses a PSE Carbon Air bow, with which he said he is pretty effective. “My longest harvest was at 57 yards,” he said.
If picking up a weapon isn’t something you can ever imagine doing, there are always Pekin (also known as Long Island) ducks) from Crescent Duck Farm, in Aquebogue, Long Island’s last remaining duck farm. “This is as close as you can get to what I do at home,” he said.
For wild goose, he recommends letting a bird rest about five days before preparation, which allows the muscles to relax releasing the enzymes from rigor mortis. He will brine it for three days and then smoke it at 145 degrees.
Smoking, he says, “is a great way to utilize game for someone who may not be well-versed in culinary technique.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, chef Galen Zamarra of The Halyard, at the Sound View in Greenport, noted his extended family opts for tradition over innovation.
“I’ve tried to fancify it,” Zamarra told us. “But they really are very traditional.”
Once, he recalled, he roasted the turkey breast apart from the drumsticks and thighs, and used the legs to make a Bordelaise-style tart. His in-laws liked it, he said. It just wasn’t what they were they used to. So now, he yields the responsibility to his father-in-law. “I don’t mind the break, to be honest,” he said. “It’s fun to just chill!”
A Thanksgiving respite could be what a chef needs to get through the intensity of December. Like John Ross, Zamarra notes that the holidays are some of the busiest days of the year. Both The Halyard and his Greenwich Village French-American restaurant Mas (Farmhouse) will be open for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
“Three of your busiest nights (Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Eve) fall within in one week. I am already asking myself how I am going to survive,” the father of two said with a smile.
He offers a few useful tips for those dining at home. First and foremost, he said, get a good turkey (see page ?? for a list of local spots.) A never-frozen, pasture-raised bird will taste light years beyond a turkey from your grocer’s freezer case. And two, skip the premade gravy mixes and make your own.
For Zamarra, the leftover vegetables are wonderful fodder for soups and consommés made with the broth of the carcass. An unusual twist? He’s been known to make ravioli with the leftover turkey.
This story was originally published in the 2017 holiday edition of northforker magazine