Denver Chefs Dish on Thanksgivings Past and Present

By Ruth Tobias  |  November 27, 2013
Credit: Christopher Cina

Be it your Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother’s famous raisin pie, the first time you ever got tipsy on Cold Duck, or post-election political brawls between in-laws, we all have tales of wonder and woe stored up from the Turkey Day table. But chefs, being chefs, tend to have more culinary war (and love) stories to share than most of us.

  • Credit: Britt Nemeth Photography

    Rayme Rossello, Chef-Owner of Comida Cantina, on Practicing Gratitude in Rural Mexico

    My mother, who’s a nontraditional minister, lived in San Cristóbal in Chiapas, Mexico, for 10 years. I was probably 28 the first time I celebrated the holiday down there with a friend and a bunch of locals she knew, including these women that she worked with from the Catholic diocese. And we had a really eclectic Mexican-American Thanksgiving like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

    My friend had that horrible family tradition of canned green beans with shoestring potatoes on top, and we brought down canned cranberry sauce; I made some sort of pumpkin galette. But we also had tamales, roasted chicken, black beans, mashed sweet potatoes… We had a great big salad, even though it’s hard to find lettuce down there, because my mother has some friends with a farm. And we drank margaritas! The meal wasn’t about eating too much and falling asleep on the couch; it was about telling stories and singing songs. My mother speaks Náhautl as well as Spanish, and she translated for everybody at the table. I remember a young woman telling us how she’d come to live with these nuns after leaving her tiny hometown to get some education… Everything down there is so completely different than it is here. The level of what people have and what they make do with is incredible.

    The day after Thanksgiving, we went to a small nearby village of probably 150 residents. There had been a massacre there in the 1990s; mostly women and children were killed. And my mother led a commemorative event - to find the good in all of it, because that’s what people there do, a lot better than we do. I don’t think I stopped crying for 48 hours.

    On the way to the village, we got pulled over by the Federales; they had checkpoints in and out of San Cristóbal. My mother, doing the work she was doing, was always concerned with them hassling her. Guys dressed in green fatigues with machine guns - that was memorable!

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Daniel Asher, Culinary Director of Root Down and Linger, on Tofurky and Towering Sandwiches

    Most of my culinary world is made up of unusual dishes and being playful with food, so come Thanksgiving, I really like to stick to the foundation of a traditional spread. My mom is an exceptional culinarian, and she spared no expense, emotionally or financially, to give us an amazing evening. As early as I can recall, she would pre-order a special turkey and simmer from-scratch gravy all afternoon. She’d make stuffing with mirepoix, roasted root vegetables and rye bread; grilled Brussels sprouts; smashed sweet potatoes; cranberry-ginger sauce… Sometimes a hard salami that was baked for hours with stone-ground mustard and honey; maybe potato latkes, to get some practice in for Hanukkah.

    But I went through a good 12-year run as a committed vegetarian, so there were awkward moments: “Tofurky is a peaceful protest against turkey slaughter!” rantings, the miso-vegetable gravy that always seemed to go underutilized and the occasional lentil “neatloaf” that my sister found both hilarious and sad.

    Regardless, my absolute favorite moment from Turkey Day was my day-after sandwich - which I would begin anticipating sometime in late summer. This was also the one moment all year when I would purchase canned cranberry sauce in all its prefabbed glory and gelatinous magnificence.

    I would start with two huge slices of day-old sourdough, slathering one side with mayo and the other with cold gravy. Next came alternating layers of sliced turkey, canned cranberry, crumbled stuffing, mashed potatoes (or a leftover latke), cheese, lettuce, tomato, hot sauce and maybe even some raw garlic. Amazingly - against all sound knowledge of physics and principles of engineering - the stack remained intact for at least a couple of utterly blissful bites. And then it all fell apart in a glorious pile that I would nibble with a fork or my hands while watching football and drinking wine or bourbon or soy milk - or all three, depending on the year.

    Thinking about it now, it was those solitary moments of post-Thanksgiving sandwich-building that may have planted the seeds of fearless kitchen experimentation that I aim for today! Or maybe I just have always liked really crazy sandwiches that defy logic and vanity.

  • Credit: Christopher Cina

    Mary Nguyen, Chef-Owner of Parallel 17, Street Kitchen Asian Bistro and Olive & Finch Eatery, on Dumplings and Oysters

    My own specialty - I’ve been playing with it for probably 12 or 13 years - is stuffing with oysters. I make my own breadcrumbs, use lots of garlic and herbs and carrots and celery, and then I add oysters, currants and sausage. Believe it or not, I use canned oysters, because they’re not mushy, and they have a slight smokiness and really nice brininess.

    Of course, when I was growing up, my family, who came here from Vietnam, would try to do the traditional things to assimilate: turkey, stuffing. But my mom would also make dumplings. The central-Vietnamese region she’s from, Hue, is known for its imperial cuisine - that’s where haute Vietnamese cuisine originated, because that’s where all the emperors and empresses lived. And it’s known for seven different kinds of dumplings, all tapioca- or rice-based. Some are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, some are sticky rice stuffed with pork and shrimp… And then there are these tiny little disks, rice-flour pancakes about a quarter-inch in diameter. My mom cooked and dried her own shrimp, and we placed it atop the disks and ate them with fish sauce. My parents always wanted us to feel like Americans, but not to forget our Vietnamese roots either.  

  • Jensen Cummings, Chef-Partner of Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery, on Chalupas and Deep-Frying

    My uncle’s mom is from Mexico City, and every year we’d go to their house in Chino, back in California, for Mexican food as well as the traditional food. In the morning while she was cooking, she would make these amazing chalupas with asadero cheese and tomatillo salsa - these are not the chalupas from Taco Bell! She'd make roasted chicken and corn tamales - and whenever I go to a Mexican restaurant now, that’s my litmus. If you pass the good-tamale test, you’ll see me again.

    My other favorite thing is deep-fried turkey. It’s the only way I fly now. I learned about that when I started my restaurant career in Ames, Iowa. I’m a fifth-generation restaurateur; my dad can’t boil an egg, but he has three brothers that own restaurants from coast to coast. We like the abuse, I guess. My great-great grandfather opened the La Fond House in Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve seen pictures of it - it looks straight out of a Wyatt Earp movie. Definitely somebody got shot out in front of it. My great-grandfather had a restaurant and bar in San Francisco and so did my grandfather. And my younger brother Mitchell is back in California rolling sushi.

    Anyway, I went out to Ames for culinary school, and my uncle Rick has a sports bar there called Wallaby’s. That’s the first true kitchen I worked in. It’s a college town, so a lot of people didn’t have the money to go home for the holidays. He’d host what he called the Orphan’s Thanksgiving for like 30 people, and he was the one who introduced me to deep-fried turkey. It changed my life. Deep-frying is what the Midwest is really good at; it’s an art form there for sure, and I’ve fully embraced my Midwestern stint. I’ve cooked it every year since. And I’ve taught other people how to do it without burning their houses down.

    Which reminds me, my dad would always make us say one thing we were thankful for before the meal. As a rebellious teen, I thought that was so stupid, but now I love it. I’m sure I’ll perpetuate it with my kids and they’ll think it’s stupid too, and there’ll be that father-son rivalry all over again. The first time I ever carved a turkey, I was 16 and thought I was hot shit. I made my dad let me try; I was like, “I can do this better than you.” It was the biggest disaster ever. As a chef, that’s pretty embarrassing.

  • Credit: Rachel Nobrega

    Frank Bonanno, Chef-Owner of Mizuna and Nine Other Bonanno Concepts, on Macaroni and Bad Dogs

    We do Thanksgiving here in Denver, and for the past several years - at least seven - we’ve invited all the restaurant people that don’t have anywhere to go to come to our house. There are about 20 to 40 guests, and usually someone from one of the restaurants gets a little over-served and ends up sleeping in our guest bedroom.

    [My wife] Jacqueline will make some pies or other desserts, and she’ll make cocktails, but otherwise it’s just me cooking. I’ll try to go traditional, but there are always a lot of kids, so I also make mac 'n' cheese. Jacqueline says it’s stupid, but every year the adults eat as much of it as the kids. And we have another pasta as well, just a really simple one, like aglio e olio with Parmesan and broccoli raab. I make two kinds of stuffing, one with spicy Italian sausage and one without, because Jacqueline’s a pescatarian. So we also do some kind of fish - I’ll roast a salmon or something.

    Speaking of fish, typically for Christmas we go home to New Jersey, and we help cook the dinner. Even with FedExing, it’s cheaper to me to buy fish from my purveyors, plus stores don’t often have whole black cod. So one year I shipped home three six-pound black cods in a big Styrofoam box that we put out on the porch. All the family members showed up, and my sister came with her Labrador, Harry. Little did we know he’d eat anything.

    We were standing around the kitchen having a glass of wine, and suddenly we heard some grumbling outside. We went out to see, and there was Harry, wolfing down raw black cod. He had ripped the box apart and was just going at it. We ended up having to run to the fish store on Christmas eve after all - and the dog got quite sick.