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Menu | 11/22

Talking Turkey

Local chefs are more than game to share Thanksgiving traditions

By Gretchen Giles

The smell of onions, butter, and sage cooking slowly on a cool November morning, mixing with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. The cinnamon and nutmeg scents of pumpkin pie ripening gorgeously in the oven. The cold linoleum floor of the kitchen as you stand in your bathrobe, submerged up to the elbow in the icy, unyielding carcass of a turkey, grasping unsuccessfully at the elusive bag of giblets stuck down at the end.

Thanksgiving is all of this and–we hope–more. On a quest to discover just what this most traditional of American feasts means to those who earn their keep in the kitchen, we asked several local chefs how they celebrate the holidays.

“We get it all from Raley’s for $39.95,” laughs chef Todd Muir, owner of Healdsburg’s Mangia Bene. “Of course I’m joking,” he replies to the reporter’s horrified gasp. “I do a very traditional Thanksgiving,” he reassures. “It’s the one time of the year that I make a turkey, and I love turkey.”

Indeed, this holiday will be a rare treat for Muir. He won’t have to work. Muir was at Madrona Manor for 13 years, exactly all of his oldest daughter’s life. He’s looking forward to beginning a new tradition of staying at home, and tossing the football around.

“It’s the holidays of yore that I try to capture.”

Lisa Hemenway, owner and executive chef of Hemenway’s Restaurant in Santa Rosa, will work this year. But after work, she’ll relax at a friend’s holiday meal. “This is the first year [of working on the holiday]. Actually, I take that back. The first year I worked for John Ash at Montgomery Village, he opened for Thanksgiving, and I boned 250 turkey legs, and he did trout, and I had to bone those, too,” she groans comically. “We just decided to open on Thanksgiving this year because our customers have been calling, and I figure let’s make hay while the sun shines.”

Interviewed in her turn-of-the century home in Santa Rosa, Hemenway has just returned from a five-day trip, and is wearing her chef’s coat, having misplaced her blouse at some point during changes in her hectic day.

“Don’t look in the refrigerator!” she calls as she changes clothes.

Emerging looking fresh, Hemenway curls up on her couch. “A lot of times I make dessert, because that’s so easy. These people usually have so much food that I won’t need to bring anything, but I’ll probably bring potatoes anyway, maybe a wild mushroom-potato galette. I’m a potato-monger. There will be mashed potatoes, but on Thanksgiving you can have potatoes and more potatoes.”

Because of unusual circumstances in her family life, Hemenway will miss her usual tradition of cooking with her three brothers, all of whom are connected in some way to restaurants or professional cookery. “We have all gone into that, so there’s this great competition at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it’s fun,” she smiles. “But they’re home cooks, and they have a different idea than I do. They want to get all fancy and I just say, ‘Let’s slap it together.’ I do end up doing a lot, but then I can clean it all up in about two minutes.”

“With my family, there’s great competition in the kitchen because we’re all excellent cooks,” she says, rearranging herself on the couch. “My dad is a great cook, but he didn’t know it until I became a cook. He would always make my breakfast when I was a kid. You know–at 6 o’clock in the morning I’d be sitting down to banana pancakes or some complicated omelette, and other kids would be having oatmeal.”

Chef John Ash of John Ash & Co. will spend the day with friends in Berkeley. “It’s a big extended family, and in a funny sort of way we try to make it fairly traditional,” he explains.

But Ash’s tradition this year includes some fairly non-traditional dishes. “I’ve been fooling around in this whole world of chutneys and spices,” he says. “I’ve just finished two new recipes, and they [his friends] will be my guinea pigs.”

He’ll prepare mango pickles as well as a red wine, juniper berry, and pear dish. “They go with turkey or ham, and this year we’re going to do some roasted ducks,” he says.

Christmas is a less elaborate affair for Ash. “At Christmas, I tend to do things that are much simpler,” he muses. “Hearty soups and stews. There’s that idea–and I don’t know if it’s psychological or not–but there’s that feeling that because Christmas is such an indulgence in so many other ways, the food should be simple and wholesome and close to the earth.”

Alderbrook Winery chef Jim May is looking forward to the holiday. “That one day is probably my favorite day of the year,” May says. “Usually, I do most of the cooking, and every one else brings all of the wine.” May and his friends keep a wine diary from year to year, noting food and wine pairings that they have made, and the gastronomic results.

His menus are elaborate and elegant. “The cool-weather oysters and crabs are coming out, and there’s salmon. If we’re not having fresh crab, I’ll make a crab soup. I usually start with seafood and spinach balls with mustard sauce,” he explains, adding that he pairs these with champagne and a crisp GewŸrztraminer.

“Wild mushrooms are always nice if we’ve had a little bit of rain and they’ve come out,” he adds wistfully. “I like to do a lot of native things–a lot of corn, a lot of red bell peppers or baked sweet peppers. And always a salad. I did a beet and endive and pear and goat cheese salad one year, and a hearts of palm salad with shrimp in a lime cilantro vinaigrette another year.”

But not all of his holiday fare is haute cuisine.

“The mashed potatoes are always homemade and always lumpy,” he laughs. “That’s real food.”

May marinates his turkey up to 48 hours ahead of time in plenty of fresh garlic, lime juice, and soy sauce. Basting with the marinade as it cooks, May barbecues the bird in a Weber grill with soaked grapevines to add flavor.

“I think that the lime juice really amplifies the sweet smokiness,” he observes.

May generally has between eight and 12 guests for the holiday. How does he handle the cooking? “I begin cooking the day before,” he answers. “The mousses and the stock for the soup are made the day before. As for the pies, well, I’m not much of a baker. I leave that to someone else. I’m exhausted by then. I just want to sit back and enjoy the wine.”

Chef Martin Coleman of Chateau Souverain chuckles in mock despair: “I’m kind of a boring guy, I guess.” A British native who emigrated to the states in 1979, Coleman acts like the average husband on Thanksgiving: he lets his wife do the cooking. They’re going to her parents’ house for the holiday, and Coleman is just glad to have a day off. “They used to feel kind of odd having me around for the holiday meals,” he admits, “because of what I do for a living. But I’m a really down-to-earth guy, and what everyone brings is pretty good. It’s not exactly the kind of meal you go around criticizing,” he laughs.

Coleman does rouse himself for Christmas, however, sometimes making a traditional British Christmas cake, a rich fruitcake with a marzipan topping. “My mother makes hers six months ahead,” he says. “It’s macerated in brandy and sherry. People in England sit down and eat some about three or four times a day.”

It sounds like heady stuff, a chewable after-dinner drink.

“The alcohol content?” Coleman asks rhetorically. “Well, I hadn’t thought about that before,” he laughs. “That could be why they eat so much of it.”

Michael Smith of Cafe Dahlia in Graton will close the doors of his restaurant on Thanksgiving, but will find himself in the kitchen nonetheless. “This year I’ll be cooking at my sister’s house,” he says. “Usually on Thanksgiving, I carry most of the load. I don’t mind it; I love to cook. This year we’re doing a turkey with sourdough stuffing, and I like to add shiitake mushrooms and lots of onions and garlic. We’re also going to do a stuffed pork roast, and I like to fill it with some kind of fruit, either apples or prunes. I’ll also do a creamed spinach or some other kind of vegetables. For dessert, I’m making a chocolate cake and a pumpkin pie.” Smith will make the desserts the day before, but cooks everything else fresh on Thanksgiving day proper.

“We don’t have any sort of real tradition,” he chuckles. “We just get together, and cook, and start drinking.”

Chef Cesca Wellman of the Bear Flag Cafe in Sonoma will spend the day with her parents. “They take good care of me,” she says cheerfully. “My mom never makes me cook.” Nonetheless, Wellman will bring appetizers. “I like to make a lot of hors d’oeuvres, so I’ll do that. Spicy Thai eggplant, caviar on toast, and I love mushrooms, so I’ll make marinated mushrooms.

“And, we always have a big bowl of M&M’s,” she giggles. “Very gourmet, but when you’re watching football all day. . . . Oh, and we’re going to have oysters!”

Wellman and her mother plan to go rollerblading while her father watches football.

“We’re so weird,” Wellman says happily. “We could have macaroni and cheese for Christmas because we eat so well the rest of the year.”

From the Nov. 22-29, 1995 issue of The Sonoma County Independent

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