Paleolithic Turkey and Good-Luck Noodles: Thanksgiving at Home with Chicago Chefs

Photo: iStockphoto

Culinarily speaking, Thanksgiving is the great equalizer: chefs and civilians alike agonize over the menu, bicker over the side dishes, and worry about overcooking the turkey. As we look forward to our own family-packed weekend of overconsumption, we asked some chefs what their holiday plans are — and what holiday mishaps they’d prefer never to experience again. Read on for Mike Sheerin’s adventures with the microwave, Dale Levitski’s dry-as-dust turkey, Kristine Subido’s mother’s truly epic Filipino feast, and more.

Ryan Poli, Perennial
“Every year I go to my parents’ house and my mother makes Thanksgiving. That’s the tradition we’ve been doing since I was born. The unique thing about my family is that they eat the same thing all the time. It’s always the same sides, always the same little hors d’oeuvres, always the same desserts. When I was traveling and when I was living in California, I went to a couple Thanksgivings where I was like, “This is not how my mom would do it. You people are so disorganized. What do you mean the turkey isn’t in the oven yet? it’s 1 o’clock!” That’s the warming thing about going to my mom’s house: I know we’re going to eat at 5 o’clock exactly. There’s no deviation.”

Joshua Linton, Aja
“My family is kind of scattered, so with the restaurant’s menu being very new I’m putting a lot of emphasis on spending the holidays at the restaurant. I am roasting duck at the restaurant, because I like to roast duck. I’ve found that you get most Thanksgiving disasters when the menu is too ambitious, in my experience. The best way to avoid it is to just cook seasonally. There are so many things this time of year that are coming into season, as far as the root veggies and the fall fruits and all that stuff, the best way to plan the menu is just to use that and prepare it very simply. In the past when I’ve tried to be too ambitious, it’s always been in a home kitchen, my own or my mother’s or my grandmother’s. In a domestic kitchen I’m a completely different cook, I’m a mess. I remember glazed root veggies burning and cakes being overbaked and turkey being dry - it’s just a whole lot of effort spread too thin. I was trying to do way too much for just a small group of people. I think the best thing is just to do the classics really well.”

Mike Sheerin, Blackbird
“I’m spending Thanksgiving this year with my family. Generally I end up cooking most of the meal. I’m actually getting a turkey in from Swan Creek Farms, and I’m gonna smoke it, and then finish it on the grill. Debone it, make some gravy, make a little sausage. We always have a little brussels sprouts because my Uncle Paul doesn’t like them, and as a kid he was picked on about it, so we always have to serve them. A little cranberry salsa, a little mashed rutabaga, this year we may do golden turnips since I don’t think my parents have ever seen golden turnips. When I lived in New York for a while, when I was working at Jean-Georges, we used to get a bunch of cooks together and someone would make something, someone would do the turkey. I remember one year, I think the turkey had been roasting for five hours and it still wasn’t done, and we were all getting a little overserved. So we decided to cut into the turkey and we just ended up microwaving it to get it to finish cooking.”

Dale Levitski, Sprout
“I’m going to my cousin’s house out in the suburbs this year, because my mother passed away in October, so it’s our first Thanksgiving without mom. It’s one of those kind of hard, kind of special Thanksgivings. When it was just my mom and sister and I we really stayed away from traditional Thanksgiving. Oddly, as a chef, I cannot cook a turkey to save my life. I so much as look at a turkey and it coughs dust. When I was an up-and-coming cook I made a turkey so dry it might as well have been a fossil. My mom would tease me about how bad my turkey was. So I will not be cooking turkey this year. I’ll probably do some side dishes.”

Kristine Subido, Wave
“I’m actually spending this Thanksgiving working! We’re open, so I’m in the kitchen. But then [my family is] celebrating at home. My mom typically cooks for Thanksgiving, I don’t do any of the cooking, so that’s very nice. There is a turkey, but nobody touches it. Instead, we all eat her great Filipino holiday creations. There’s a dish called Morcon that’s basically pounded out skirt steak. She marinates the steak in soy sauce and lemon juce and fills it with Spanish chorizo, over hard-cooked eggs, celery, and then she rolls it and ties it, and then it’s slow-cooked in a tomato sauce. The other dish is another super time-consuming dish called Chicken Relleno. It’s a capon deboned completely, with the skin is still intact, and then she makes a stuffing with the leg meat and the thigh meat and she mixes it with ham and cheese and vegetables and she stuffs it back into the capon, bastes it with butter and then slowly roasts it. So we don’t really touch the turkey at all. She’ll make a noodle dish, I guess that’s the Chinese influence, just for long life. She makes a sauce that’s like a Filipino bolognese, it’s shrimp stock with ground beef and tofu and then that gets tossed into the rice noodles, and everything else that goes on top is cooked separately - the shrimp, the calamri, the hard-cooked eggs, the scallions, so it’s really colorful and it gets decoratively garnished. She’ll throw on toasted garlic and then she’ll take chicharrones and grind it up and sprinkle it on with a squeeze of lemon. So that’s why nobody pays attention to the poor turkey.”

Paleolithic Turkey and Good-Luck Noodles: Thanksgiving at Home with Chicago