For the brothers behind New York's Blue Ribbon restaurants, Thanksgiving owes as much to grandma's cooking as it does to their Cordon Bleu training.
True, nobody served chopped liver at the first Thanksgiving. But for Bruce and Eric Bromberg, the brothers behind New York City's three Blue Ribbon restaurants, it's a natural. "The chopped turkey livers, the potato pancakes--there's obviously some Jewish influence on our menu," Bruce says. There are influences, though, beyond the obvious: The liver, while seasoned with beets and horseradish, also marinates in port and Cognac--making it a cross between the old Jewish favorite and a traditional French pâté de foie de volaille.
The Brombergs are no strangers to multicultural dining. In fact, their restaurants are known for serving French, Asian and Jewish dishes side by side. Other chefs seem to love this mix: They come to Blue Ribbon Sushi, Blue Ribbon Bakery and, especially, the original Blue Ribbon, to hang out and to eat after their own kitchens have closed. "They're the perfect places for chefs," says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the French-born master behind Jean Georges in New York. "They draw a fun crowd, with sexy people, and you can have anything from matzo ball soup to bone marrow with oxtail marmalade." Alfred Portale, the chef of Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan, credits the Brombergs for handling their all-inclusive repertoire (the menu of Blue Ribbon Bakery lists 101 items) with great skill and restraint. "Everything they do, they do well," Portale says. "They don't screw up a good thing by trying to be too creative."
And so it is at the Brombergs' Thanksgiving. "It's a holiday of simple food," Bruce, the younger (single) half of the brother act, says. "There's no need to be terribly inventive. If you can make a perfect turkey, you've beaten 99 percent of the households in this country." But Bruce and his older (married) brother Eric are graduates of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, so their version of simple can come out looking pretty sophisticated. "Thanksgiving has always been the best holiday for presentation," Eric says, "because you're serving in grand style, on platters, and the colors work off each other. The entire meal is very dramatic."
The Brombergs have a love of drama that shows in many ways, from small gestures to grand flourishes: The centerpiece of Blue Ribbon Bakery is Manhattan's largest wood-burning oven, 16 feet deep and 11 feet wide, a 19th-century relic that the brothers restored. Bruce and Eric, who grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, confess the formative influence of certain Seventies-era institutions on their theatrical styles--Benihana's, for one. ("A profound impact on us," Eric says. "People think we're kidding.") But hints of their other signature quality--a well-honed sense of restraint--come out more slowly, when they talk about their two greatest influences, their grandmother and the great chef they worked for in Paris.
The Thanksgiving meal they cook for friends and colleagues is filled with family standbys, updated in ways that betray the brothers' continental training. In the chopped liver, for example, the brothers have changed the secret ingredient from the Concord Grape Manischevitz that Grandma insisted on to port, with its more subtle flavor. And their mother's cranberry sauce benefits from the additionof tangerines cured overnight in sugar.
When you're relying on family standbys, it helps to have a family that's obsessed with food. Their grandmother, Martha Finkelstein, was a kitchen fanatic who passed her perfectionism on to her eager grandsons. The potato pancakes that start the meal are Grandma's. Her recipe, in fact, helped them tie for first place in a potato-pancake competition held by the James Beard Foundation. "We showed up and all these chefs were making potato pancakes with braised quail on top, or potato pancakes with bulgur wheat and agave root," Bruce remembers. "And we're like, 'What the hell is going on here? Should we do something else?'" They decided to stick with Grandma's original recipe.
"Grandma won," Eric says.
"With every judge," Bruce adds.
The two men credit their grandmother with their belief that, in cooking, "simplicity is bliss." But during casual conversation, you're just as likely to hear about their culinary father figure, Robert Chassat, who put the two to work in his restaurant, Le Récamier, in Paris. According to Bruce, Chef Robert had such reverence for food that he'd take five minutes polishing an apple before taking his first bite. He seems to have passed on to the Brombergs this nearly sacramental feeling about pure ingredients (along with a tendency to compare challenging aspects of cookery to the rigors of the Tour de France). Chassat's influence is especially notable in the Brombergs' turkey stuffing: The rye bread with caraway seeds is a nod to the basic loaves of their boyhood, but the contrast of hearty flavors (sausage, sage, apples, bacon, cabbage) shows Chassat's spirit.
Some items, naturellement,the two chefs simply invented, like Eric's pumpkin meringue pie. He made it as a sort of reminder of the first pastry test he took at Cordon Bleu: He reached into a hat holding names of dishes written on slips of paper, pulled out "lemon meringue pie" and completely blanked on how to proceed. (The story has a happy ending. Eric graduated first in his class and became the first American invited to stay on and teach.)
"All our cooking is American food," Bruce says, "made from our memories of what we ate when we were kids. But we cook in a somewhat French manner, with basic French technique. That's one reason we named our place Blue Ribbon--it's Cordon Bleu. There couldn't be a more American name, but at the same time, it carries what's important to us about cooking, where we come from, and what we've learned."