Sang Yoon's Non-Traditional Thanksgiving
Every year, like millions of Americans, I obsess about how to cook the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. But Sang Yoon, the Los Angeles chef and Top Chef Masters contestant, tells me I'm wasting my time. He doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving—at least, not the way most of us do. Instead, he observes what he calls "Sangsgiving," the most lavish, over- the-top and adamantly nontraditional Thanksgiving this country has ever seen. "I have two rules: Don't eat turkey, and drink nothing but great bottles of Champagne all night," he says.
Yoon is the chef-owner of the Santa Monica and Culver City restaurants Father's Office and Lukshon, and (with former Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard) the forthcoming Helms Bakery. Born in Seoul, he moved to Los Angeles with his parents when he was a year old. "My mom was a horrible cook, and while my dad was a good, instinctive cook, I mostly grew up eating lots of fast food," he says. "I was a typical American kid, except I knew what kimchi was."
Those early influences shaped his restaurant menus, for which he re-creates lowbrow dishes using top-notch ingredients and techniques: At Lukshon, for instance, he transforms Chinese fast-food-style orange chicken—his guilty pleasure—using sweetbreads; at Father's Office, he helped launch the chef-burger craze in 2000 when he introduced his famous dry-aged beef burger with bacon-fat-cooked onions and a mix of Gruyère and blue cheese.
Like many children of immigrant families, Yoon was eager to fit in by participating in American customs, so when he turned 15, he resolved to cook Thanksgiving for his family. "We weren't used to making that kind of food, so it was a clumsy meal, and whether it was a function of my not being a good cook, or the flavors not jibing for me, it just didn't taste that good," he recalls.
It was nearly 15 years before he attempted Thanksgiving again. "By then I knew how to cook well, so I exhausted all the tricks to make the turkey more palatable," he says. "I brined it, I air-dried it like a Peking duck, I deep-fried it, I stuffed the skin with white truffles." Those are all techniques we have tried in the F&W Test Kitchen, minus the truffles, and loved. But Yoon was underwhelmed, and he decided that the problem was the turkey itself. "Turkey is a whole lot of stuff I don't like—a big mass of bland. No matter what I do with it, it's still turkey, and it can't overcome that."
This is a fact, according to Yoon, that many people know but are unwilling to admit. "My perception is that turkey is no one's favorite part of the meal. Everyone talks about the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the sides. The turkey is considered a huge success if it's not bone-dry." When Yoon asks people why they eat turkey on Thanksgiving, the answer is, invariably, tradition. "If that were true about everything, we'd still be talking on rotary phones," he says.
Unwilling to uphold tradition just for the sake of it, Yoon inaugurated Sangsgiving in 1997. One year, he roasted racks of lamb that he'd brushed with dark Chinese soy sauce and crusted in a zippy Sichuan-peppercorn-and-cumin spice rub. Another year, he served a $1,200 Wagyu-beef rib eye, shipped from Japan and stored for four weeks in his restaurant's dry-aging room (the same room he uses for his burger meat), then cooked overnight at precisely 130° until perfectly medium-rare throughout. "I like to say that dry-aged Wagyu is fat marbled with meat: No one can eat more than four ounces, or they'll have a heart attack and die." More recently, he sous-vided fresh pork shoulder with a Vietnamese-style spiced-palm-sugar glaze, then seared it until a glossy caramel formed. Pork shoulder doesn't sound too fancy, until you find out that Yoon's came from Ibérico de Bellota pigs—the same ones fattened on acorns and turned into costly Ibérico ham—and ran about $30 per pound wholesale.
Sangsgiving hors d'oeuvres have included everything from caviar to platters of oysters on the half shell with both classic red-wine-vinegar and yuzu-mint mignonettes. Yoon also loves to serve inventive lettuce cups, such as ones filled with sushi rice wrapped in lardo, sea urchin and a dab of spicy Chinese bean paste. A creamy cauliflower-and-potato gratin with vadouvan, a blend of curry spices and dried shallots and garlic, stands in for cloying marshmallow-topped yams.
The communal spirit of Thanksgiving lives strong at Sangsgiving. "The gathering part is fun," Yoon says. "If I can't get a minimum of eight people, there's no point in doing it—you can't do Sangsgiving with just three dudes sitting around." In that sense, Sangsgiving is less a rejection of Thanksgiving than a true celebration. Or at least that's what I'll tell myself should a Sangsgiving invitation ever come my way.