Spago Beverly Hills is the quintessential West Coast restaurant. But when chef Lee Hefter invites his colleagues to Thanksgiving, the menu celebrates his East Coast roots—from the squash soup to the maple-syrup gravy.
Thanksgiving in Los Angeles comes and goes without a single leaf falling from a tree. The grass is the greenest it'll be all year, and the palm trees don't look as thirsty as they did during the six-month summer. Angelenos mark the change of season by the departure of daylight saving time and the sudden flurry of activity at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market that signals the arrival of new fall crops. And the day the market is at its busiest is the day before Thanksgiving.
In his two-story postmodern house in Santa Monica with sweeping views of the Pacific, Lee Hefter has been awake since 5 a.m.he hates mornings, but not this oneprepping the ingredients he scored yesterday. His kitchen counters are stacked with wild mushrooms, kabocha squash, cipollini onions and brussels sprouts. His wife, Sharon, is up early too, rolling out the biscuit doughand she's got gooey Georgia-pecan pies to bake before Lee's big, fat turkey goes into the oven. Hefter grew up on the East Coast, where autumn felt like autumn, and today he's determined to share his favorite season with his friends. "Even though it's 70 degrees in L.A., I still want Thanksgiving to reflect the traditional fall harvest," he says as he stuffs his bird.
Hefter is the chef and a partner at Spago Beverly Hills (and an F&W Best New Chef 1998). His passion for cooking started in high school when he took a job at a Chinese restaurant near his New Jersey neighborhood because he wanted to know how Chinese food was made. He later found his way to Barbara Tropp's renowned (now closed) China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, where he was discovered by Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity chef who owns Spago, and recruited to L.A. That was 11 years ago, and he's been with Puck ever since. For the past nine years, Hefter's opened his house most Thanksgivings to all the strays he works with, those who either can't make it to their families' home or have nowhere else to go. Or at least that's the way it began. Nowadays, Hefter's Thanksgiving is often the feast of choice.
By noon, the pecan pies are cooling on the kitchen windowsill, and the turkey is beginning to brown. Sharon's got the music adjusted just the way she likes it, and she's stolen the TV remote and muted the football game. (Lee's a fanatic, so she wouldn't dare turn it off.) It's right around this time that Kevin O'Connor, Spago's sommelier, turns up.
"Kevin lives nearby, so I think he must smell the turkey cooking from his house," Hefter says. "And when Kevin gets here, that's when it's okay to start drinking."
By two o'clock in the afternoon, the house is packed with waiters, bartenders, cooks, managers and dishwashers, 16 to 24 strong most years. Some go upstairs to watch football on the only TV where the volume isn't muted, and still others mingle on the balcony, waiting for the signal to come in and eat. Spago's catering chef, Matt Bencivenga, is always the first one to spill something on himself, and later he'll be the first to fall asleep, on the couch. "It's an eccentric crowd, but we all really enjoy each other," Hefter says. "I'm sure a lot of these people would never go out with each other on a normal day, but on Thanksgiving we're all family."
The holiday menu today looks nothing like the food Hefter is famous for at Spago, highlighting East-West combinations, sometimes with an Austrian twist: broiled Japanese black cod with hijiki (salty, anise-flavored seaweed), avocado and sesame-miso vinaigrette, say, or pan-roasted loin of rabbit with cipollini onion-fig soubise and a kidney-and-liver brochette. No, today he takes a much simpler approach. He doesn't want anybody to feel like they're at Spago.
There's usually a soup to start; this year's is a velvety kabocha, acorn and butternut squash soup scented with cardamom and cloves and topped with croutons the size of walnuts. The turkey, stuffed with garlic and herbs, emerges aromatic from the oven and becomes even more enticing once it's slathered with gravy made from the drippings, tons of butter and maple syrup. The pleasantly bitter brussels sprouts sautéed with chestnuts and smoked bacon are a perfect side dish. "Also, I love sweet things," Hefter says, "so I always throw in a sweet surprise like this year's puree of Granny Smith apples and celery root with star anise and verjus," the tart juice made from unripe grapes. Of course he makes a cranberry sauce, but his is complex, layered with the flavors of quince, pear and grappa. And because there's always someone who prefers the jellied stuff from a can, he serves that, too.
The hearty bread stuffing is Sharon's mother's recipe, enriched with ground beef, apples, walnuts and orange marmalade, and it's the only recipe Sharon's not willing to tamper with. "When Lee and I spent our very first Thanksgiving together," she says, "he wanted to control the entire menu. I told him I didn't care what we made, but we had to have my mother's stuffing."
As soon as everything is in its place on the stove under the restaurant-style heat lampsone of Lee's favorite things in his kitcheneveryone rushes to grab a plate. Almost the whole staff of Spago seems to be there. So far, just about the only one who's never come to one of these Thanksgivings is Wolfgang Puck. "Wolf's been to my home lots of times," Hefter says, "but he's never made it to my Thanksgiving."
Brad A. Johnson is the national food and travel editor at Modern Luxury Magazines.