Chefs Reveal Their Favorite Holiday Food Traditions
We asked chefs to share the tasty traditions that have helped shape how they celebrate.
Many of us hold tight to our families’ holiday traditions, especially when it comes to food. And nearly everyone has that one recipe that just can’t be modified, in even the smallest way, without the threat of a boycott on your hands. Here are some ways chefs across the country celebrate the season.
Diana Dávila, chef at Mi Tocaya Antojería in Chicago
Christmas Eve is really big in Mexico so that’s when my family really celebrates. We have a big party and eat late—around 10 p.m.. My husband’s family is like ‘what time are we eating?!’ My mother always hosts. I have a brother and a sister and of course my brother does nothing for the party. My mother does something different every year. I think everyone really appreciates that it’s always different, especially after Thanksgiving since that meal is always the same. You have no idea what you’re going to get, which is really fun.
My mom is a good cook but she definitely needs a recipe. She loves food magazines and will choose maybe five dishes that she’ll make. Then she picks a protein for me to make something with and chooses four or five dessert recipes for my sister. I’m definitely not a recipe person. My sister isn’t a pastry chef but she’s so good at dessert and has been since high school. Even when she’s been all over the place with everything else she still has this incredible focus for pastry. I have no idea how. My mother buys the ingredients and pulls the recipes and my sister turns out all this amazing stuff in just 24 hours. It’s a big spread with the ladies of the house coming together. The guys usually clean up. I don’t have a lot of family here except for a couple of uncles and their families, so we usually have about 20 people for dinner.
I don’t understand people who try to do it all themselves. Total control is not OK. Everyone does something when we have parties. That’s what family and community is all about. I’m so glad that it’s so common in our culture. Whether it’s Christmas, birthdays, weddings, a graduation or quinceañara, everyone pitches in. When we have parties everyone calls and says ‘what should I bring?’ Just pick what you think you can do and let everyone else do the rest. You need to have time to decorate and you want the house to be clean!
My favorite food memory is always turkey with my mom's stuffing on Thanksgiving. Ori (who grew up in Israel) didn't understand how Americans eat turkey like that because it's so dry. Now he debones the turkey and makes a roulade with the stuffing in the middle so that the turkey does not overcook and stays really moist. It's a compromise between living with a very picky chef and an American girl who loves her traditions!
At Christmas we go to my mom’s house and usually I cook. My sister and I make tons of Christmas cookies (thumbprints and Mexican wedding cookies are the big favorites) instead of dessert. We always made cookies as children. Although much to my dismay they weren't American style with the frosting and the cut outs. My mom always told me it was too sweet and time consuming. My mom has this Swedish cookie press machine we'd make almond scented cookies from. She would make the Mexican wedding cookies or weirdly and non Christmasy–banana walnut drop cookies that were more like little cakes. Once she made bran raisin cookies that my dad deemed indigestible. My mom was a very health conscious hippy mom. So as the years went on my sister and I ventured into a couple of the originals like the press and Mexican but added on things like chocolate thumb print cookies—they are rolled out and frosted butter cookies. And I always make Ori make butternut squash soup because it’s my favorite. He started making it maybe 8 or 9 years ago. My mom. like many moms, loves butternut squash anything. It’s like the pumpkin spice latte for moms.
In America, Hanukkah is really big but in Israel it’s not a very big, important holiday so we don’t really do too much. The holidays that are really important are Passover, Yum Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah is similar in importance to St. Patrick’s Day in Israel.
Shirley Chung, Top Chef finalist and chef at the just-opened Ms Chi Café in Culver City, CA
We always fold jiaozi (dumplings) on holidays, just like we did when I was growing up in Beijing. So at Christmas and Chinese New Year the whole family gets together to make them–kids and adults. It doesn't matter if the dumplings are pretty or not, it’s important to spend time with family and make something together. For my holiday menus, I like to cook large format dishes and always serve a family style menu. And I include dumplings as one of the courses.
Matt Abdoo, chef at Pig Beach in Brooklyn and Pig Bleecker in Manhattan
My favorite holiday is definitely Christmas. I love being surrounded by family, cooking a large feast with all the trimmings and breaking out the special china. A big tradition is Grandma Val’s Christmas spread, which includes an assortment of salumi, cheese, anchovies, braciole and her famous cookies. It was her style of entertaining that made me fall in love with cooking large format cuts of meat, fish and game. My parents host Christmas and my mom incorporates many of my grandmother's traditions. I typically don’t do much cooking when I am home for the holidays. My mom wants me to relax when I am home and likes to spoil me by making my grandmother's cookies, brasciole, meatballs and Sunday gravy.
When I'm not at home visiting my parents, I'll make my grandmother's recipes for family and I even serve a few of her dishes at my restaurants. I love that I have the ability to keep her traditions going and share them with so many people. The oysters with scampi butter and parmesan breadcrumbs on my menu are a play on my grandma's baked clams and the Yankee red hot sausage is a play on her Italian sausage and peppers that we ate growing up. Even though Utica gets the credit for the “Utica greens” at Pig Bleecker, my grandma was cooking escarole with garlic, onions Parmesan and breadcrumbs since before I can remember.
Maura Kilpatrick, Executive Pastry Chef at Oleana and Sofra in Cambridge, MA and Sarma in Somerville, MA
My favorite holiday memory is actually making stuffing as a family. We all tore the bread around the kitchen table and my dad was in charge. I loved the experience of doing it together. Last year I adapted that stuffing recipe to fill a soft white bread, called pogaca. It is a Turkish stuffed bread, usually filled with cheese and parsley (that’s how we did it in our book, Soframiz) and includes stuffing ingredients like celery and onions but now we add fresh sage and thyme too.
I still like to have a project here at Sofra that we do as a “family”. This year it is Pie Boot Camp: each person will make dough by hand and do one pie start to finish, before we ask them to make 100 pies.
Rodney Scott, chef at Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston
Where I grew up in Hemingway, SC, Christmas is when the whole family gets together to eat a whole hog–that’s the tradition. At my family’s store, we would cook hogs for other families earlier in the day and then we would have our family’s celebration later. It would be potluck style, and everyone would bring the sides (sweet potato pie, beans, macaroni salad), but I was always on meat duty. The tradition brought everyone together over food.
Those are still the same foods I eat for holidays now. That hasn’t changed. It’s more pressure now because I realize the time with family is so special, and I want to make sure everything is perfect. Family can be even harder to please than customers at the restaurant! I’m still not totally in charge of the meat, but I’m definitely still put to work on pork, chicken and turkey. Now I’ll bring sides that I’ve developed at the restaurant too, since those were all based on foods I ate growing up.