14 Food Pros Share Their Essential Holiday Dishes

Rock buns, curry chicken, mac and cheese, jollof rice, pitchers of gravy—chefs, sommeliers, and writers say that it's just not a holiday without these dishes on their table.

You smell it before you even see it, and a wave of comfort and joy washes over you because you know the holidays are here. We've all got that dish hardwired into our psyche—an aunt's special baked good (and don't even try asking for the recipe), mom's mac 'n' cheese, a beloved neighbor's gravy—that if it weren't on the table, things just wouldn't feel properly festive. At the inaugural Family Reunion hosted by chef Kwame Onwuachi and entrepreneur Sheila Johnson at Salamander Resort in August, we asked some of our favorite chefs, sommeliers, writers, and cookbook authors to fill in the blank: "It's not the holidays without ______ on my table." Here's what they had to say.

Padma Lakshmi
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Padma Lakshmi, author and TV host: turkey pot pie

"It's actually the day after Thanksgiving. It's not even the turkey, but it is the gravy and the turkey meat and the roasted vegetables all put into a turkey pot pie. I actually cook an obnoxiously bigger turkey than I need every year, because I know I'm going to need the leftover parts and a lot of extra gravy that I make with apples and the pan drippings, all that loveliness. I'm actually making pitchers of gravy. So I pre-made the dough because I know I'm going to make this pie, and I actually love this pie more than the actual turkey. And so the day after we just build it. We do that for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Nina Oduro, Dine Diaspora co-founder: jollof rice

"Jollof rice is a family staple, it's a country staple, and I know that it's made with so much love, and that's why we present it for holidays, and special family events too. My mother taught me how to make jollof rice at an early age, and then I grew up with it. As I've grown up I have also added my own flavors and touch and renditions as well."

Maame Boakye, Dine Diaspora co-founder: rock buns and fruit salad

"In my family, one of my aunts went to catering school and used to teach catering back in Ghana. She did two dishes all the time for us for the holidays. One was her rock buns. She would bake them every holiday, and just come and bring them. The other one was this fruit salad that she would make with condensed milk, and it was a really beautiful dessert. All these years, honestly, they're not hard recipes, but no one attempts to make it. It's hers, and we don't even think about making it. She's taught many people, but we still leave it to her."

Vallery Lomas, cookbook author: dinner rolls

"Definitely my Aunt Hester's dinner rolls. I think I called them in the book, 'very old school dinner rolls' or 'old school dinner rolls.' It is not a family holiday or celebration without those on the table. This recipe has literally been in my family for over a century. They're just so good. And that's the thing I love about bread. Baking, you get all of the good feelings and vibes of baking, but bread meets this special intersection. In my book, it was really important that I had a chapter devoted to bread. I talk about working with yeast, and I think I have a sidebar that's called 'Yeast isn't scary, I promise.' Because we need that. I don't want people to be scared of yeast."

MAKE: Christmas Dinner Rolls

Priya Krishna, food writer and cookbook author: kaddu

"It's not the holidays without my mom's kaddu, which is like sweet and sour butternut squash. She likes to do butternut squash with tons of fenugreek, which has this really mapley flavor and brown sugar and tomatoes and cilantro and ginger. And it's kind of mashed and kind of not; you can eat it with rice."

Nadine Brown, sommelier: pork

"Yeah, the whole suckling pig. I love Puerto Rico. It's the best people, the best music and the best pork. They just have so many variations, but just a really slow, slow-roasted pig. Pork with the crackly skin, the crunchy skin."

Charles Martin, caterer: salmon

"When my clients order the salmon, it's a big deal because of course the price has gone up. So, I really have this need to do it right, so that they're happy with it, so their guests are happy with it. When they eat the salmon, the crab cakes, and then text me and say, 'Everything was great. Everybody loved the food,' there is nothing better than that for me. I'm like, 'Ahhhhh.' On holidays, I'm working, but for my family—whatever they're in the mood for that day. I've got five kids. They're unpredictable. They want whatever they want on that particular day, so whatever makes them happy. It makes me happy."

Pierre Thiam, chef and cookbook author: whole roasted animal

"It's a whole roasted animal, you know? Senegal is a country where there's a holiday, Tabaski, that is celebrated with a whole lamb, usually prepared in many different ways. When it comes to the Christian holidays, which is Christmas, (we have a Christian minority), even in Senegal the turkey is done. So whenever I see a whole fowl or a lamb or animal, I celebrate it by cooking for a lot of people, cooking for gatherings and getting together and celebrating those things."

Papa Assane Mbengue, chef: lamb and fresh-baked bread

"Fresh-baked bread. Smelling the cinnamon, the spices in the house that make me feel like holidays are happening. Pierre and I come from the same background. Tabaski is the day we kill the lamb and it's a really big deal because in Senegal we even say the lamb tastes different that day. It's so special. We eat every part of it, and we cook it differently. It's pretty remarkable."

Alexander Smalls, cookbook author: mac and cheese

Alexander Smalls in his living room
Smalls sits on the sofa in his living room. The center painting is by Smalls’ longtime friend, artist Stanley Casselman. “Guests are always mesmerized at what a unique piece it is,” Smalls said. “It creates a very special ambiance and it bathes the room in warmth, lending a feeling of intimacy.”. Kelly Marshall

"Oh, wow. I would say mac and cheese. I would specifically say buttermilk mac and cheese. I'm really featuring my latest recipe in my book Meals, Music, and Muses. I love it."

MAKE: Alexander Smalls' Buttermilk Macaroni and Cheese with Baby Kale

Alicia Kidd, sommelier: barbecue

"I love barbecue. I'm sorry. Barbecue four or five times a year, so of course some great ribs. My family makes amazing ribs, links, and I love pairing that with the amazing red wines from my portfolio. A couple of wines that I carry are from South Africa, made by Black women. Carmen Stevens makes really good Pinotages—sparkling, as well as the traditional red Pinotage. Also FLO wines by Marcus Johnson. He's from the DMV area, so he makes a red blend, Chardonnay and a Moscato. And I have so many others just on my website, coconoirwine.com."

Rashida Holmes, chef: curry chicken

"I've been playing around a lot with my jerk lately. I've done some jerk fried chicken. I've done some jerk turkey. I've been trying to jerk other things in different ways. So any time I want to make anybody feel good, I'm dipping into my little jerk bag and playing around with that. I'm doing a jerk pork belly for a dinner soon too. It's good. It's the warming spices. That's the key to jerk. It's that savory, and then it takes you to like, 'Why does this remind me of Christmas?' I don't really know. That's what it is. In our house the holidays meant curry chicken. I was born in Brooklyn. I lived in Texas for a while, and then I went to high school in the Baltimore area. So I'm a little bit of a nomad kid, which has actually influenced my food a ton. When we were in Texas, I was getting the barbecue culture and the Southern soul food. And then in Maryland, the crab and the Chesapeake, all those influences that played into the chef I've grown into. So I'm glad for my nomad background. That brings the jerk to the table at the holiday, which is a lovely thing."

Erick Williams, chef: dressing and gravy

"The one dish that has to be on my holiday table is dressing and gravy. I could just eat dressing and gravy without turkey or without ham or all the other fixings. That's really my jam. There are two versions of cornbread and the one I serve at my restaurant has sugar. People tend to like sweet cornbread. For dressing, there should never be sugar present; it kills gravy."

Bryan Furman, pitmaster and 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef: yams

"Yams." [Editor's note: he left it at that, because what more do you need to say?]

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