From Turkey to Champagne to Pozole, Los Angeles Chefs Share Their Thanksgiving Traditions

Chef Brandon Boudet, right, and his wife, Isabelle Dahlin, set the table for Thanksgiving.EXPAND
Chef Brandon Boudet, right, and his wife, Isabelle Dahlin, set the table for Thanksgiving.
Rachel Ayotte

It's the one week of the year when everyone stops caring about restaurants and starts caring about cooking. Of course, some folks still eat out on Thanksgiving, but for the most part the food obsessives among us spend mid-November planning a meal and looking forward to our various traditions. L.A. chefs are no different. Even folks who cook all day for a living get excited about the prospect of making a feast for their family on the one holiday that is mostly about a central meal. Some of them were generous enough to share their traditions, and we even got a few recipes out of the deal.

Chef Michael Bryant, Cliff's Edge
Michael Bryant, who recently took over at Cliff’s Edge, has worked in a restaurant every Thanksgiving for as long as he can remember. As Cliff’s Edge is closed for that holiday, he will finally be able to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. "First Thanksgiving Day off in over 15 years, or as long as I can remember! I decided to do a spin on a classic main dish to invite conversation in my own house and to celebrate with family. And offer side items that I grew up with to balance that — candied yams with marshmallow, green bean casserole, stuffing and apple pie. And, of course, gravy. The inspiration for the turkey comes from growing up in Virginia, where we smoke a lot of proteins, one of which is our Smithfield VA Ham. Brining the turkey for so long and then smoking it gives it that hamlike quality I love. And then deboning and rolling like a porchetta makes it an easy and fun centerpiece and easy to carve. No pressure on carving the bird in front of all who is watching!" (Get the recipe for Bryant's Smoked Turchetta here.)

Sang Yoon
Sang Yoon
Amy Scattergood

Chef Sang Yoon, Lukshon, Father's Office
A strong opponent of the "dry" centerpiece turkey on Thanksgiving Day, chef Sang Yoon celebrates his own version of the holiday each year with a close group of friends at a gathering aptly labeled "Sangsgiving." A lavish and nontraditional Thanksgiving dinner – with turkey nowhere in sight – Sangsgiving originated in Yoon's kitchen in 1997 after years of rejecting the standard holiday favorites and sides. Raised in Los Angeles by parents who immigrated from Seoul, South Korea, Yoon and his family hardly celebrated the traditional Thanksgiving meal, though at the age of 15 he attempted to cook his first Thanksgiving dinner from scratch. The result was not at all what he had anticipated, and Yoon did not go on to cook another holiday meal until Sangsgiving came to life in 1997. At a typical Sangsgiving, guests and friends of Yoon can expect standing prime rib, as well as a possible Wagyu rib-eye, or a sous-vide pork shoulder made from Ibérico de Bellota pigs. Additional staples at the annual Sangsgiving include caviar with house-made potato chips and crème fraîche, as well as a traditional and decadent gratin dauphinois. Without fail, Yoon's first love and choice beverage, Champagne, always makes it onto the table for the holiday.

D. Brandon Walker,  the Mar Vista (opening in December)
"On Thanksgiving, I always cook two completely different turkeys and have all of my guests vote on which one they like the best. For example, last year I did one turkey with a classic French flavor profile: I stuffed the bird subcutaneously with black truffles. I also did a Dijon and fleur de gris crust. For the other turkey, I went with a Southwest flavor profile. I did a dry rub with espolette, then stuffed the cavity with fire-roasted Hatch chiles. The Southwest bird flew high last year with a 13-to-10 victory."

Chef Brandon Boudet preparing Thanksgiving dinner at his home in Ojai
Chef Brandon Boudet preparing Thanksgiving dinner at his home in Ojai
Rachel Ayotte

Chef Brandon Boudet of Little Dom’s
Brandon Boudet and his wife, Isabelle Dahlin, a designer and owner of deKor & Co., throw annual outdoor Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings for friends and family at their home in Ojai. These dinners celebrate Ojai’s farmers, Mediterranean climate and abundance of produce. Boudet explains, “Ojai has one of the best farmers markets in the country. Everyone grows something here, and people use it as currency.” With a garden backdrop and outdoor kitchen, Boudet prepares feasts with fresh-picked herbs from the couple’s garden and eggs from their chicken coop alongside fennel salad greens from Ojai’s Earthtrine Farms, Hilltop & Canyon Farms’ avocados and citrus from Mud Creek Ranch. The Thanksgiving turkey, which Boudet barbecues Santa Maria–style with chimichurri, is a local heritage bird from Marin County’s BN Ranch. (Get the recipe for Boudet's escarole, citrus and fennel salad here.)

Chef Adrian Vela, Napa Valley Grille

"Our family traditions are always centered by two main ideas: familia and food. As the year comes to an end and the weather begins to cool, our beautiful culture begins to take shape. Mexican culture is built on bold flavors and warm feelings. Dishes like mole à la poblana, menudo, pozole and albondigas top the list of commonly prepared things enjoyed around this time of year. Thanksgiving, although an American holiday, never stops us Mexicans from the opportunity to gather together to give thanks to one another and celebrate our love for one another with food, drink and company. Pozole is always the Thanksgiving favorite, along with sopes, albondigas and enchiladas. Of course, dinner isn’t possible without a drink or a salute, so tequila is required to even enter the house. We always enjoy our football (Go Cowboys!) and the night we spend watching movies, eating ice cream and flan, or maybe a tres leches cake. Overall this wonderful holiday always provides one feeling that sets up the end-of-year festivities in the right way, and that’s joy. For me nothing in life is better than my Cowboys, pozole, Pacifico and my family around. Nothing in life is better." (Get the recipe for pozole rojo here.)

Chef Chris Feldmeier, Bar Moruno
"We’re a migrant household for all the people who don’t have a home for Thanksgiving. [My wife] Dahlia and I host dinner for 40 people. We have many traditions! We always have to have my sister's white trash green bean casserole, and pies from the Apple Pan. I’m in charge of the protein, and we have multiple. Honey-baked ham, two turkeys, and every year we rotate between prime rib or lamb leg. It is a feast!"

Chef Lydia Shayne, DeLuscious Cookies
"On Thanksgiving, we look forward to unapologetically dismissing moderation and helping ourselves to the things we enjoy most. After a day of cooking, hosting and luxurious eating, finding the perfect treat takes some serious consideration. For me, the perfect post–Thanksgiving dinner treat is making digestifs and enjoying with cookies. We created Quixotic, a delightful holiday digestif that pairs perfectly with our chocolate decadence cookie." (Get the recipe for Shayne's Quixotic digestif here.)

Chef Jason Neroni with daughter Penny
Chef Jason Neroni with daughter Penny
Anne Fishbein

Chef Jason Neroni, Rose Café
"I do my turkey a little differently. We brine the breast in an apple cider solution and then slow poach it. The legs are cured and then cooked in duck fat and roasted skin side down. I then make a jus with the giblets and make a chorizo stuffing to go with it. To top it off, we always do Waldorf salad with whipped cheddar, Pink Lady apples and golden raisins."

Ross Canter, co-founder of Cookie Good
“As a baker, the holidays are obviously my happy time. It’s like the world gets together and collectively implores us to eat – what’s not to love about that? But despite my annual need to reinvent some kind of classic holiday dessert, my favorite thing to make each season is definitely mushroom barley soup.

"My grandfather was one of the original Canter brothers from Canter’s Delicatessen (which started in Jersey City, New Jersey, before moving out to L.A. in 1931). He was a pretty great cook — made the best pickles I’ve ever had — but it’s his mushroom barley soup that became an obsession for me. Sadly, he didn’t leave me the recipe, but I knew I had to re-create it. All I remembered was that he started with a turkey carcass. So, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving, fighting through a haze of tryptophan, I’d put the remains of our turkey dinner into a stockpot and get to work. Now, several years (and many, many turkeys) later, making my Grandpa Manny’s mushroom barley soup is by far my favorite part of the holidays.”

Amy and Neal Fraser
Amy and Neal Fraser
Brian Callaway

Chef Neal Fraser, Redbird

"For Thanksgiving, I love deep-frying turkey. To go along with it, I’m serving our favorite stuffing recipe : chestnut stuffing with dried cranberries and fresh sage. It’s classic but delicious."  (Get the recipe for Fraser's chestnut stuffing here.)

Chef George Abou-Daoud, Bowery Street Enterprises (Bowery, Bowery Bungalow, Delancey
Born to a Lebanese mother and an Egyptian father, he says, “Every Thanksgiving we would have molokhia, which has a similar constancy to okra and is one of the top five eaten foods in Egypt. We would ladle it over aromatic rice and serve it with pickled onions, lamb or chicken and, most important, crisped flat bread cracked on top. To finish off our meal, we would sip arak — of course, only a small sip for the children.”

Chef Brian Malarkey, Herringbone Santa Monica
“I have a very SoCal Thanksgiving, meaning it’s pretty much a seafood smorgasbord. We have a wide variety of seafood, including clams, crabs, mussels and grilled shrimp. We do still have a turkey on the table, but I’d much rather be chewing on some crab legs. As our sides we have light, bright summer salads, perfect for enjoying the outdoors, which is where we eat our Thanksgiving meal.”

Chef Luis Navarro, Lola's and The Social List

"What is more American than Thanksgiving? I think this is why Thanksgiving became the staple holiday in our family.  On Thanksgiving eve, my mother would spend the entire day prepping for our meal. This included prep for all of the fixings, which included roasted turkey, baked ham, made-from-scratch stuffing, brown sugared yams, mashed potatoes, giblet brown gravy and green bean and mushroom casserole. The amazing thing that I think about today is that my mother would execute this feast by herself. My father's restaurant was open Thanksgiving, but he would find the time to sneak away and have Thanksgiving dinner with us every year. My mother would have the food ready and table set at 3 p.m. This would allow my dad to make his way back to the restaurant for the dinner-rush reservations. The glamorous life of a chef, am I right?

"My mother would use our best china, silver and utensils that lay stowed away for the year until this special day, and only this day. Looking back, I now understand why Mother would make Thanksgiving so important. It was a way to keep the family united, create a tradition, and give her respect to America for the opportunities it gave her and our family. Our family opened Lola's Mexican Cuisine in 2008 using our family recipes and making it a true family-owned restaurant. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer shortly thereafter and passed away in 2010. I now have my family and have kept up with the traditions my mother instilled in me, to make sure that on this day, Thanksgiving, we gather the family, make food with your heart, and spend the ever important time with loved ones."


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