L.A. Chefs Share Holiday Traditions, From Hanukkah Latkes to Javanese Fried Rice

Komodo chef Erwin Tjahyadi's nasi goreng, a traditional Indonesian dish.EXPAND
Komodo chef Erwin Tjahyadi's nasi goreng, a traditional Indonesian dish.
Anne Fishbein

Just like in the city itself, our chef community in L.A. is incredibly diverse, and the holiday traditions they celebrate have origins in many faiths, ethnic identities and countries. Some of them were kind enough to share those traditions with us, allowing us to learn about Armenian, Indonesian and Japanese holiday customs, and to receive some great recipes for everything from cocktails to a brisket feast for a huge crowd.

Hanukkah with Suzanne Tracht, Jar

"We have to make latkes at Jar because my customers wouldn’t let me off the hook if I didn’t. They always call up and ask if I’m making any, and I always do because I don’t want to let them down. I serve the latkes with crème fraîche and a homemade applesauce made from Granny Smith apples. I sweeten up the Granny Smith with some sugar and ginger, but the tartness makes them perfect for latkes.

"I also go to my sister’s house. She makes latkes for everyone and someone always brings jelly donuts. We always eat jelly donuts during Hanukkah. I don’t even really like jelly donuts, but something about Hanukkah makes them taste great.

"When I was a kid, making latkes was my father’s job. He would grate them by hand and maybe get a little skin in the game. He would also grate the onion by hand, so everyone had tears coming down. He would make so many on our little electric fry pan. He could only fit four or five in the pan at a time, so he needed to start early in the day."

Hanukkah with chef Zach Pollack, Alimento
While Zach Pollack might be best known for his Italian cooking at Alimento (and the upcoming Italian-American–inspired Cosa Buona in Echo Park), during the holidays, he goes back to his Jewish roots and prepares a traditional family-style brisket. Each year Pollack and his extended family come together to celebrate Hanukkah, and at the center of their table is his centerpiece, a slow-cooked brisket, an old family recipe. (See Pollack's recipe for slow-cooked brisket here.)

Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis at BestiaEXPAND
Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis at Bestia
Anne Fishbein

Christmas morning with Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis, Bestia
"I make super airy, light Belgian waffles for breakfast on Christmas morning," Genevieve Gergis says. "It sets the festive mood and keeps your stomach empty enough to fit all of the crackers and walnut-coated cheese logs for the rest of the day.” (See Gergis' waffle recipe here.)

Erwin Tjahyadi prepares nasi gorengEXPAND
Erwin Tjahyadi prepares nasi goreng
Anne Fishbein

Christmas with chef Erwin Tjahyadi, Komodo
"Alongside more traditional fare, one of the dishes that I love to have during the holidays is nasi goreng, which is Indonesian fried rice. Considered one of Indonesia's national dishes, it is full of rich flavors and spices that is great to eat alone, or as an accompaniment to other dishes. Growing up, my parents would make nasi goreng during special occasions. Every time I eat it, it reminds me of being with family and celebrating together, which is why I love serving it, especially during the holidays. As fusion cuisine is a big part of my cooking style, I also love the fact that I can celebrate both my cultures (Indonesian and American) at the dinner table.

"During Christmas, my family and I will have nasi goreng instead of stuffing. We love having spicy food during the cold weather, and nasi goreng Jawa (specifically from our island, Java) is just the dish to do it — stir-fried with chili paste, shredded eggs, aromatic spices, onions and your choice of protein. Traditionally, we stuff the dish inside of a cone-shaped container mold, take it out by inverting the mold and placing it in the center of our holiday platter, and adorn it with other side dishes. We decorate it with krupuk (fried onion chips), candied tempeh (compressed soy beans), flavored egg, beef rendang and fried chicken or shrimp. Of course, everything is served family-style because sharing is what the holidays are all about."

Christmas Eve with chef Bruce Kalman, Union
On Christmas Eve, Bruce Kalman serves a feast of the seven fishes at his restaurant, Union. “To pull the menu together, I draw inspiration from the Feast of the Seven Fishes that my mother-in-law has cooked in the past. We combine this with the sustainable seafood available to us. It has become a collaborative menu between myself and the chefs at Union.” (See Kalman's recipe for halibut croquetas with almond romesco here.)

New Year's Eve with chef D. Brandon Walker, the Mar Vista
"Every New Year's Eve we spend with my wife's family, all from Hawaii. It's potluck and each family brings a traditional New Year's dish: crab-stuffed tempura shrimp, lobster dynamite, nishime, spam musubi, macaroni salad, sushi rice, traditional rolled sushi, nontraditional rolled sushi, and ozoni at midnight. We eat and talk all evening and at 11:50 we start passing out party hats and poppers, Champagne and sparkling cider, turn on the countdown and get ready for midnight. One of our favorite and oldest traditions."

Vartan Abgaryan
Vartan Abgaryan
Anne Fishbein

New Year's Day with chef Vartan Abgaryan, 71 Above

Vartan Abgaryan is Armenian by descent, and there's one tradition he especially loves. Like many cultures around the world, Armenians' big celebration happens on Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, Jan. 6. "From New Years Eve until Jan. 6, Armenians go to one another’s homes and eat, get together and hang out, and then celebrate on the 6th." One traditional dish that he likes very much is a sweet porridge, made with barley, dried fruit and nuts. "This has been a tradition in my family for ages. ... My grandmother was a child eating this every winter and it became a tradition in our family. My grandmother passed away and my mother took over making the porridge; then, since she passed, both my aunt and sister make it every year. To this day, our extended family knows that when they visit us for New Year's, it's a staple and they will be eating the chilled porridge made with wheat berries, dried fruits and nuts."  (See Abgaryan's family recipe for sweet winter porridge here.)

Christmas with chef Danny Elmaleh, Doheny Room
"During the holidays, my mom and dad usually do the cooking. My mom makes great salads, which are usually Asian-inspired, and my dad usually cooks Moroccan-inspired dishes. We always have a large array of appetizer-type dishes on the table, and there is always a fish, a chicken or turkey and a beef or lamb or both! Then of course we have dessert and tea and cookies. Out of all the wonderful things they make, my favorite is the beef tongue stew. It is the most tender and succulent piece of protein you could have." (See the Elmaleh family recipe for beef tongue stew here.)

New Year's Eve with Masa Kurihara, executive corporate chef of Tengoku Ramen Bar
“Japanese people celebrate the new year by gathering with friends and having osechi-ryori, which is a special food eaten to bring happiness and prosperity to the new year. Osechi-ryori looks like a big bento box with many compartments, filled with a variety of little colorful dishes that are mainly seafood and vegetables. Each little dish symbolizes a wish for the coming year. Japanese housewives usually spend the last few days in the year preparing osechi-ryori because it is not auspicious to cook for the first three days of the new year. Even though osechi-ryori is enjoyed by Japanese people nationwide, the flavors of each osechi-ryori is different in every part of Japan. My mother is from Osaka and she learned how to make osechi-ryori from my grandmother. My favorite osechi-ryori dishes are kuromame (black beans marinated in sugar and soy sauce), which symbolizes good health, and kinpira-gobo (marinated burdock root), which symbolizes good health and harvest.”

Three Kings Day with Andrea Borgen, Barcito
"Three Kings was one of my favorite traditions growing up, likely because I relished the opportunity to tell my friends about a gift-getting holiday they'd never heard of. (I was not popular with their parents.) On the night of Jan. 5, my sister and I would leave our shoes out, along with bowls of water and grass (for the camels, duh), and overnight the kings would visit and stuff them with little knick-knacks. That evening we'd celebrate with our parents, drinking sidra, an Argentine sparkling apple cider, and noshing on the leftover Christmas cookies Santa couldn't get his hands on. These days, I'd probably wanna upgrade that sparkling cider to a twist on a French 75." (See Borgen's updated French 75 recipe here.)


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