Photograph by Katrine Moite
Chef Philippe Massoud has spent years developing and honing the Thanksgiving feast at Ilili, his Lebanese restaurant with locations in Washington, DC, and New York. He serves an acorn squash salad with fresh figs and chankleesh balls (a farmer’s cheese made from strained yogurt and spices), slow-roasted heritage turkey, and a lamb sausage “cappuccino” gravy, named for its dark, rich color.
Massoud, like a number of chefs across the country, takes Thanksgiving as an opportunity to reinterpret the traditional feast through his own lens. “Being able to give a different twist on a traditional American holiday is an homage to my adopted home,” says Massoud. “So we take it very, very seriously and also have a lot of fun with it.” His New York location has been open for 16 years and has served Thanksgiving every year.
Thanksgiving isn’t a meal most of us associate with going out to eat. These days, though, the high cost of groceries is making diners across the country rethink their plans for the holiday. While some grocery store retailers are offering price reductions to get shoppers back in their stores for Thanksgiving, for some the incentives aren’t enough. Chefs and restaurant workers are taking notice and electing to work, turning out menus that make the prospect of putting down the baking mitts and making a reservation even more appealing. For these chefs, Thanksgiving has become an annual opportunity to bring some warmth to their dining rooms.
For Eric Huang, the chef and owner of Pecking House in Brooklyn, this marks the first year his restaurant will be open on the holiday. “I figured we’d give it a shot,” he says. “I don’t really know what to expect.” When asked why he decided to give it a try in the first place, he explains that many of his staff don’t celebrate: “The work is important to them; keeping their hours, saving their PTO for when they need it is important. So we figured we’d keep the restaurant running,” he says. “Let’s see what happens. I’m not doing anything either, so why not?”
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With the holiday fast approaching, Huang is still figuring out what makes sense for his restaurant in terms of menu offerings. “I’m probably going to try to run some sort of special to entice people to spend their Thanksgiving with us,” he says. Otherwise, Huang is planning to appeal to folks with the same catering menu available throughout the year. You won’t miss the big bird when you can take home Huang’s specialty: Sichuan-seasoned fried chicken.
Though many would-be diners are hunkering down at home right now, planning out their menus with requisite dishes like green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, the restaurant industry is buzzing as the big day approaches. From a diner’s perspective, there are many things to love about going out to eat on Thanksgiving, but as far as I’m concerned, the best of all is seeing how chefs interpret the holiday. At the Southern restaurant Big Jones in Chicago, Cajun-style deep-fried turkey and wild mushroom étouffée are on the menu, and at the Malaysian restaurant Phat Eatery in Katy, Texas, the Thanksgiving spread includes a golden brown beef rendang Wellington. Chef Tom Aviv is serving a roast turkey with tamarind glaze at Branja in Miami. Mister Mao, the self-described “spunky, tropical roadhouse” in New Orleans, is gearing up for a feast complete with chicken and rice dumplings and turkey tikka masala.
The vibe in the dining rooms of these restaurants is unsurprisingly joyous on a holiday that celebrates eating: “It’s definitely very convivial” says Steve Simon, cofounder and partner of Fifth Group Restaurants in Atlanta, which includes four locations of South City Kitchen. “We’re busy from when we open at 11 a.m. until we take the last seating at 7 p.m.”
As a former restaurant worker myself, I used to love working Thanksgiving. The energy in the room was electric, both guests and servers buzzing through the dining room, equally mesmerized by the illuminated wreaths in the windows (the festive decorating started early) and the sound of Champagne corks popping every few minutes. But good spirit and cheer aren’t the only sentiments that make working a holiday worth it. “It’s the busiest day of the year; [my staff] makes money like it’s raining,” says Simon. Some restaurants pay their employees time and a half; others rely on diners who tend to tip more aggressively on holidays. “Everybody doesn’t have to work,” says Simon, “but we don’t have a problem filling shifts.”
Of course, not everyone in the restaurant industry wants to work during the holiday. On platforms like Reddit, restaurant workers voice a combination of satisfaction (higher than usual tips, a familial kitchen environment) and frustration (being away from family, serving thankless diners) when the holidays roll around: “it’s gonna be busy, hoping the money will make up for the time i can’t spend at home” wrote one Reddit user on a thread discussing the ups and downs of working during Thanksgiving. Another restaurant worker chimed in about their own plans to celebrate at a restaurant this year: “I plan on tipping soo much…restaurant staff are giving up their holidays to make yours wonderful - and the only thing that will make it worth it…is customers being kind and friendly, and most of all GENEROUS with those tips!!”
What might have started as a fallback plan when the turkey didn’t thaw in time has, for some, become an intentional tradition of eating out on Thanksgiving. Restaurants that usually serve individual plates might opt for a family-style or buffet menu, encouraging folks to pass plates and reach for the last roll at the same time. At New York’s Eleven Madison Park, where dinner is ordinarily an extremely formal affair, sides, and salads are served in bowls with spoons meant for dolloping on your plate and your neighbor’s.
Some restaurants and chefs express a sense of duty surrounding Thanksgiving. They meet diners who are traveling for work and away from family, or wouldn’t otherwise be celebrating the holiday—but still want to take part in the festivities. Massoud of Ilili argues that restaurants can and should play a vital role in combating loneliness: “We’re no longer rubbing elbows with each other. We don’t go shopping, everything is ordered online, people are lonely. And I think restaurants offer an escape from that loneliness. Restaurants are where people gather and get some human warmth. That’s why I love Thanksgiving; it’s a moment to say thank you to each other.”
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit
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