New Traditions 

What's a foreign chef to do on Thanksgiving?

My Thanksgiving tradition began four years ago, when my parents came to visit from Germany. Of course, Thanksgiving being a wholly American holiday, Germany doesn't observe it, but like many other countries, they do celebrate the harvest.

I was trying to find a way for my parents to meet my friends and decided on a Thanksgiving brunch. An eclectic mix of Russian, American, Mexican, and German friends came, and even though my parents haven't been back this time of the year, the tradition carried on.

Jose Gutierrez, chef/owner of Encore and a native of France, has lived in the United States for more than 30 years and has cooked his share of traditional Thanksgiving meals. But he can't get excited about toddler-size turkeys and sweet cranberry sauce.

"I cooked a Thanksgiving dinner for somebody once, and I made this great cranberry sauce," the chef explains. "Not too tart, not too sweet -- just right. The people who ate it said it was the worst thing they'd ever eaten, and they tried to fix it with sweetener. That is just gross."

A Thanksgiving Gutierrez-style is a gathering of friends and employees who have no place to go and probably a turkey ballotine for dinner. For the ballotine, the turkey is completely boned (skin saved), the meat is cut into small cubes, stuffed back into the skin, tied, rolled up into a bundle, and either braised or roasted.

"This is a really great way to prepare turkey if you know how to de-bone it, because it will take a lot less time to cook and won't get dry" Gutierrez says. "Your friends won't think that you don't like them because you made them eat dry turkey, and you don't have to eat turkey leftovers that last until Christmas. That makes everybody happy."

Konrad Spitzbart, executive pastry chef at The Peabody and a native of Austria, enjoys the American Thanksgiving foods. "I typically work on Thanksgiving Day, so I cook for my family the next day, and we have all the traditional foods -- green beans and sweet-potato casserole, turkey with stuffing. It's one of my wife's favorite holidays."

click to enlarge An Alfonso family holiday spread - COURTESY OF REINALDO ALFONSO
  • Courtesy of Reinaldo Alfonso
  • An Alfonso family holiday spread

Erling Jensen, chef/owner of the eponymous restaurant and a native of Denmark, gets to take the day off from cooking and enjoy his mother-in-law's Thanksgiving food. "I like all the traditional food, and my mother-in-law is a pretty good cook," Jensen says. "More important than the food is that everybody comes together to have a good time."

Even though there is no equivalent holiday to Thanksgiving in either Austria or Denmark, there is food for the winter holidays.

The traditional Austrian holiday meal is simple -- sausage and cabbage, Spitzbart says.

"A typical holiday meal in Denmark is a seated dinner of either roasted goose or duck with caramelized potatoes, apples, and jellies, and 'Ris Allamande' -- rice pudding with whipped cream, chopped almonds, and vanilla and sweet cherry sauce -- for dessert," Jensen says.

Chez Philippe chef de cuisine Reinaldo Alfonso is of Cuban descent and grew up in Miami. Alfonso's family has observed the Thanksgiving holiday ever since Reinaldo can remember. "We usually don't do the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, maybe a little here and there for the American family members who have married into this big Cuban family," the chef explains. "But in the end, it will turn into a big party. My dad will be in charge of the music, and everybody will be eating, dancing, and chatting."

Cooking chores in the Alfonso family are split "equally." The men are responsible for roasting and watching the pig, all the while playing dominos and having a few drinks and a cigar or two. "The pig is a huge affair," says Alfonso. "We pick one at the beginning of the year, and the farmer will feed and raise it for us until we pick it up."

After the pig is slaughtered, it's marinated in mojo (oregano, cumin, onion, garlic, lime or sour orange juice, olive oil, and pepper) for two days before it's roasted in a carefully crafted backyard pit from dawn until dusk.

None of the Alfonso family pig goes to waste. The blood is saved to make morcilla, Cuban blood sausage, and the family argues over who gets to eat the crispy roasted ears.

The women in Alfonso's family take great pride in preparing everything but the pig. "My mom often adapts several American classics and infuses them with Cuban flavors," he says. The result are such dishes as "Congri Oriental" (black beans and rice cooked with pork), corn casserole with Caribbean pumpkin (calabasa) and chorizo sausage, tamales, pumpkin fritters, Cuban bread, and candied yams glazed with rum syrup and a cinnamon meringue top as well as pumpkin flan.

Even though Alfonso is looking forward to eating plenty of his favorite foods, the company is just as important. "It has been a while since I was home for Thanksgiving and spent time with my family. This year, it's going to be a big surprise because my mom doesn't know I'm coming."

Maybe I should keep an eye out for two Germans on Thanksgiving. I might be in for a surprise myself.

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