Thanksgiving is a mere two weeks away, a fact that is scarier than any monster you might have run into last week on Halloween.
While some Maine restaurants do stay open on the fourth Thursday in November, most close their doors, and it makes you wonder: Is Thanksgiving a busman’s holiday for chefs?
Do they hang up their pots at work only to have to take them down again at home? Does their family expect them to create some spectacular spread every year like the ones you see in the Thanksgiving issues of glossy food magazines?
Or are they allowed to chill on the sofa, for once, and watch football while someone else does all the work?
I asked a wide range of southern Maine chefs how they celebrate the most food-centric holiday of the year. Their answers, gathered by both phone and email, were enlightening and entertaining.
I also asked them if they have a special dish they simply have to prepare every Thanksgiving — perhaps something that brings back childhood memories, or something that has become a family tradition?
And I wondered: Do they allow themselves to indulge in any guilty pleasures on the holiday? Do chefs with refined palates ever eat the dreaded green bean casserole or sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top?
Most of them wouldn’t cop to the casserole or the sweet potatoes, at least not publicly. But it turns out Maine chefs do partake in some interesting culinary extravagances that go beyond the usual Thanksgiving fare.
Here’s hoping their responses entertain and inspire you as you plan your own Thanksgiving table.
DEMOS REGAS, Emilitsa, Portland
(Thanksgiving) is a real holiday for me in the sense that I am out of the restaurant. I have a great team in the kitchen, including my son Nikos, but I insist on going in every day myself. In fact, now that we are opening for lunch, I am there even more. We are all about philoxenia, which literally translated means taking care of strangers and is the Greek concept of hospitality. The door is open to everyone. It is a way of life for us, it’s in our blood.
So on Thanksgiving, my brother John and I actually go kayaking to escape a little. For us it’s a day about being in nature and being grateful. I don’t cook up a storm on the Thanksgiving holiday. I do that every day. The truth is that on Thanksgiving, we eat these special Coney hot dogs from my other son George’s restaurant in Duluth. I’m not kidding. He overnights them to us with this phenomenal chili minced onion sauce. We love them. In a way, it connects our family by food.
Guilty pleasure: I grew up with flavorful food, whether in my dad’s restaurant, Regas Cafe, where he cooked “American” food or upstairs in our home where my mom was the chef for all us kids and anyone else who dropped in. While we loved Dad’s classic hot turkey sandwich with brown gravy, we were partial to Mom’s home cooking: Marinated lamp chops, moussaka with lots of bechamel, baklava, and the works. We started in the morning and literally grazed all day on spanakopita, hot bread out of the oven. That’s not to say we weren’t intrigued by homemade American-style pies. At the restaurant, really a diner, Dad served mile-high pumpkin as well as banana cream for Thanksgiving. They were nothing like the Greek desserts we had as kids. That probably influenced my guilty pleasure for the holidays — a festive after-dinner drink as an aperitif. I like Kahlua with metaxa, a Greek brandy, with whipped cream and all. It’s like having dessert before dinner. Yes, I’m aware these are disparaged as “girly” drinks in some circles. I’m okay with that. In fact, I think I’ll pair one with a Coney dog.
SAM HAYWARD, Fore Street, Portland
Thankfully, Fore Street closes for three family-oriented holidays each year: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas. I actually enjoy cooking for family and friends in our home. All of my children and grandchild live in Maine, so unless Ian has to work (he’s the chef de cuisine at Petite Jacqueline), there’s a good chance we’ll all be together, and perhaps some other Bowdoinham neighbors as well.
We’re all very collaborative, so some of the cooking responsibilities will be shared. A couple of our friends are among the best cooks I know. One taught school in Turkey about a decade past and now makes amazing vegetable dishes strongly influenced by that experience. Another gardens, bakes and preserves for her husband’s midcoast market boat in the summer and brings fabulous dishes when she dines with us. But most years, I enjoy taking charge of the center of the plate. I roast the turkey, partly because I have access to great sources, and because I have a wood-burning roasting oven in my home kitchen that makes for a great bird.
Guilty pleasure: Pecan pie. I spent my middle childhood in the Deep South and my mother, raised in South Carolina and the mountains of east Tennessee, cooked with a Southern accent her entire life. And I went back to New Orleans early in my cooking career to continue my training. Our pecan pie is actually made with nuts given us every year by a neighbor whose family harvests from their trees in Georgia, and they’re outstanding.
The filling isn’t made with corn syrup, which I’ve almost completely stopped using in anything, but is sweetened with something called cane syrup, simply boiled-down juice pressed from sugar cane. It used to be a staple Louisiana ingredient, but to my knowledge only one mill is producing it at present, a family firm called Steen’s. It’s not to be confused with molasses: It’s brown as dark-amber maple syrup, a little thicker, with a distinct cane-y taste, and it bakes to a texture that’s very different from a pie made with corn syrup. We toast the pecan meats in the oven until fragrant, layer them in a shallow tart mold lined with flaky pastry, and pour over them a filling of cane syrup, butter, eggs and a splash of barrel-strength bourbon. It’s baked just until the filling becomes custardy. Bourbon-vanilla gelato would complete the decadence. Hold the marshmallows.
LEE FARRINGTON, Figa, Portland
So many amazing memories come to mind thinking about the holidays. Thanksgiving was always at my grandparents’ home, and I always helped from the time I can recall it.
So, yes, I do cook the feast for our family, and I enjoy every aspect of it, especially reflecting on what its meaning is. And having a daughter, I enjoy watching her learn and celebrate in the moment and meaning.
There isn’t any real expectation for me to cook. I choose to, or I will be in the kitchen anyway. It’s not easy for me to sit back and see others doing all the work.
Guilty pleasure: Raised in Kentucky, my grandmother did the sweet potato casserole with the little marshmallows. I have to have it on the table. It makes me smile. My guilty pleasure is pecan pie. I only eat it during the holidays.
MARK GAIER AND CLARK FRASIER, Arrows and MC Perkins Cove, Ogunquit
At Arrows we have a very long Thanksgiving tradition. First off, Mark and I both love traditional Thanksgiving fare, and that is what we have always served at Arrows. It’s always been a very popular day at Arrows, and I have to say it’s one of our favorite days there. Our guests tend to be relaxed and happy. They don’t have the pressure of, say, Christmas and they’re dining at Arrows, so there’s nothing to worry about.
After the last guest departs, though, the entire staff from both MC and Arrows and sometimes even some folks from Summer Winter sit down for dinner. Traditionally, each person at the table has to tell what they felt was the most embarrassing moment for them at work that year. It’s pretty fun.
For years, Mark and I lived above Arrows (happily we no longer do) and Mark would get up at the crack of dawn to put the turkeys in and make coffee. Even though we no longer live at Arrows, Mark and I still drive over and go through this very satisfying ritual.
We brine our turkeys in the old claw foot tub at Arrows the day before cooking. When the Today Show asked us to do a segment on turkey, we asked if they happened to have a claw foot tub up their sleeves, and lo and behold they did. Boy, did Al Roker have a blast throwing the turkey into the tub!
Guilty pleasure: Mark’s sourdough stuffing is quite simply the best I’ve ever had, and we serve it most years. Sometimes we get a bit wild and do his Boston Brown bread stuffing though, that he created for “Bon Appetit,” and it’s a close second.
CHRIS BASSETT, Azure Cafe, Freeport
Thanksgiving is far from a day off for me. At Azure Cafe, Jonas Werner gives back to our community in Freeport by delivering the best Thanksgiving meal available anywhere, for free. I know this is true, I cook it.
Most of the raw food is donated, and we volunteer our time to cook, serve and deliver the dinner, not only to our community buffet but also to the homes of those who are housebound.
After working in hotels for many years, I was accustomed to working the day, but this event changed everything for me. To be part of an event that brings out such happiness and gratitude in a community was eye opening. Azure is open 363 days a year, lunch and dinner. We are only closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. A guaranteed day off would be welcomed. I wait until Christmas. On Thanksgiving morning, I arrive at 5 a.m. at Azure to get the turkeys in the oven. We usually wrap up around 3 p.m., and I have plenty of time to invite the family over to my house where I reheat community dinner leftovers and serve again.
Guilty pleasure: All the guilty pleasures are there. Roasted turkey, stuffing made with hand-cut bread and turkey stock, baked ham, mashed potatoes, glazed sweet potatoes and carrots, green beans with fried onions, house-made cranberry sauce, sweet corn pudding and pumpkin and pecan pies with whipped cream. Most of which I only eat during Thanksgiving.
DAVID TURIN, David’s in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland
When we moved to Monument Square I made a decision that we were going to be closed on all the holidays that any family might want to get together on, so we closed on all the high holidays and the American holidays like Superbowl Sunday, for example (laughing). But that was only because I couldn’t get anybody to work. So it is a day off for me, and I appreciate it all the more, I think, having cooked Thanksgiving in so many hotels and then restaurants that I owned. You’re there really, really early, and it’s very, very busy, and to have it off is a real treat.
I don’t know that there’s that expectation (that I will do most of the cooking at home). It’s come to be. My wife has taken on an interest in cooking some of the things for sure, like cranberry sauce and making a pie or doing a lot of the other things. But I’ve gotten a method for cooking my turkey that’s gotten to be extremely popular with my family. I actually bone my turkey out. I take the bones out of the turkey except for the legs and the wings, and then I season the cavity and I fill it with the stuffing I’m going to use. A 20-pound turkey cooks in an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes, and it leaves it so moist and delicious. Then I also have the benefit of having the turkey carcass to make my stock with. That’s gotten to be sort of the de rigeur around the house at Thanksgiving. Usually my mom comes and my sisters, and my wife’s family. We have a pretty good group, usually.
My daughter Emily and I have for years made a tart tatin. She never really realized, I think, until she was about 17 that that wasn’t just a traditional apple pie. We do the normal stuff. We have a pumpkin pie or something like that, although we usually roast our own pumpkin. We’re not too big on canned pumpkin.
Guilty pleasure: I’m probably not likely to eat stuffing very often, but on Thanksgiving I’m good for the stuffing, and my guilty pleasure is definitely the sandwich slathered with mayonnaise (and made with leftovers). If you make the gravy right with a good turkey stock, you can actually make a slice of the gravy when it’s cold — that probably sounds really bad — so you can put it on your bread, then your cranberry sauce and then your turkey and then your stuffing. That’s a really good turkey sandwich.
HARDING SMITH, The Front Room, the Corner Room and the Grill Room, Portland
Well, it definitely is not a day off, but more of a busman’s holiday. It’s different though. It doesn’t have any of that stress associated with our kitchens, cooking at a nice pace, having friends and family join in with the prep. Sipping wine, watching football, all while cooking, is not quite like being at work.
I usually always do the turkey. I like to roast one and fry one. One year that I didn’t we went to someone else’s house, and they took the turkey out of the freezer in the morning. Suffice it to say we did not have turkey on the table by dinner time. I always find small organic birds, they are so much better than those big old things. And every year since I can remember, I have made wild mushroom and sausage stuffing, and of course roasted brussel sprouts. Everyone always brings a side dish of some sort. My mom makes killer pecan pie. It really is about being with family and friends and being thankful for all that we have.
LISA KOSTOPOULOS, The Good Table, Cape Elizabeth
We close The Good Table so we can house my extended family here. It varies between 28 and 40 people. I have invested a lot of time teaching my young nieces and nephews and my cousin’s kids how to use the dishwasher. There were many years when using “Mr. Hobart” was a thrill to the kids. Now that they are all of late high school and college age, the thrill is gone, but they still do the dishes.
My parents take care of the turkeys. It took me five years to convince them that brining was not evil. Now we brine, and it is always the best bird ever. Mom makes a special glaze and bastes it all morning. My mother also makes her father’s stuffing, and I usually fiddle with a new one every year — some good, some just alright.
It is a holiday for me, though unfortunately I still have to be “the boss” and let everyone know where things go and keep an eye on all things being reheated. I am in charge of the gravy (the least glamorous but one of the most important parts of Thanksgiving), the bloody Marys, the mashed sweet potatoes and the beloved pecan pie. I make an extra one for my parents to take home.
Guilty pleasure: The guilty pleasure is probably eating five to six thin slices of pie. All the female cousins are really, really good at making pie.
ADAM WHITE, The Salt Exchange, Portland
Thanksgiving is THE holiday for my family. It’s the one day most of my siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins, in-laws and friends get together for the gratitude of life and family. The pleasure of little feet, young adults and sharing certain accomplishments are all celebrated among the hugs, laughter, tears and memories of people and history past. And of course, food, food, lots of food.
I usually cook Thanksgiving eve for 20 to 25 people, after a long day at the restaurant, panicked the entire day knowing that my day doesn’t end with the last dessert or the kitchen breakdown. There is a long list of favorite foods that have been requested: Pumpkin cheesecake, roast duck(s), macaroni and cheese, dinner rolls and sourdough batards (fresh no less), apple pie and sweet potatoes. I would like to say my heart rate is climbing, and it’s weeks away.
The times we share are and will always be cherished, but the gathering of Thanksgiving is truly the one day of the year that I enjoy most.
Guilty pleasure: When my mom was still with us, despite the fresh cranberry-orange jam I made, it wasn’t Thanksgiving for anyone until someone found a can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce — you know, the one that needed both ends opened and held the can shape until mom started slicing. Or the new tradition of fruit cocktail folded into Cool Whip, a family favorite that my wife’s family has had since she was a little girl.
DAVID ROSS, 50 Local, Kennebunk
Yes, I cook Thanksgiving dinner every year. My father and I really get into it and usually do a traditional dinner of turkey, potatoes, greens, squash and stuffing.
The table setting is pretty large, with five kids and around 20 adults.
Last year, I did a sous vide turkey that came out so good — brined, bathed, roasted at the end. I always do one traditional bird with bread stuffing, though.
Guilty pleasure: Tortiere (Canadian meat pie) is the passion of the holidays for us … cooking from my grandmother’s recipe. If we get fancy, it’s with the soup (chesnut mostarda, lobster parsnip, etc.)
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: