How Pittsburgh Chefs Spend & Prepare Their Thanksgiving
Seven Pittsburgh chefs share holiday traditions as well as tips for preparing a perfect meal.
photos by laura petrilla
For many home cooks, Thanksgiving dinner is the biggest meal they prepare all year. They may spend days, even weeks, formulating a plan to feed a crowd. In the restaurant world, however, feeding guests numbering in the dozens is a daily event. Here’s how seven Pittsburgh-area chefs spend their Thanksgiving Day, paired with some advice for those looking to tackle the big dinner.
Scott Walton, Acorn
Peek into the windows of Acorn in Shadyside on Thanksgiving Day, and you’ll witness a cozy scene: a large group gathered in the restaurant, eating, drinking and celebrating together. It’s executive chef/co-owner Scott Walton, his family, members of his team and some of their families. “We have a lot of team members who aren’t native Pittsburghers and don’t have the opportunity to get home to spend time with their families. My team is family, and they will always have a place to go on the holidays,” Walton says.
The menu features a technique popular in many restaurants. “I sous vide all of our turkey before finishing it in a high-heat roasting environment,” Walton says. For the home cook, Walton places a strong emphasis on planning and organization, starting with paying attention to the mise en place — a French culinary term that calls for a thoughtful organization of ingredients prior to the beginning of meal preparation. “Don’t bite off a Thanksgiving meal overnight,” he says. “Break it up into production lists over a time that’s comfortable and not rushed. It’s one of my favorite meals I put together, and I only do it once a year. Have fun with it.”
Zack Shell, Baby Loves Tacos
Zack Shell of Baby Loves Tacos isn’t afraid of trying new things. His family Thanksgivings, which began as traditional affairs, have transformed as he and his brother developed an interest in cooking. “The mashed potatoes of our youth would be brightened up with roasted garlic, cream, fresh rosemary and plenty of fresh black pepper,” he says. “Out with green beans and in with a French preparation of Brussels sprouts with butter, garlic, lemon, white wine and toasted slivered almond.” Rather than cooking a turkey this year, they will be eating pernil, a roast pork dish from his sister-in-law’s Puerto Rican childhood, and a chicken stuffed with sage, thyme, garlic and butter. Other parts of the meal hold onto tradition: “My mother will prepare these amazing flaky cranberry scones that her Irish grandmother made when they first moved to the States and opened a butcher shop in McDonald," Shell says.
Shell, who co-owns the Bloomfield taco shop with wife and business partner Kat Muscianesi, says Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday, and he sees it as a chance to appreciate all that he has. “The table looks much different than it did 10, 20 and 30 years ago. However, the essence, the celebration of togetherness and gratitude, is stronger than ever,” he says.
Roger Li, Umami, Ki Ramen, Ki Pollo
Since moving to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia more than a decade ago, Roger Li, co-owner of Umami, Ki Ramen and Ki Pollo, has not been able to return home for Thanksgiving celebrations. Instead, he and wife Claudia Moyano (executive chef of Ki Pollo), have created their own traditions. They prepare a meal for those on their staffs who also cannot spend the holiday with family. The meal does not generally veer far from traditional — besides that one year when Li made Turducken, and another when he stuffed the turkey with sticky rice and Chinese sausage.
His No. 1 tip? “Don’t trust the plastic probe that comes with the turkey,” he says. “It’s always inconsistent, and it usually comes out overcooked.”
Luke Cypher, Blue Sparrow
For Luke Cypher, chef/owner of the food truck Blue Sparrow, Thanksgiving Day consists of a family reunion for lunch, followed by a holiday movie with his immediate family.
In a recommendation that may come as a surprise to Blue Sparrow regulars who are accustomed to Cypher’s kimchi-laced global street foods, he says to keep the meal traditional, and, when in doubt, add more butter. “There’s something nostalgic about the regular dishes Thanksgiving brings about,” Cypher says. Sides such as stuffing and mac & cheese are particularly important to non-turkey lovers like him.
Never one to stay too traditional, Cypher also likes to throw a Thanksgiving-themed industrial night with his crew. “We all take a dish and try and show each other up with being weird and creative,” he says. Perhaps the kimchi will come out and play after all.
Casey Renee, Whitfield at Ace Hotel
Casey Renee spends much of her Thanksgiving Day at Whitfield in East Liberty, where the pastry chef prepares pastries for the more than 300 guests who will be celebrating the holiday at the restaurant. Afterward, she is able to slip away to spend time with family. “I head to my aunt’s house where I eat too much and fall asleep on the couch while everyone plays games,” she says.
Her time spent preparing Thanksgiving pie and desserts for dozens at Whitfield has taught her the necessity of prepping ahead of the holiday. “Make it as easy on yourself as you can,” she says. “I’m already prepping a week ahead for Thanksgiving at the restaurant — doughs, crusts and crumbles can be done ahead of time.”
The first item on Whitfield’s Thanksgiving menu is a bread basket. Renee suggests home cooks and hosts consider something along the same lines. “People love bread! Have lots of it ready.”
Kristin Butterworth, Lautrec
Once Thanksgiving brunch for guests is completed, the Lautrec restaurant team at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort sits down together for their own little Thanksgiving dinner. They take time to thank one other for everything that is done to keep the restaurant running smoothly year-round. According to Executive Chef Kristin Butterworth, “I think it’s incredibly important to take the time to express how much we appreciate each other.”
Butterworth’s own family Thanksgiving takes place the following day, when her parents and grandmother come to her house to help cook and have lunch. The holiday is sentimental for her as a day to spend time with family, remember those who are no longer with them and relive memories. The food she prepares with her family is classic and traditional, contributing to the nostalgia.
To the home cook, Butterworth stresses the importance of mise en place and organization. “Basically, prep smart and be as organized as possible,” she says. While a home full of family and friends tends to produce many willing helpers, she cautions against delegating tasks excessively. “The phrase ‘the more the merrier’ doesn’t apply to cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Usually the more hands you have in the kitchen the more chance there is for chaos!”
Bethany Zozula, Whitfield at Ace Hotel
Bethany Zozula, executive chef of Whitfield at Ace Hotel, wants you to make your turkey right this year. After all, it’s “the star of Thanksgiving dinner.”
Rather than roasting it whole, she recommends breaking it down before you cook it. “Split the bird into eight parts. Wings, the front (breasts attached to the bone), thighs, backbone and drums. Although it doesn’t have the nostalgic look of cooking a whole bird, it will result in juicier meat and a shorter cooking time,” she says. In terms of pre-roasting preparation, Zozula recommends a simple dry brine. “Two to one ratio, salt to sugar, some black pepper, sage and bay leaves,” she says. “Cut up the bird, and then rub with the dry mix the day before.”
For a particularly delicious Thanksgiving feast, start early. “Prep the turkey the day before. This will allow you to make a stock from the neck, backbone and wings. I recommend roasting those parts for a richer stock,” she says. “You can use this stock the next day for the stuffing and for braising the drums, and in turn use that braise for a richer gravy.”