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Friday, November 09, 2012

Dinner with the Family

From the Vault Dept.: As we peer from our bunkers and realize, ecstatically, that electioneering is behind us, we’re clobbered with the anticipation of Thanksgiving. Here’s my take on the holiday, written eight years ago but in no way diminished, except to note that the restaurant described below has closed.


ALTHOUGH THE ANTICS described in Anthony Bourdain’s entertaining book Kitchen Confidential are certainly credible—pretty much a free-for-all of food (not all of it good) and drugs—my own experience both on the floor and on the line was nowhere near as appalling. Perhaps the restaurants of Fairfield and Westchester Counties were more genteel, or perhaps the ’70s simply were a gentler time.

Illustration by Bill Elder, from MAD Magazine
Thanksgivings exemplified this. Mother’s Day was and is the killer holiday for the business, far eclipsing any other event. Thanksgiving still has a strong enough homebound tradition to make it only a moderately busy restaurant day.

And, of course, it’s a family event, and that’s where it intersects with restaurants in a fascinating way. The traditional family—well, we’ve heard enough palaver about the “traditional” family in the run-up to the last election to nauseate us for a lifetime. Let’s just note that a family can also be defined by the bonds imposed by a shared event or occupation.

Because restaurants attract a high share of the otherwise disenfranchised, you find many people—especially in the kitchen—who long for the closeness never offered at home. I spent my longest stretch of kitchen time in a place called the Elms Inn, in Ridgefield, Conn., which was (and still is) owned and operated by the Scala family. In fact, when John Scala bought the restaurant in the 1950s, there was a minor scandal in that it was the first time an Italian family had owned property on the village’s Main Street.

The menu was classically, old- fashionedly continental (we even served a dish of crudités to arriving guests), but the family was traditionally Italian. By the time I was hired, Mario, one of John’s sons, had taken over the kitchen in the wake of John’s death, and another son, Bob, ran the business. John’s widow lived in one of the several apartments on the property and cultivated a garden for seasonal fresh herbs. And there were other family members working kitchen or floor from time to time.

Thanksgiving began on the Tuesday before, when the entire kitchen staff was put to work hulling just-roasted chestnuts for the stuffing. Wednesday we roasted turkeys in every available oven, including those in Bob’s and Mario’s houses. The following day, while more birds cooked, we sliced the meat and arranged them in hotel pans of turkey stock. We excavated stuffing. We mashed potatoes. We poached some fish. By the time the doors opened at noon, the steam table was filled, the burners fired and we were swept into a time-free tunnel in which plate after plate was assembled and sent out.

And then it was nearly 8 PM, and most of the orders were served. Despite our efforts to keep ahead of the mess, the kitchen was a disaster. But we, the staff, were exhilarated. We’d stayed on top. We’d helped dozens of families enjoy this most familial meal—and there were those who visited year after year and counted on us for their holiday.

Then Mario grabbed a handful of plates and heaped stuffing, turkey, gravy, potatoes, the works, on each. “Here you go,” he’d say, and we’d head for this or that corner of the kitchen to tuck into meal made all the more enjoyable for the experience we’d just shared.

If that was the view from the trenches, the front line was even more compelling. At the Horse & Hound Inn in South Salem, N.Y., I donned a tuxedo each work night to emphasize a promise of elegance.

Behind the scenes it could be unpredictable because Klaus, the chef-owner, was in constant battle with suppliers, but he knew how to put on a Thanksgiving feast. Whole turkeys were the feature. It was a reservations-only dinner, and he bought birds to suit the expected clientele.

If I seem particularly fleet with the carving knife, it’s because I was more often than not called upon to perform that particular duty—which baffled me. Carving the bird seems to me the signature event of the meal, but I suspect that the job was surrendered out of insecurity or convenience. At any rate, I’d find myself suddenly part of the family as I carved, a stand-in dad doling out the desired cuts of meat.

This was a smaller restaurant than the Elms, with about 15 tables in all, and we usually filled for the first two seatings, then used one of our two main dining rooms for the scantier third.

Which allowed us to clean and prepare the back room for our own meal. A large banquet table at one end of it was set, and by the time we served the last orders of pumpkin pie our own turkey was coming out of the oven.

It’s an experience I’ve sought ever since to re-create with my own family and friends each year at this time, and I spend the days before Thanksgiving putting together an extensive menu that I exhaust myself preparing.

By the time I get to the table, I’m as tired as I was on those restaurant days. But the payoff is wonderful, just like at the Horse & Hound, where the crew—waiters, dishwashers, all—took seats around the table, along with a few close friends, and Klaus carved the bird. The high-wire act of serving a hungry public had fused us into a family that still enjoyed being with one another after the curtain, so to speak, had come down.

This year, I’ll be dining at home, but I’ll offer a toast, as always, to those in the biz who work to serve you. Although they may be forsaking Thanksgiving dinner at home, they’re at least able to spend the day with family.

Metroland Magazine, November 25, 2004

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