Admit it, November rolls around and your mouth is already watering for the big meal that is to come. It could be your mom’s stuffing, dressing or filling (hello, Pennsylvania Dutch friends), whatever you want to call it. Or it could be your Aunt’s sweet potato casserole. Sweetness overload, just how you like it.
But when it comes to local chefs in Northern Virginia, do they even enjoy cooking Thanksgiving dinner? As quickly as they walk into a home kitchen and start chopping onions, are they transported right back into their everyday atmosphere?
We spoke with Juste Zidelyte, head chef at Maple Ave. in Vienna, and Joy Crump, head chef and co-owner of Foode in Fredericksburg (both of which landed on this year’s 50 Best Restaurants list), about how they tackle the ins and outs of Thanksgiving, from meticulously planning a menu, to having an intimate, seasonal dinner with your significant other. Find highlights from our conversation below.
Since we’re getting more into the spirit, what are your first and favorite memories of Thanksgiving?
JZ: As a kid, I was familiar with Thanksgiving from American movies (I was born and raised in Lithuania). My classic dinner image was a giant orange bird in the center, with a myriad of sides and the whole extended family gathering together. The first actual Thanksgiving I had was prepared by my future mother-in-law, in Vilnius, Lithuania. At the time, most of the Thanksgiving-table classics (turkey, pumpkin, sweet potato, cranberry sauce) were not widely available and took an extra effort not only to cook, but also to source. You wouldn’t be able to purchase a whole turkey or pumpkin pie at the grocery store. This all made my first Thanksgiving extra special, and you could even say exotic. Then the universe transferred me to live in the United States where I became a professional cook, and now I serve others their Thanksgiving feasts for a living.
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JC: My parents were divorced when I was very young. My brothers lived with my dad, and my sisters lived with my mother. My parents were always committed to keeping all of us as close to one another as possible, so we all got together as a family for as many holidays as we could. It would be the five of us, plus my parents still celebrating holidays and birthdays together, year after year. So getting together for Thanksgiving became a really special time—it was when we gathered around, laughed and reconnected. Both of my parents have since passed away, but we kids still make a point to connect for the holiday. Now there are spouses, nieces and nephews, boyfriends and girlfriends, but we are all still gathered around the table and joining hands every single Thanksgiving. It’s not optional!
When it comes to Thanksgiving now, what does that look like for you?
JZ: Ricardo (my business and life partner) and I have created our own tradition—we open Maple Avenue Restaurant for brunch in the morning, and then close for dinner. The two of us celebrate late at night with a simple, seasonal meal that’s special. Usually it’s cinnamon or cocoa-rubbed duck breast (all of the wonderful game-y flavor without the hassle of roasting a whole bird), with brown butter sweet potato puree, roasted root vegetables and a wine sauce, made with wild berry preserves. Plus, a simple dessert to end, like pumpkin cheesecake mousse. All of it is inspired by traditional Thanksgiving flavors, but simplified and modernized to fit our lifestyle and personal preferences. The whole dinner takes less than 45 minutes to put together (longer with a glass of wine in hand, which is usually the case), and the process is really enjoyable for the both of us.
JC: I have a family full of control freaks and Type-A personalities. I’m a chef, so I’m organized. I make lists and get things done really methodically. But it’s nothing compared to my brothers and sisters. They’re organized to a freakish degree. So when we do Thanksgiving in Atlanta, which is the common ground for most of us, it’s like drafts of the menu go out via email weeks in advance, dishes are specifically assigned out, all of the best chinaware and silverware hits the table … it’s like a page out of Southern Living! But recently, I asked everyone to come to Virginia for Thanksgiving. I was too busy to leave the restaurants, so I made them come to me. It was a big deal because I’m the baby and I never get to call the shots. Well, I did Thanksgiving a little differently. I like to invite staff and friends who have nowhere else to go. I like paper plates and sitting on the floor. I like big buffet lines and lots of dishes that may not always go together. Whatever makes people feel like they’re comfortable and that they belong. I thought it would drive my family crazy, but they seemed to love the change. They’re coming to Virginia again this year!
What are your favorite and least favorite things about Thanksgiving?
JZ: I enjoy the break from routine that Thanksgiving provides. As we don’t have family in the area, there’s no headache or overstretched expectations about the meal. The anticipation, planning, cooking and eating are all pleasurable. It’s also my favorite season to cook (the perfect time to whip out the tea pot, drink spiced red wine, wear wool socks and cook all things braised).
JC: My least favorite thing about Thanksgiving is doing the dishes, by far. It’s endless. What I love the most is the “second dinner.” After cooking for two days straight, I’m so wound up at dinner time on Thanksgiving Day that I barely want to eat. It’s a little overwhelming with the platters and platters of food. So once we’re all cleaned up, dessert is over and most of the crowd has dispersed, my sister usually puts on some old-school movie like Terminator or Ghostbusters and we all sit around and veg-out. That’s when we usually have the second dinner: the big plate of “leftovers” that you toss in the microwave and reheat, all of the things you missed a few hours ago at the actual Thanksgiving dinner. It happens at about 8:30 p.m. that night and it’s always delish!
What is your favorite Thanksgiving dish to eat or to cook?
JZ: Although I can cook a whole turkey, I don’t particularly favor eating it. Here’s the short on how to make it great: Start with a good-quality meat, brine it, bring it to room temperature before roasting, dry the skin well, stuff butter underneath the skin, roast on medium-high with foil over the breast (so it doesn’t dry out), then remove the foil and blast on high heat at the end to crisp up the skin—under-cook just a touch, as it keeps cooking out of the oven). Except for the impressive dinosaur-like presence the turkey brings to the table, and the expectation of having a turkey for Thanksgiving, I find all of the fuss about it unnecessary. Given the choice, I prefer a whole goose or parts of a duck, cooked separately.
JC: I love dressing. Traditional brioche dressing—and not stuffing that goes inside the bird. Just old-school, amazing, crusty dressing with celery, carrot, onion and sage. As for my least favorite, my grandfather used to chop up the liver from the turkey and put it into our gravy … I wasn’t a fan of that. I’m also not in love with the baby marshmallows on top of my sweet potatoes, it feels like overkill.
Do you think you take more of a traditional approach to Thanksgiving now, or look at the holiday with a modern twist?
JZ: Taking a dish and making it into what you want to eat is my approach to anything. I always cook having myself in mind: “What would I enjoy eating and paying for?” Sometimes that can be a loose interpretation on what to eat for Thanksgiving (duck with brute cocoa rub), or a perfectly simple classic recipe, made from scratch and executed well (sweet potato pie with butter crust and unsweetened crème fraiche).
JC: I always feel like the menu should reflect the crowd. Know who’s sitting down at your table and cook for them. So, since our family is constantly changing with the relationships we bring to it, our tastes change too. My brother loves bacon and cheese in every form. Like, you could melt bacon and cheese on a sweaty sock and he would be thrilled. So we always make sure something features bacon and cheese. Or, my nieces love steak, so we usually have that. My brother’s wife is from Puerto Rico, so her mom brings rice, beans and pork. My other niece is vegan and loves egg rolls so … you get the picture. Yes, we have turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, always. But we also try to have the little things that make everyone feel special and feel at home.
If you could offer one piece of advice to the non-professional cooks that are tackling Thanksgiving this year, what would it be?
JZ: Less is more. Don’t over-complicate things. Utilize a slow-cooker and recipes that can be made well in advance. Give yourself enough time, delegate and don’t forget to celebrate yourself. Your guests will enjoy a happy you with some good food, rather than a tired host who is not present at the perfect table because of the complicated recipe they saw on Bon Appetit. Get inspired. Create your own rules and have fun. Bonus tip: Take an ingredient or a spice and use it as inspiration for something that’s not necessarily a direct translation of tradition (coconut sweet potato semifreddo for dessert?).
JC: Don’t be the hero who tries to tackle endless complicated recipes on your own. I feel you’re in danger of being too stressed out and not enjoying the day. Instead, ask people to bring what they like to serve. Make a list so you hit all of the crowd pleasers, and share the load, because most people want to contribute, and when they do, they’re connected to the dinner too. Make it a family affair. Bonus tip: Apples are synonymous with Virginia at this time of year, so I make sure they’re front and center at Thanksgiving. I love homemade applesauce on the plate and apple butter smeared on fresh rolls. I also like roasted apples with pork and warm apple cobbler for dessert.