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Chef John Foster: Throw a KISS to Thanksgiving — and sit down to a meal all your guests can enjoy

By this time, you’ve probably read a half a dozen articles on how to present the perfect Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve watched countless shows on the best pumpkin pie, or the new improved side dishes to spice up your holiday tables. I don’t need to tell you about basting versus self-basting, the dangers of stuffing the bird or cooking the dressing separately. If you have kids of a certain age you’re probably well aware of the first Thanksgiving, and how well that dinner went. So, what’s left for me to say? What else can I add to all of the words and white noise that surrounds the holidays in general? 

Who are you trying to impress? Who are you cooking for this holiday season?

This may sound strange coming from the likes of a chef, after all don’t we live to blow people away with our prodigious talents? The truth is, that most of us want to please more than we want to impress. We cook to comfort, to inspire, and to satisfy our customers. For every chef that believes their own press, there are a hundred of us who cook without an eye to the reviews, but to a connection with our clientele. If we could, some of us would cook from home, making our guests feel like one of the family.

And isn’t that what you want to do this holiday season?

Even when you’re faced with the dreaded office potluck, cooking should never be about competition and judgment, that excludes people, and food should always be inclusive. That’s why the holidays are termed family get togethers, and the reason for food as the centerpiece and showcase. But there should be no gamesmanship involved. I want you to feel welcome enough that breakfast could be a scone, some tea and your pjs. Let’s catch up on what the year has been like and enjoy the food with the company. 

Alas there is an entire industry, of which I am a part, that demands more. More innovation, more creativity, more gadgets and techniques, all sometimes, at the risk of overpowering our purpose.I’ve seen people struggle to do things they’ve never done, in the most stressful environments, just to upstage last year’s dinner. I’m sure that my presence at someone’s holiday meal or party throws the host into a tizzy as they try to anticipate how a chef may react to their food. Let me reassure you that I’m never there to judge or critique, merely to eat and enjoy the company, and after all isn’t that why you invited me? 

The focus to ratchet up the hype is certainly market driven, and dovetails nicely with the overall emphasis on holiday shopping. I don’t begrudge anyone their purchases, and I certainly enjoy receiving them. I’m just sometimes perplexed that we twist ourselves into knots over every detail, and that we sometimes overlook the joy inherent in even the simplest get together. To that end, I’d like to offer my bit of advice, especially when it comes to the food.

There is an acronym used in our industry that is a bit of a cautionary phrase with student and chef alike. KISS is not only a rock band from the 70’s but a form of mantra that I like to repeat from time to time; keep it simple, stupid.

Yes, I know that simple is often frowned upon, it won’t get you as many stars, doesn’t play well on the Food Network either. What simple does is respect technique and tradition, and drive the creative process to refine.

Instead of striving to reinvent, we simpletons are focused on the process and the outcome, hoping to give pleasure in the results and find it as well in the process, leaving us enough time to enjoy each other. Take one part traditional, one part contemporary and one part experimental to balance your time and energy during the week. There is no shame, and lots of warmth when one of Mom’s recipes makes its way to the table, especially if Mom is sitting down to dinner with you.

When I used to go home for the holidays I remember some of the best times we’re spent cooking alongside my mother, not in a race but in a collaboration. It eased the stress on my mother, allowed me to sneak a peek at how she did things, and maybe gave her a little glimpse as to how good I really was. I can tell you from experience that following the latest tend can get you in trouble. I’m referencing a molasses glazed turkey that turned into a black, tacky spare tire and forced us to eat out.

So now I pick and choose one, maybe two smaller items to play with leaving the larger, more nostalgic items to tradition. That’s not to say that I don’t apply expertise where tradition has moved on, hence my Brussel sprouts will be colorful and tasty! As in most kitchen work, it comes down to the prep list, and how important it is to have some time to relax, and that’s where I think is where I opt to put down my toque and pick up a bourbon, join the group and enjoy.
Pan gravy
Everyone has their method, and mine is probably no different than most. It is a combination of what I learned from my mother and what my craft has taught me. Good cooking technique leaves a fond or foundation at the bottom of the roasting pan.

Once I remove and cover the turkey to let it rest I pour out all of the fat that can be removed with a short pour.

I do not scrape, I do not obsess over excess fat. My mother would use cornstarch, but I add sifted flour to the fond which soaks up the fat and starts the browning process.

Muck like you might make a dark roux for gumbo I allow the flour and fat to brown, without burring the fond. Then I deglaze with stock and stir the mixture until it smooths out. Add some chopped fresh sage, and a sprig of thyme, bring the gravy back to a simmer, simmer until it coats the spoon and has lost any flour tastes. Season with salt and cracked black pepper add whole butter for more richness, and serve.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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