If ever there were a holiday custom-built for chefs, Thanksgiving is it. Cooking a multi-course feast for appreciative, hungry guests hits all their cheffy buttons. Yet even professionals intent on pushing the envelope of flavor and texture on the plate often retain a soft spot for tradition. Curious about how they celebrate at home, I asked three local chefs to share their favorite dishes for this most traditional repast.
The Thanksgiving Day parade will march right past the doors of The Asbury on North Tryon Street, but executive chef Chris Coleman will not be there to see it. He pulled the long straw this year and gets to spend the holiday in his own kitchen. After a childhood of celebrating mostly with friends, the Charlotte-area native has married into an extensive family, and the couple host the feast every year.
"That's [his wife] Ashley's way of getting them over to the house," he jokes. "'Chris will cook; you all come over and eat.'"
Coleman mentions two dishes he particularly looks forward to serving. "Since our very first Thanksgiving together, I've made a mushroom and onion dressing that is ridiculous." Mushrooms, shallots, garlic and onions combine with Great Harvest bread and "a lot of butter" in this dish accompanying the bird to the table.
But the chef behind the "modern + Southern" logo also looks forward to that mid-century favorite, green bean casserole made with canned soups and French's-brand fried onions. "I'll make everything from scratch," he says, "except the green bean casserole." It was once his mother's dish to bring, but since losing her three years ago, Coleman continues the tradition himself. "Food should remind you of happy times in life," he says.
For chef Greg Collier of The Yolk in Rock Hill, Thanksgiving is a tradition in progress. Growing up in Memphis in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, he did not celebrate the holiday ... officially. His extended family on his father's side did though, so the Friday afterward usually found him at his grandmother's house belatedly eating a plate of turkey and fixings. "I didn't really go over for Thanksgiving, but I always ate Thanksgiving."
Collier's immediate family works around the holiday, sometimes feasting the day before, and for years his father has deep-fried turkeys, often for others' feasts. As a result, Collier explains, "I'm more connected with the food aspect of Thanksgiving than the family aspect of Thanksgiving." Still, these days he and his wife Subrina spend the holiday either with her family, or their work family from The Yolk. In the end, they've done enough Thanksgivings together to argue over who makes the better dressing.
"She likes hers sweeter; I like mine with hints of sweetness," Collier says. While Subrina doesn't like a lot of sage, his version includes it, along with maple-flavored sausage and homemade cornbread. Ironically, he says his dressing most resembles that of his mother's, who still does not celebrate the holiday. Even so, that doesn't stop her from sometimes providing the homemade cornbread for her son's Thanksgiving dressing.
For many chefs, it's not necessarily sitting down and breaking bread that builds traditions; it's spending time in the kitchen. Ashley Boyd of 300 East hasn't carried a lot of Thanksgiving tradition into her adult life, after dividing childhood holidays between her parents and their families. "Thanksgiving wasn't a set thing every year," she says. And though today she normally doesn't host the meal, she has fallen into a set routine for celebrating with her husband's family. Every year, "I am assigned to bring deviled eggs and squash casserole."
The deviled eggs she makes with her mother, halving and filling 60 eggs that the two divide between them for their respective meals. "That's our time together," Boyd says. "We do them the way my mom likes to do them, with sweet pickles."
Yet when asked to name a dish most evocative of the November holiday, she remembers the constant presence of sweet potato casserole with marshmallow topping. Those flavors inspired Boyd to develop a dessert at the restaurant for the Thanksgiving season. Challenged by Kristy Underwood (of Underwood Family Farms in Lawndale) to include the farm's bacon in a dessert, Boyd candied it to add to ice cream made with candy roaster squash and paired with homemade marshmallow cream. "When people taste it, they say, 'Oh, this tastes like the holidays.'"
Everyone knows what Thanksgiving tastes like. And in spite of their capability to serve turkey confit with cranberry foam or corn caviar, each of these chefs stays true to the traditions that put the same dishes on America's tables every year. Because, regardless of culinary degrees or chef apprenticeships, Thanksgiving is still about the way Mom did it.