If you think one turkey is a lot to handle (we're not saying it isn't!), try cooking fifty. That’s what many restaurants—who sometimes have as many as 500 guests—will be doing come Thursday.
At The Cecil, a bustling restaurant in Harlem, Thanksgiving starts at 1 P.M. and doesn’t stop for another seven hours, with as many as 30 to a table (and don’t even ask them about the time they ran out of turkey). At Agricola, a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, the bulk of their 300 guests come between 3:30 and 5:30 P.M.—and they’ll tell you if their turkey isn’t cooked perfectly. And at a family-run restaurant in Michigan, the entire family pitches in to serve guests before sitting down to their own meal.
Three professional Thanksgiving veterans from very different restaurants—an executive chef, a general manager, and a server—shared what goes into feeding hundreds of Thanksgiving guests, and what a home cook can learn from it:
How They Prep
At a restaurant, there is no “sitting down late”—so Thanksgiving dinner has to be ready as soon as the first guests sit down. For most restaurants, this means putting in the turkeys at the break of dawn. Sophia Amodeo, who worked as a server at her family’s fifty-seat restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, would arrive with her family to the restaurant at six in the morning so that her mom could pull out five twenty-pound turkeys by the first seating at 11 A.M.
Billy Van Dolsen, the general manager at Agricola, said that they’ll start prepping for Thanksgiving the weekend before, using bones to make gravy and preparing things that can be made ahead—but they’ll still arrive the day-of early in the morning.
The takeaway: Start early the day of—if you're handling all of the food, give yourself at least 5 hours.
What They Serve
While the restaurants I spoke with couldn’t be more different, they all share one common tennant—play with classic dishes, but do not stray too far from them. JJ Johnson, the executive chef at The Cecil, said, “There are some things you can’t not serve, like pumpkin pie. If I didn’t serve that, people might walk out and go next door—there are just some things that are classic and make Thanksgiving what it is.”
At Agricola, Billy said that they’ll mostly stick to the classics, but alter them to slightly above “what you would have at your grandmother's, using unique, modern techniques”—plus all the trimmings you would expect at a classic Thanksgiving.
The takeaway: For happy guests, feel free to riff on the classics, as long as they're still recognizable. (Why not try our New Classics menu?)
Squash Soup, 4 Ways
If you ask JJ, he’ll tell you that soup is the sleeper hit of Thanksgiving—his squash soup has been on the menu for the past three years and is one of the most positively received dishes he serves (that and the apple-fig cobbler, but we’re getting there). Other, traditional sides that hit a home-run every year? Mashed potatoes and stuffing—there always has to be stuffing.
The Takeaway: If you're serving a multi-course Thanksgiving, try starting with soup—guests love how warming it is. And keep stuffing on the menu.
While both Agricola and The Cecil offer a variety of non-turkey foods (tofu dumplings! salmon!), Billy said that he’d estimate somewhere around 80% of his customers are looking for a standard turkey, and JJ has the same ballpark—around 70% go for the classic bird, the vast majority of whom request light meat. Here’s how they serve theirs:
JJ uses a two-day palm sugar brine with coriander seeds, kaffir limes, sugar, and classic Thanksgiving spices. The day of, he roasts it at 400° F to get the skin really crispy, then makes sure to give it time to rest.
Sophia’s family makes turkey the classic way—none of that “new-fangled, deep-fried stuff.” Just perfect, classic roast turkey with stuffing.
At Agricola, the twenty-pound turkeys are broken down before being cooked. They’ll sous vide the breasts then roast the legs to the correct temperature so that every part of the bird is perfectly cooked.
The Takeaway: There are a thousand ways to cook a turkey, but if you aren't cooking an entire turkey this year, cook the breasts (as opposed to the legs or drumsticks) as guests, in their experience, generally prefer light meat.
As it turns out, the fixins may be the most controversial part of the Thanksgiving dinner—at Sophia’s family’s dinner, turkey gets served with everything. An order may consist of, “Just put as much on the plate as possible,” resulting in plates “gluttonously full of food,” Sophia said.
But at JJ’s Harlem restaurant, cranberry sauce is getting the boot this year. JJ said, “Last year nobody wanted cranberry sauce! I’d put it on the side and it wouldn’t get touched.”
Gravy, on the other hand, is always a winner. If making it after the turkey is done cooking, do as Billy and JJ’s restaurants do and make it ahead of time out of the giblets.
The Takeaway: If you're going to skip one turkey fixin', skip cranberry sauce—but don't mess with gravy!
Pumpkin Pie, 4 (Very Different) Ways
You can’t go wrong with pumpkin pie. Of the several desserts Agricola serves every year, Billy said, “Pumpkin pie is definitely where people gravitate.”
On the other side of things, JJ updates an old classic with an apple-fig cobbler that’s baked with dried Turkish figs and marinated for two days. But pumpkin pie is always, always on the menu.
Drinks are important at any Thanksgiving. Bill said, only half-joking, “Definitely have a good beverage so that if your family is difficult, everyone gets a little tuned up before dinner.”
At his restaurant, he serves a lot of classic, lighter red wines that go well with turkey. For red, he recommends Eyrie Pinot Noir, one of the original producers in Oregon, which has some cherry and red fruit but also earthiness and depth of flavor. For white, he recommends a Chagnoleau, which is a white burgundy. And he says that Beaujolais is always classic for Thanksgiving.
The Takeaway: Always have light red wines on hand—but don’t be afraid to play with cocktails.
Their One Go-To Piece of Advice
Always have a partner—always do it with someone and start everything early to make it easy on yourself. Plus, you can’t meet and greet and cook on your own. You want someone there who can greet the guests with a glass of wine, and you can’t do that and deglaze a turkey.
On Thanksgiving, the home cook often tries to do all the cooking themselves when they should really involve the family and use them as their prep cooks. Get them to help you out with Thanksgiving so it doesn’t become a hassle on one person—it becomes a family event.
Make sure you’re executing the classics well—that’s what people are focused on, so if you’re making them turkey and it’s overcooked, or if you screw up on the pumpkin pie, then people are going to feel like their entire meal was ruined. Get the classics right—that’s where the stakes are high.
The Takeaway: Don’t forget to enjoy Thanksgiving, no matter which “family” you’re spending it with, be it your actual family, your “friend family,” or your restaurant family.
Have you every eaten out for Thanksgiving? What are your pro tips? Tell us in the comments below!