Imagine if a Food Network “Chopped” champion walked into your kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. While that would be, obviously, a startling turn of events, there is an option that’s becoming increasingly common: you can easily walk into his.
There was a time when Thanksgiving was considered a closed-door holiday. But the saturation of Black Friday and the rise of dual-income families continue to blur tradition. The last time the National Restaurant Association collected data on this subject, it found that 79 million Americans relied on restaurants over the two-day period—some 46 million of those who said they were dining out. And this is going well beyond the buffet line at your nearest hotel.
Eric LeVine, who won the Food Network’s megahit series in 2011, and is a James Beard: Outstanding Chef nominee, opens his two restaurants, Paragon Tap & Table and MTG Morris Tap & Grill—both in New Jersey—to crowds eager to ditch the dishes and let a renowned culinary mind set their table. LeVine, who graduated from The Culinary Institute of America and worked under Chef David Burke at the River Café, and is also the author of “Small Bites Big Flavor: Simple, Savory, And Sophisticated Recipes for Entertaining,” has hosted three dinners at the famed James Beard House in New York City. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about serving dinner.
Chef LeVine took some time to speak with FSR about Thanksgiving preparation, how restaurants can elevate the experience, and why something as simple as brining a turkey incorrectly can foil a restaurant’s entire operation.
What is your strategy on Thanksgiving Day?
We do family style, absolutely. We keep it traditional. It’s one of those holidays where if people are going to be creative they’re probably going to do it themselves. For us, if they want a traditional turkey, ham type of Thanksgiving, that’s what we’re going to provide. And we get tons of people coming in. It’s reservation only.
How many people typically show up?
Between 500 and 600.
The question everyone wants to know: how do you cook your turkeys?
We brine them for 48 hours. And this way it gets a nice soak. It’s already really juicy and tender when we cook it. We run through 68 whole turkeys. Breast only, another 45 or 46. Then legs and thighs, another 45.
Fresh or frozen?
Fresh. Every time.
What is your secret for brining?
It’s all about making sure you have a good balance of salt, sugar, water. We add herbs. We’ll add garlic. We’ll add rosemary and thyme. But at the end of the day, it’s all about experimentation. We developed our recipe out of necessity for making sure the turkeys came out nice and moist, which is always the biggest challenge. We brine them in lined garbage cans. To put that many birds in the refrigerator, you have to have space for it.
Where do you think most people go wrong?
Too much salt and not brining long enough. Also, putting things in there that you really shouldn’t. Example: if you put too much sugar or soy sauce in the brine it’s going to brown on you real bad, real fast.
How do you cook the bird?
The breasts we cover, leaving the legs and thighs exposed. The legs and thighs take longer than the breasts so we cover the breasts in tin foil. And then for the last half hour we’ll extract the tin foil and let it cook. We’ll do it slow and low, you know—a longer period of time at a lower temperature. That keeps it from overcooking as well. Typically we’ll go about 275 degrees and, depending on the size of the bird, it can be anywhere between five and seven hours.
Does it feel like more people are dining out on Thanksgiving than ever before?
Absolutely, no question. It used to be that mom would stay home, dad would work, but now you have these double-income families and it’s not as easy. People are on the go. They want to spend time with their families more so than ever. So they’re trying to find ways to do that and we provide that service, which is great. That’s what it’s all about.
It’s also convenient for them. It helps make it so they don’t feel so overwhelmed. They can actually spend time with their family and do what they want to do, instead of being stuck cooking all day. Not everyone wants to get up early, miss the parade. This gives them an out. And again, everyone is working hard. So it’s one of those things. We give them an opportunity to relax.
What’s it like staffing a Thanksgiving dinner service?
We just use our traditional staff. We have a great team willing to jump in and sacrifice their own family time. At the end of the day, we make sure everyone gets a staff meal of Thanksgiving product.
Do you receive a lot of vegetarian requests these days?
Oh my god yeah. We have a large percentage of that on our menu right now. Stuffed acorn squash. A wild mushroom stack. You need to go past the green bean casserole these days, absolutely. Everybody wants the experience and that’s what we’re here for.
How do you handle the beverage side of things?
We do seasonal cocktails. There’s always something with pumpkin, with cinnamon. Those kinds of items. Bourbon. Whiskey. This is a great time of year those kinds of drinks.
When it comes to those infamous Thanksgiving sides, what’s your take?
We keep it straight up traditional. The sweet potatoes are made with brown sugar and walnuts. We really try to keep it comforting so that people can recognize it and not feel like, ‘What the hell is this?’ when they’re eating.
We make what we make. When you do it a million times you kind of get it down. You cut the potatoes small enough so it cooks quick enough and you don’t lose the starchiness. We keep it straight. We do a smashed potato. The skin we leave on because there are a lot of nutrients and flavors in that skin. So we smash it instead of mash it.
How do you get the word out?
We do it by email, by customer social media. Local papers post about who’s open for Thanksgiving and we’re always in that mix. As a restaurant, these days, that’s a list you really want to be on, no question.