With the Family
Thanksgiving meal, from both sides of the menu
Although the antics de- scribed in Anthony Bourdain’s entertaining
book Kitchen Confidential are certainly credible—pretty
much a free-for-all of food (not all of it good) and drugs—my
own experience both on the floor and on the line was nowhere
near as appalling. Perhaps the restaurants of Fairfield and
Westchester Counties were more genteel, or perhaps the ’70s
simply were a gentler time.
Thanksgivings exemplified this. Mother’s Day was and is the
killer holiday for the business, far eclipsing any other event.
Thanksgiving still has a strong enough homebound tradition
to make it only a moderately busy restaurant day.
And, of course, it’s a family event, and that’s where it intersects
with a restaurant in a fascinating way. The traditional family—well,
we’ve heard enough palaver about the “traditional” family
in the run-up to the last election to nauseate us for a lifetime.
Let’s just note that a family can also be defined by the bonds
imposed by a shared event or occupation.
Because restaurants attract a high share of the otherwise
disenfranchised, you find many people—especially in the kitchen—who
long for the closeness never offered at home. I spent my longest
stretch of kitchen time in a place called the Elms Inn, in
Ridgefield, Conn., which was (and still is) owned and operated
by the Scala family. In fact, when John Scala bought the restaurant
in the 1950s, there was a minor scandal in that it was the
first time an Italian family had owned property on the village’s
The menu was classically, old- fashionedly continental (we
even served a dish of crudités to arriving guests), but the
family was traditionally Italian. By the time I was hired
there, Mario, one of John’s sons, had taken over the kitchen
in the wake of John’s death, and another son, Bob, ran the
business. John’s widow lived in one of the several apartments
on the property and cultivated a garden for seasonal fresh
herbs. And there were other family members working kitchen
or floor from time to time.
Thanksgiving began on the Tuesday before, when the entire
kitchen staff was put to work hulling just-roasted chestnuts
for the stuffing. Wednesday we roasted turkeys in every available
oven, including those in Bob’s and Mario’s houses. The following
day, while more birds cooked, we sliced the meat and arranged
them in hotel pans of turkey stock. We excavated stuffing.
We mashed potatoes. We poached some fish. By the time the
doors opened at noon, the steam table was filled, the burners
fired and we were swept into a time-free tunnel in which plate
after plate was assembled and sent out.
And then it was nearly 8, and most of the orders were served.
Despite our efforts to keep ahead of the mess, the kitchen
was a disaster. But we, the staff, were exhilarated. We’d
stayed on top. We’d helped dozens of families enjoy this most
familial meal—and there were those who visited year after
year and counted on us for their holiday.
Then Mario grabbed a handful of plates and heaped stuffing,
turkey, gravy, potatoes, the works, on each. “Here you go,”
he’d say, and we’d head for this or that corner of the kitchen
to tuck into meal made all the more enjoyable for the experience
we’d just shared.
If that was the view from the trenches, the front line was
even more compelling. At the Horse & Hound Inn in South
Salem, N.Y., I donned a tuxedo each work night to emphasize
a promise of elegance.
Behind the scenes it could be unpredictable because Klaus,
the chef-owner, was in constant battle with suppliers, but
he knew how to put on a Thanksgiving feast. Whole turkeys
were the feature. It was a reservations-only dinner, and he
bought birds to suit the expected clientele.
If I seem particularly fleet with the carving knife, it’s
because I was more often than not called upon to perform that
particular duty—which baffled me. Carving the bird seems to
me the signature event of the meal, but I suspect that the
job was surrendered out of insecurity or convenience. At any
rate, I’d find myself suddenly part of the family as I carved,
a stand-in dad doling out the desired cuts of meat.
This was a smaller restaurant than the Elms, with about 15
tables in all, and we usually filled for the first two seatings,
then used one of our two main dining rooms for the scantier
Which allowed us to clean and prepare the back room for our
own meal. A large banquet table at one end of it was set,
and by the time we served the last orders of pumpkin pie our
own turkey was coming out of the oven.
It’s an experience I’ve sought ever since to re-create with
my own family and friends each year at this time, and I spend
the days before Thanksgiving putting together an extensive
menu that I exhaust myself preparing.
By the time I get to the table, I’m as tired as I was on those
restaurant days. But the payoff is wonderful, just like at
the Horse & Hound, where the crew—waiters, dishwashers,
all—took seats around the table, along with a few close friends,
and Klaus carved the bird. The high-wire act of serving a
hungry public had fused us into a family that still enjoyed
being with one another after the curtain, so to speak, had
This year, I’ll be dining at home, but I’ll offer a toast,
as always, to those in the biz who work to serve you. Although
they may be forsaking Thanksgiving dinner at home, they’re
at least able to spend the day with family.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, authors of The
Book Club Cookbook, will be at the Schenectady
County Public Library (Clinton and Liberty Streets,
Schenectady) from noon-5 PM Sunday, Oct. 17, to
discuss and sign their book. The event is a fund-raiser
for the Capital Campaign to expand the downtown
library to include a new children’s center, gallery
and performance space. Samples of food made by
area restaurants from The Book Club Cookbook
recipes will be offered for sale. Gelman and
Krupp interviewed book-club members all over the
country to see what they were reading and eating;
the result is a collection of 100 entries, each
focusing on a literary masterpiece. . . . The
Hudson Valley Council of Girl Scouts will
hold its third annual Cookie Cuisine event from
6-9 PM Tue, Oct. 26 at the Italian-American Community
Center (Washington Ave. Ext., Albany). Honorary
Chair Carmine Sprio, Ric Orlando and a host of
talented culinary teams take on the challenge
of preparing gourmet entrées and desserts using
Girl Scout cookies. This year’s participants include
the Arlington House, Aromi D’Italia, Capital District
EOC, Carmine’s, Crowne Plaza, Magnolia’s, New
World Home Cooking, Real Seafood, SUNY Cobleskill
and 333 Café. Tickets are $35; pony up $75 and
you’ll be part of the honorary committee. For
reservations, call Sharon Smith 489-8110, ext.
105. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland
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very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..