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Dinner With the Family
By B.A. Nilsson

The 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 Main Street.

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 third.

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 come down.

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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Judy 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 (e-mail food@banilsson.com)


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I 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.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, 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 the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I 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!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your 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..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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