Festive food

Holiday dinner, from chefs’ point of view.


The holidays are about celebrating, and at the heart of the festivities typically is food: family traditions, or those we create as adults. Personally, our Christmas dinner was a replica of Thanksgiving, and for me, the best part was the stuffing, although those little creamed pearl onions were mighty good. Of course, the best was the chocolate Yule log, appropriate for the occasion. While many of us have perfected recipes over the years, have you ever wondered what professional chefs decide to eat themselves to celebrate? I recently spoke to four on the Island to get an inside peek at their traditions and childhood memories.

First up was Liz Anderson, head chef at the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah, who got her start in the food industry as a cake decorator, and then became a pastry chef. Being from the Midwest, Anderson recalls, “We did some of the classics, like green bean casserole and a ham, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and pecans. When I was a small child, my grandmother was very much into having the fancy Christmas dinner.” She found this particularly appealing since Anderson says, “We ate a lot of Rice-A-Roni and mac ’n’ cheese type of things, since both my parents worked a lot and were very busy.”

While the green bean casserole and the like were ubiquitous, as a vegetarian, Anderson finds that it can be challenging, since so often there is ham cooked with pineapple and similar dishes. It was the mashed potatoes that she savored. “My grandmother made these killer mashed potatoes. To this day, I really love them. I also make creamed corn and stuffing and casseroles.” But she continues, “I focus on Christmas cookies. That’s my bread and butter.” Anderson makes 15 different types over the span of three or four days, boxes them up, and ships them to all her very fortunate friends and family.

Jonathan Warnock, executive chef at State Road in West Tisbury, grew up in a small family; with both parents being only children, there were very few at the traditional, old-school Christmas dinner, which included roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and rutabagas with salt and butter. “My fondest memories are the sweet side of things, when I was a kid. There was always a mince pie. Nobody ate it except for my grandfather, my father, and eventually myself. To this day, it is something I have every year, with lots of warming spices and raisins and fruits.”

As his family expanded, so too did the things they would have, and now, Warnock can’t imagine a Christmas Day without a pot of chili going. Also, he typically brings a meat pie to the family gathering for Christmas afternoon, post presents but before dinner. Last year, it was lamb, and this year, he’s thinking about chicken. “It’s basically a pot pie and whatever flavor people are interested in,” he says.

These days, Warnock’s niece takes the lead for the holiday meal. “I’m happy to be her assistant or dishwasher. I very much enjoy being in the background, and letting my family do their thing.”

For Fernanda Amaro Da Silva, a chef at Little House Café in Vineyard Haven, each member brings a dish to the family gathering. Along with roast pork and turkey, among other things, is a potato salad. One of the crowd pleasers, though, is what sounds like a mean cold chicken salad, which Da Silva makes with grated raw carrots, potato, and onions, along with corn and peas, all mixed with mayo. For dessert, there is flan, passionfruit mousse, and something similar to pave, which is like tiramisu but made with white condensed milk and chocolate cream, which sounds awfully good to me. Dinner is served in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, after which they do Secret Santa. But she emphasizes that at the heart of things, “This is the time of year we celebrate love and passion.”

For Chef Michael Brisson, owner of l’Etoile restaurant in Edgartown, childhood was always turkey and lots of pies. But he recalls, “My mom would take the leftover turkey and put it through a hand-cranked meat grinder and heat it with the gravy, and serve it over stuffing and mashed potatoes. That was the best! She called it ‘French goulash’; not sure why. But it was delicious, and better (to me) than the original meal. It was a bit of slop, but soooo good. I’m sure it was an easy way to make dinner for six kids and two adults the next day. We all loved it.”

Brisson has a lovely current tradition with his wife Nicole of imbibing eggnog with rum and nutmeg in a coconut cup while trimming the Christmas tree. “I love latkes, sour cream, and applesauce around the holidays. We add smoked salmon and caviar with champagne for New Year’s. What’s best about the holidays, though? Most of all, having good friends and family around makes all the difference.”