Red Square and Memphis Street
If there’s one thing Chris Lee knows, it’s how to prepare a great piece of meat. Chris can usually be found chopping steaks at Red Square Meat and Fish Market, while his wife Natalia runs Hernando’s Memphis Street Café. “We’re doing everything fresh,” he says. “Big, brown eggs, good pieces of meat—the works.”
Chris’ culinary education at London’s prestigious Cordon Bleu Cooking School means that he’s more than willing to turn usual cooking methods upside down. “How many dry turkey breasts are cooked around Thanksgiving? Not ours,” Chris says. “We cook our turkey breast-down to let the juices flow downward, since the other side is the dark meat and it’s gonna’ stay moist regardless. It doesn’t have that Griswold Family-style presentation; but once you cut it up, it doesn’t matter anyway and you can really taste the difference.”
But turkey isn’t the only bird cooked at the Lee family’s gathering. Chris cooks whole fried Cornish hens and glazed duck, all accompanied with his special smoked oyster dressing. When it comes to serving, quantity over quality is the motto. The Lees’ planned spread includes five entrees, 10 side dishes and six desserts. “We do smaller things so we can get a lot of dishes on the table,” Chris says. “It also gives me a chance to do a little bit more cooking and try new things.”
Natalia’s heritage plays a role with Chris’ take on tabaka, a traditional Russian dish comprised of a young, partially deboned chicken or Cornish hen marinated in cilantro, ginger and garlic, with a dash of ketchup and a few other select spices. “Something like that takes a few days, so I definitely plan to get started a while in advance,” Chris says. “The best Cornish hens are cooked under a flat griddle under an iron press. It cooks a little quicker, seals in all the juices and gives it a wonderful caramelized look.” Other Russian delicacies include roasted duck blini and salmon kulebiaka, both of which are savory pastries packed with meats native to the region.
In addition to a tantalizing and varied table spread, the couple has been known to get in the spirit by decorating their house with festive flair, even going so far as to deck out a Christmas tree with Thanksgiving-themed decorations to usher in the holiday spirit. “We go with kind of a harvest theme; it’s got a big turkey at the top and it’s a little silly,” Chris laughs. “But they don’t do Thanksgiving in Russia, so Natalia gets as excited as a kid when she gets a chance to celebrate.”
Thanksgiving traditions of the MidSouth’s top chefs and restauranteurs
Story by Casey Hilder | Photos by Rupert Yen
Feature | November 2013
Chris & Natalia Lee
As executive chef of East Memphis’ Interim Restaurant, Chef Jackson Kramer is used to being in the center of the action. Jackson attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, but he doesn’t flaunt his carefully crafted culinary knowledge at family gatherings.
“I’ve done the turkey a few years but usually, I like to sit back,” he says. “I don’t want the family to be all ‘oh, Jackson the big chef’s here.’”
The 33-year-old chef meets with his family in the Lakeland area for their annual feast. Popular dishes at the Kramer gathering include his mom’s signature pumpkin casserole, which is derived from an old family recipe passed from mother to daughter; and another family favorite, the congealed salad. Jackson assures this fruity, gelatinous mixture is way more appetizing than it sounds and includes bits of pineapple and other fresh produce. “It’s an important holiday for us because food is at the center,” he says. “Christmas is similar but the food isn’t at the focal point.”
Jackson’s family prefers their turkeys farm fresh and well raised to bring out the true flavor of the bird. “The biggest thing wrong with turkeys now is all the nitrates and preservatives added to them. So when you get a pasture-raised bird from a local farmer, you get the real flavor of the turkey,” he says. According to Jackson, the ideal turkey isn’t about flash or substance. It’s getting it nice and brown, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. “The part I like best is the skin,” he says. “It’s important to get it nice and crispy.”
He admits to being much more involved in the cooking process in his younger years, but now, the once-eager apprentice to his mother and aunt is content to kick back and enjoy the fruits of his family’s labor. “It’s a nice break to hang out and eat other people’s food for a change,” he says. However, Jackson can’t resist packing at least one dish for his family affair every year: Interim’s signature macaroni and cheese, concocted by Jackson himself in the restaurant’s early years. Featuring three cheeses, diced country ham and breadcrumbs with a creamy béchamel sauce, parmigiano, white cheddar and fontina cheese, this traditional Thanksgiving dish with a twist is among Interim’s most popular offerings. “I always said ‘when I have a restaurant, I’m gonna serve mac and cheese — probably before that sort of thing was even allowed in upscale restaurants,” he says. It’s become such a hit among local diners that Jackson’s macaroni is likely the only thing on Interim’s menu that hasn’t been tweaked over the years. “It’s funny — it’s pretty much become my signature dish. It hasn’t changed since day one. Along with the burgers, it’s one of our biggest sellers. We’re hesitant to take it off the menu; I think the people might revolt against me,” he jokes.
While Josh and Katie Belenchia regularly concoct daring new dishes at Buon Cibo, Hernando’s health-conscious Italian eatery, their Thanksgiving is a decidedly traditional affair. Although Josh attended New York’s Culinary Institute of America, he takes most of his holiday cooking cues from his mother, Donna, who made nearly every one of her signature Thanksgiving dishes from scratch. “A lot of our traditions began way before I was a chef, so we don’t change things up too much,” Josh says. Homemade yeast rolls, green bean casserole and hash brown potatoes can all be found at the Belenchias’ table, with their recipes honed to perfection and passed down through generations. “They’re definitely staples,” Katie chimes in.
This year, Josh plans to cook a heritage breed black turkey from a local farmer, a well-raised bird that makes for a savory centerpiece when cooked just right. “I just got a Green Egg so I definitely know where I’ll be putting my turkey,” Josh says.”The Egg is more like an oven than a grill, so it’s one of those cookers where you can get the temperature just right. It’s not grilling like a piece of steak; it’s more like slow roasting, which provides a really great flavor.”
Belenchia’s cooking credentials include a life in the restaurant industry and a stint as former head chef at Interim. However, Italian food doesn’t play a role in the Belenchias’ Thanksgiving. “We save that for Christmas,” he says. “We make fresh, homemade pasta with meatballs every year. But for Thanksgiving, we try to keep it pretty traditional. Cranberry sauce, that sort of thing — what most people want to eat for Thanksgiving, we do it well.”
The couple hosts an annual Thanksgiving puzzle assembly with their two children, a family bonding activity instilled by Josh’s parents that provides a welcome break from the warm glow of the television. This extra time to be close to friends and family is the product of careful planning and preparation on Josh’s behalf. “If you’re smart, you start the Monday before Thanksgiving,” he says, noting that he picked a turkey around the beginning of October. “You can make all of your casseroles and stuff ahead of time so all you need to do is bake and serve when the day comes. You don’t wanna do it all at the last minute — you just won’t be able to enjoy yourself.”
In addition, grilling a turkey also provides much-needed extra oven space for the 20-plus guests the Belenchias expect this year. “Every Thanksgiving is a memory for my family. It’s one that I look forward to — there’s no presents, no consumerism — you’re focused on the time you spend together,” Josh says. “It’s about food and fellowship.”
Josh & Katie Belenchia
Neely’s Interstate BBQ
The Neelys are a big family in both name and volume — so much so that Keith, son of the MidSouth’s legendary barbecue pitmaster Jim Neely, splits his holiday two ways. “We divide it up between two houses with about 20 or 30 guests apiece, so I have to monitor how much we eat at the first house to still have room for dinner at the second house,” he chuckles. “After we strap on the old feedbag and chitchat with my brother, Kelvin, we head over to my father and stepmother’s house for another round.”
Keith’s Thanksgivings are typically all-day affairs that see him racing across the Bluff City to attend each gathering and spend some brief quality time with family. “The family’s so large that they each have their own segment and their own family meal,” he says. “It’s a long day and I wish I could say it’s relaxing.” Keith leaves most of the cooking to his brother’s wife and his stepmother. “I head up the cooking all year, so it’s a little break for me in a way.”
Popular dishes at the Neely table include sock-it-to-me cake, a butter poundcake with cinnamon and nuts under a glazed sugar icing. “My brother’s wife usually makes a pretty mean red velvet cake, as well,” he says. Keith’s Interstate Barbecue on Stateline Road cooks and serves nearly 1,500 pounds of pork shoulder a week, but the Neelys tend to give the pits a break on the holidays. “We use the oven to cook our turkey. You’d think that we smoke ‘em at the store but we don’t—it would just be too much work,” he says. “Sometimes by brother’s wife likes to switch it up and prepare a Cornish hen instead of a turkey.”
Southern standbys are a prominent part of the Neely dining experience, with plenty of collard greens, deviled eggs and pasta prepared like only the pioneers of barbecue spaghetti can. “It’s just the standard fare for the most part; we don’t put too much of a spin on it,” Keith says.
As the final stop in the Neely holiday tour, Jim Neely’s Thanksgiving dinner provides the perfect escape after a whirlwind day and a prime opportunity to watch a Turkey Day football game. Keith’s stepmother usually prepares her special gumbo, a Creole-inspired dish popular with the family. “I couldn’t really tell you what’s in it. I try to stay away from anything that might come with eyes and claws,” Keith jokes. “But she cooks up a big pot of it every year and the family goes through it like a knife through butter.”
For kosher cuisine experts Dovid and Shoshana Cenker, this Thanksgiving represents a series of firsts. November marks the first birthday of their youngest daughter, Lyla, as well as the couple’s first-ever “Thanksgivukkah.” “We’re both foodies and we both love to entertain, so Thanksgiving is usually pretty special for us,” Shoshana says.
A attendee of Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts and head chef of Table 613 in East Memphis, Dovid is no stranger to long hours in the kitchen. “He started from the bottom and went on up working in kitchens since he was 10 years old,” Shoshana says. “I’m just a home cook, but that brings something to the table and we work well together.”
The Cenkers’ Thanksgiving is unique in that the dietary laws of the Jewish faith dictate that meat and milk cannot be served together, which means that the family dinner is served entirely dairy-free. “There are lots of neat tricks that you pick up working in a kosher kitchen,” Shoshana says. “For our green bean casserole, we use non-dairy creamer or soymilk. As long as you get the quantities right, the texture and consistency remain the same.”
A lifetime of kosher cooking experience means that finding worthy substitutes comes second nature to the pair. “We don’t do butter—nondairy margarine always works,” Dovid adds. And, of course, the holiday ham is shoved to the side, replaced with lean specialty recipes crafted through Dovid’s extensive education. “It’s just little substitutes. If you’ve been doing it awhile, nobody can ever tell the difference,” Shoshana says. In addition to bold variations of traditional Thanksgiving recipes, the Cenkers take special care to give their turkey a flavor that makes it stand out from the crowd. “Last year, we made a kind of citrus-based turkey. We stuffed it with orange and lemon, then added a little bit of rosemary — lots of flavor in there,” Dovid says.
Desserts include pumpkin pie, pumpkin rolls, pecan pie and a special cranberry crunch—a cobbler-like creation of Dovid’s that blends peaches and oatmeal with a tangy sweet cranberry sauce. In addition to a crisp and zesty turkey and some delectable sweets, the Cenker family’s special stuffing is one to remember. Cenker stuffing is made using a bit of challah, a sweet, braided bread usually eaten on the Sabbath and holidays. “It’s kind of our secret ingredient. The dressing usually clears out pretty fast every year and it’s really yummy,” Shoshana says.
Dovid & Shoshana Cenker