The stove is full with pans boiling and sizzling on every burner. The oven breathes fire as it opens, the racks packed with baking dishes that brim with every vegetable and starch under the sun.
A timer goes off and you glance at each pot and pan, trying to discern which one needs to be taken off the flame to avoid scorching. Sweat is dripping from your brow as you feel the burn and chaos of crunch time cooking.
You want to rest, to come up for air, but you see the hungry faces waiting for dinner service. This isn’t the galley of a two Michelin star restaurant. It is your kitchen.
This is Thanksgiving.
Sound familiar? If not, you may never have had the pleasure and pain of Thanksgiving cooking responsibilities. It is the one day and one meal that gives people a semblance of what its like to be a chef.
There are so many ingredients to buy, so many dishes to decipher, cook and serve, that it is hard to know where to even start. The key to managing the madness of Thanksgiving is simple: Think like a chef.
What does this mean? A chef must look at the menu and break down each dish, each component and ingredient, figuring out what to cook and when so that every part comes together when it is time to plate and serve.
As with many arduous tasks in life, preparation is key. Thanksgiving isn’t a meal cooked on Thursday. No, it is a meal that is cooked in the hours and days before so that everything is in its right place on the big day. By breaking down the meal into a methodical formula, you can control the chaos and have a dinner service that flows from beginning to end.
It begins with the menu. There are certain items in the Thanksgiving cannon that must be represented in one form or another.
Turkey or some main dish is obligatory to anchor the meal. A stuffing of sorts is always welcome, though this is the dish you can get a bit creative with. An selection of side dishes are classic with starches like potatoes or sweet potatoes and vegetables likeBrussels sprouts
are essential, but don’t tie yourself to the tired old clichés.
Sweet and tart flavors should play a part in everything from desserts and pies to the cranberry sauce — homemade please, none of that tinned jelly in the mold of a supermarket can.
Once you have a menu, you can make a game plan. Start with your shopping list. Break each dish down by ingredient so you have an idea of what and how much you need to buy. Before executing your shopping list, give a thought to any special or harder to procure ingredients. This way, if you need to go to different stores or specialty markets for the items, you can plan it to fit your schedule.
So you have your ingredients, now what? It is time to make a prep list. The best way to tackle all of the dishes is to figure out what to cook and when. This will help streamline your process and give you an organized template for preparing, cooking and reheating to follow all the way to the point when the turkey goes to the table.
For example, you can peel and chop all of your onions, celery, carrots, potatoes and herbs for each dish like stuffing or casseroles at the same time. Then when you begin to cook each individual dish, it is as easy as measuring out a cup of onions for stuffing or a tablespoon of thyme leaves for a sauce. Chefs call this “mise en place” or having everything in its place at the ready.
When you have the raw ingredients prepared and standing by, you can cook each dish and move on to the next with ease and efficiency. Making mashed potatoes? Make them Wednesday night and heat them slowly in a crock pot or double boiler as the turkey cooks.
The same goes for assembling your casseroles or stuffing, having them ready to pull out and heat in the oven after the turkey comes out and rests — and you do need to rest your turkey or any meat after cooking — while you use the stove top to make the gravy or finish a sautéed vegetable dish.
Some dishes can be made ahead, some are best made at the last minute, figure out a happy balance between the two. There are only so many burners and oven space, so this planning is how you maximize your time and space like a chef would.
If you have friends or family that are helping, I find it can be a fun time to make a special night of preparing and cooking, sharing in the grand experience that a meal like Thanksgiving can be. Everyone can join, with children peeling apples for pie or a grandmother showing generations how she makes a famous family dish.
You would be amazed at the memories that can be created in a kitchen. After all, Thanksgiving is a holiday about bringing people together over a good meal.
Cooking Thanksgiving can be a daunting task, but there is no need to worry. Think like a chef and you can conquer every step of the way.
If you need recipes or other tips from chefs to take your Thanksgiving to another level, make sure to check out the chefs’ menu in Sunday’s Thanksgiving issue of the Kansas City Star, or if you can’t wait for Sunday, you can go tokansascity.com’s Thanksgiving page
From soup — my veganButternut Squash Soup
will be featured — to Brussels sprouts to the turkey and dessert, we will have every course covered.
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.