When it comes to major dining days, there’s an art to creating a menu that guests will love and staff can execute easily. Especially around the holidays, diners want to savor flavors from their childhood, but they also want an elevated meal and a standout restaurant experience — a tall order for the front and back of house.
We talked to two of New York City’s top chefs — Jesse Schenker of Recette and The Gander and Chad Brauze of The Back Room — to learn their approach to Thanksgiving menus and how they prep and execute the meal successfully.
Is Thanksgiving really a major dining day? Restaurants that stay open see a high volume of bookings on OpenTable, and both Jesse and Chad agree that the day presents a big opportunity for restaurants.
“Thanksgiving at The Gander is the biggest day of the year,” says Jesse. Chad was surprised when he moved to New York City from Michigan to work at Restaurant DANIEL and learned that Thanksgiving was also the biggest day of the year for them, too.
“For this area, it’s super popular. At all my friends’ restaurants in the city, it’s always one of their biggest days. People love to go out for Thanksgiving,” he says.
To capture demand, Chad opens his books one month out, and reservations come pouring in; he already has over 100 covers after just nine days of open books and zero additional marketing.
At The Gander, Jesse typically does between 100 and 200 covers a night, and four weeks out already 336 people (and counting) have booked for Thanksgiving. Both restaurants use OpenTable’s holiday promos to get the word out about their special menus.
Guest who dine out on Thanksgiving may not be regulars but people who save these kinds of dining experiences for special occasions. They may also be travelers in town for the holiday. Ultimately, you want to deliver on their expectations and, ideally, turn the one-time guest into a champion and repeat visitor.
Build a streamlined menu
Not only is there a high volume of guests on Thanksgiving, there are also larger parties than on typical nights. Thanks to “the more, the merrier” mentality, Jesse and Chad say they have tables booked for eight, 10 and 12 people and lots of families with children. Streamlining your menu is key to a successful holiday service, says Jesse.
“It’s keeping the menu exciting enough where there’s enough variety for people, but streamlined well enough so the consistency’s there. So no matter if you’re the third person to sit or the 333rd, you get the same experience.”
Since people tend to plan and book ahead, there’s also a certain amount of predictability. Chad says big holidays like Thanksgiving are actually easier than regular nights for his team. The prep is intense, but the execution goes smoothly because they know what to expect.
“When we design the menu we know that 75% of people are going to take the turkey. We can organize everything around that. The five days leading up to it are tough, but the day of is kind of relief.”
Bring expert techniques to familiar foods
Both Jesse and Chad agree that Thanksgiving is not the night to experiment with your menu. People crave the comforting, nostalgic flavors of their childhood, and the best thing a chef can do is bring his or her expertise to the iconic meal.
Jesse looks for subtle ways to up the flavor ante: buying a fresh turkey instead of frozen and slow cooking it for great texture, for example.
“Whether it’s the knife work or vegetables we use, it’s going to be very visually appealing,” he says. “But when you take that bite and close your eyes you can feel like you’re at your family’s house having a traditional turkey — but most likely significantly better and less dry.”
Chad’s menu is inspired by the holiday dishes he grew up with, including his mom’s sweet squash soup. Sides are traditional: acorn squash, mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing. Instead of roasting the bird whole, which dries out the breasts, he carves off the breasts and cooks them separately from the legs.
“I take the stuff I would have growing up and cook that using the techniques I’ve learned in my career. We’re taking everything we know how to do better than the normal home cook and we apply that to this meal, just like any other one.”
Step up service
To make the evening feel extra special, Jesse adds an amuse bouche to his repertoire at The Gander. “It starts everyone off in a good place and gets the palate going,” he says.
At The Back Room, Chad has both plated dishes and a French-style service, in which servers offer seconds of sides and turkey to those who want it. It makes the experience feel both homey and a little fancy at the same time, he says.
“Some people like a lot of stuffing, and they get extra stuffing. Some want mashed potatoes; some want only dark meat. You can’t serve the same plate to every person and expect them to be happy, especially on a meal like that. They know what they want. You’ve got to go the extra mile.”
Don’t overdo it
Jesse’s tip for other chefs: “Don’t get in your own way.” Get the best ingredients, apply the right techniques, and let the food shine.
“It’s a business at the end of the day, so you want to draw people in. When it comes to Thanksgiving people just want very warm, satiating experiences. Keep in mind what people really want — you’re cooking for the people, not for yourself.”
Photo Credit: Thanksgiving meal photos courtesy of The Back Room; The Gander dining room photo by Bill Milne.