Turkey Day: Tri-Valley chefs share tastes, traditions
By Lou Fancher
Tough turkeys, too much turkey, toyed-with turkeys and trickster traditions are on the plates of Tri-Valley chefs and bakers during the holidays. Drawing from four Cuisine Scene features, we asked local chefs to recall their favorite Thanksgiving Day stories and share a special recipe.
Esin DeCarion, from the restaurant that bears her name in Danville, delves into the past, drumming up a memory from 1997, when the restaurant had just opened, and money was tight.
“Curtis (DeCarion, her husband) worked as a chef, and I had a high-risk pregnancy, so I had to stop working and stay at home,” she recalls. The couple’s son, born in September, was about to experience his first Thanksgiving. To make ends meet, Esin faithfully saved the receipts necessary to take advantage of a grocery store promotion for a free turkey.
“Once I picked it up and brought it home I gave it so much care. Being a chef, I knew I could make a tasty bird. I brined it and marinated it with delicious herbs and spices. The bird did look pretty skinny but I thought I could baste it and make it great. Boy, I was wrong.”
Instead of tasty, the turkey was tough, leathery. Esin remembers thinking, “Who knows how long this bird has been around? No wonder it was free.”
After attempting to eat it, the couple wound up throwing it away, eating the side dishes, and enjoying a nice bottle of wine.
“Every year we laugh about that poor tough turkey. Even when we used to be open for Thanksgiving and cooked 25 turkeys for the restaurant, we’d chuckle about that sad bird,” she said.
Love and laughter also prevail at the Hayward family home of Rodney Worth, owner of Worth Ranch in San Ramon and four other Tri-Valley restaurants.
“My mom still does it at her house,” says Worth. “Sometimes there are 15 people packed into that 1,000-square foot house.” It’s likely they’re all competing to get some of his mother’s cornbread dressing.
“It’s old-school, Southern, mushy, Missouri-style,” he says. “It’s my kryptonite. I just can’t get enough of it.” The ingredients are simple: 4-day-old, stale, homemade cornbread, chopped giblets, lots of sage, and “that seasoning that comes in a can with a turkey on it and it’s really hard to find.”
Worth says Thanksgiving isn’t about the turkey, sides, or pies, although he thrills at the opportunity to elevate green bean casserole with black truffles and go off-the-wall with Indian, Thai, Italian and other ethnically diverse turkey experiments. The best part, he says, arrives after the big meal. “We like it when a couple hours later, we make sandwiches.”
Enzo Rosano of Danville’s Locanda Ravello remembers a Thanksgiving of nine years ago, when his first son was a one-year-old and the family lived in Mountain View.
“I wanted to show him a true ‘American’ Thanksgiving with all the trimmings,” he said. “We had a table that kept growing by the minute. We were all joking that we were looking more like the United Nations.”
As Brazilian, Greek, Italian, Russian, Chinese and American family members gathered, the table filled with colorful cuisine from around the world: red meats, fish, salads, pastas, desserts. Rosano worried there might not be a place on the table for the meal’s “most treasured guest.”
Finally, proudly carrying his 10-hour turkey and placing it as the centerpiece, he says, “I think we all felt truly American for that pivotal moment. To me, that’s the spirit of Thanksgiving — grateful for having each other in the wonderful country of America.”
Like many families, the clan of Christie Talbert, owner of Great Harvest Bread Company, loves football and actually, most games. But one Thanksgiving, they didn’t leave sport entirely to board games or athletic events in a backyard or on a field or on television. The first holiday celebration that included the spouses of Talbert’s brother and sister resulted in a ravioli wrestling match.
“My mom is Italian and grew up making homemade ravioli every year for the holidays,” says Talbert. “My brothers and I decided to carry on that tradition. Once we started adding more guys to the mix – including my husband and my brother-in-law, they agreed to a challenge to see who could eat the most ravioli.”
These were not your teaspoon-size Chef Boyardees, but enormous ravioli. An average eater consumed two.
“My brother-in-law decided he needed to show those Catholic Italian in-laws that the Jewish boy could hold his own. Not only did he win the contest, but he wanted to win it without contention, so he ate 21 ravioli to the closest 19. We didn’t tell him until years later that we were giving him the largest ones and saving the smaller ones for the other competitors.”