Let the Chefs Make Thanksgiving Dinner

Chef Phillipe Corbet of Lulu Restaurant in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

There’s no place like home for the holidays — except, to hear some local chefs tell it, a really good restaurant. If Thanksgiving feels like the one day of the year that you’re certain to find yourself at your own dining room table, you may be surprised to learn that the trend of the holiday is changing.

Local restaurants are beginning to grow their holiday business, and that includes serving Thanksgiving for those who like the atmosphere, but not necessarily slaving over a hot stove all day.

“Thanksgiving, for me, is sharing food with friends,” said Philippe Corbet, executive chef at Sag Harbor’s Lulu Kitchen and Bar. The restaurant will be celebrating its third Thanksgiving season this year. From 12 to 8 p.m., Corbet and his crew will offer a Thanksgiving feast to parties of two and more. His slow-cooked white and dark meat turkey is served family-style, along with gravy, a sweet potato soufflé, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, cranberry sauce, and a chestnut stuffing. The restaurant will also offer an apple crisp for two.

Chef Corbet tries to replicate the family feel at the restaurant, by serving food to share. During Lulu’s first year of Thanksgiving service, in 2017, they offered plated meals.

“Last year,” Corbet said, “we did much better than the first year. We had a lot of customers who were surprised by what we did. It feels like home. Family-style made the experience and the customers better for the staff.” For Corbet, conviviality is a large part of what he tries to curate in his holiday restaurant.

Fall decorations at Barons Cove Restaurant in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

Luke Andrews had just started his tenure at Sag Harbor’s Baron’s Cove last year when Thanksgiving rolled around. This year, he will be responsible for 150 guests, many of them return customers. Andrews’ meal is a plated, three-course dinner, featuring seasonal items, like a parsnip soup, bluefish dip, and fall salad. In addition to the traditional turkey dinner, the kitchen will offer grilled swordfish, local duck breast, and prime sirloin. Baron’s Cove, Andrews said, lends itself to the holidays.

“The hotel and restaurant are decorated seasonally, with locally sourced pumpkins and hay and corn stalks from the neighboring farms,” he said. “It always feels festive and local for the holidays.”

Décor and mood are, of course, of paramount importance when it comes to the holidays. Baron’s Cove offers a cozy fireplace and unparalleled views of the harbor.

In East Hampton, 1770 House aims to evoke the feeling of walking into someone’s decorated home. Chef Michael Rozzi is an old hand when it comes to serving Thanksgiving dinner.

“We’re holiday- and special event-centric,” he said. “Thanksgiving is one of our biggest days of the year. We roll out the red carpet for people. They dress. It’s family-oriented. It’s the atmosphere there. It lends itself. With the fireplace, and the beauty, it just makes people feel like they’re in a home for a holiday.” Rozzi has celebrated half a dozen Thanksgivings at the 1770 House, where, he says, the same group of people dines every year.

Rozzi’s bespoke Thanksgiving meal, which is plated, involves 25 naturally raised, 20-pound fresh Amish turkeys. He breaks his turkeys down the day before, brining and roasting the breasts, braising the legs, and moist-roasting the thighs.

“I’m trying to get each part of the bird perfectly cooked,” he said.

The restaurant at 1770 House in East Hampton. Michael Heller photo

Guests are presented with a plate overflowing with food: sausage stuffing made with homemade bread; turkey, per each person’s personal liking; mashed potatoes; a butternut squash purée; roasted Brussels sprouts; and fresh cranberry sauce, made with orange and clove. He serves enormous portions on plates larger than he normally uses at the restaurant — Thanksgiving, after all, is a holiday that dances between restraint and excess — offering diners a “from-scratch meal.” Does the holiday dinner at 1770 House involve seconds, if you want them? Absolutely.

And how does the lazy, daylong feast translate to a restaurant, where space is finite and tables must rotate in order to accommodate everyone?

“People are at the table longer,” chef Corbet said. But because these restaurants remain open for large windows of time, and because Thanksgiving is a meal that has no set dining time, a longer meal proves possible. “You don’t need to be rushed,” he added.

Chef Rozzi agrees. “We know well enough to take enough time and give each table the time they need,” he said. “Instead of seating 100 people at once, and overwhelming everyone, it just flows through the day. It’s a marathon and not a sprint.”

Even for seasoned staff who are accustomed to working during the times and days when other people do not, however, Thanksgiving can prove challenging.

“Thanksgiving is a hard holiday for people to work, because it’s a family holiday,” Chef Corbet said. “That’s why we open from 12 to 8. At 8 o’clock, people can enjoy Thanksgiving with their family.” Corbet also provides for his staff before the afternoon service begins, offering a sit-down meal for everyone to enjoy. “We want to take care of them,” he said. “It’s not an easy holiday to work.”

“It’s a bit strange to work a holiday for me,” Luke Andrews said of Thanksgiving. “My extended family doesn’t always understand.” His staff, on the other hand, is accustomed to working holidays — and the days in between, since Baron’s Cove is open daily for breakfast. For family meal, Andrews said, the staff sits down to a proper dinner “so everyone feels like they get to enjoy the meal. It’s such a beautiful room with a great fireplace and view … it always feels special, especially for a holiday meal.”

Working holidays, Chef Rozzi conceded, is part of the industry. “It’s a really long, hard day and week for us. We accept it,” he said. “We are laser-focused until our last meal is turned out.” Once dinner is through — the restaurant serves dinner until there are no more people to eat it, turning away no one — Chef Rozzi puts out a meal for the staff. “They sit down,” he said. “Some people choose to stay, and some people choose to go. It’s an open invitation.”