13 Bay Area Chefs Share Their Go-To Thanksgiving Centerpiece

Here's what a pro eats when they're home for the holidays

November 17, 2023 6:20 am
Pumpkin bowl filled with rice pilaf inside
Here's what chefs in SF are using as their Thanksgiving. centerpieces

Thanksgiving centerpieces used to be simple: a slow-roasted turkey (and probably a dry one). But these days, the Internet is awash with competing suggestions. Some keep the bird but dress it up with novel techniques like spatchcocking, home smoking or deep-frying. Others opt for another centerpiece, like ham, pork or even lasagna. Plant-based diners have seen a slew of new options arise, with whole roasted cauliflower or stuffed squash standing in for the classic bird. But we wanted to know what the pros serve up at Thanksgiving, so we went straight to the source.

Bay Area chefs may do fancy things at their restaurants, but when they’re home for the holidays, it’s another game entirely. Some take a page out of Carmy’s book and stay out of the kitchen; others follow recipe cards passed down from grandma. And yes, some do give into their cheffy instincts and jazz up the holiday meal with all sorts of bells and whistles (and truffles.)

Curious about what goes on behind the scenes at a chef’s holiday home? Here’s what 13 of San Francisco’s top chefs are putting center-stage on their Thanksgiving tables.

Matt Horn, Horn Barbecue, Kowbird, Matty’s Old Fashioned

“For this year’s Thanksgiving, I am excited to put center-stage a culinary delight that’s sure to draw ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from around the table — a golden, deep-fried turkey. It’s not just a dish; it’s a show-stopper, a conversation starter, and a tradition that infuses the air with anticipation as the bird is carefully immersed into the fryer.

“The deep-fried turkey is steeped in family tradition, a recipe that’s been handed down and honed over generations. It’s the kind of recipe that’s scribbled on a well-worn piece of paper, stained with splatters of seasons past and filled with margins of handwritten tweaks. This year, while we are keeping the turkey preparation true to its roots, we are spicing up the cornbread stuffing with a blend of fresh herbs and a mix of aromatic vegetables. By integrating these new elements, we’re hoping to create a new tradition that marries the comforting taste of the old with the excitement of the new.”

Douglas Keane, Cyrus

“I truly despise traditional Thanksgiving meals because of the emotional attachments people have with certain dishes, and it usually ends up with way too much food, not executed very well. Plus the food is hardly ever warm. This year, we will be putting Sonoma County duck breast center-stage, served with kimchee and soy glaze and black garlic roasted crosnes. I am sourcing the duck breast from Liberty Farms Duck in Petaluma — it’s the best duck in the world.

“I picked this centerpiece because of the amazing flavor. It’s unbelievably juicy, fun to cook and makes the house smell great. And my big brother, Chris Keane, loves when I cook duck for him, as it’s his favorite meat.”

Dustin Valette, The Matheson, Valette

“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays and we go all out! We do turkey, lamb, ham, prime rib and all the fixings! Tradition is key (minus the canned cranberry sauce). We do a brined and barbecued turkey wrapped in bacon as an homage to Pops (my dad) and honey-baked ham in honor of my mother-in-law. We love a heritage turkey from Golden Gate Meats here in San Francisco. It’s glutinous, overruling and my favorite part of Thanksgiving.”

Jason Halverson, Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group

“I’m genuinely excited this year for Thanksgiving, where the centerpiece will be a shellfish extravaganza. Unfortunately, the local Dungeness crab season is being delayed, but that won’t stop us — a humongous platter of roasted crab, lobster, shrimp, mussels and clams served with more condiments than you can imagine. Much of this shellfish extravaganza will come from one of our favorite purveyors, Four Star Seafood. They have excellent products, great service and an excellent delivery service for all home cooks.”

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Matthew Accarrino, SPQR, Mattina

“This Thanksgiving, I am putting pies first! In my house, holidays are for desserts, and Thanksgiving is no different. I love using my Grandma’s pecan pie and sweet potato cheesecake recipes. They are always a huge hit at the table! 

“I serve my organic turkey with black truffle gravy, which is another favorite. Turkey is traditional, you can’t have a Thanksgiving without the bird! This is the one time a year turkey gets all the attention and it’s something I always look forward to making.”

Francis Ang, Abacá

“We are cooking a deboned, regeneratively raised Whole Foods turkey stuffed with turkey leg longganisa wrapped in bacon. While this is not something I grew up with, this has become a time-honored recipe for my family now and something I make every year. This is the only time we eat turkey during the year, so we really look forward to it. Also, adding the longganisa puts a special Filipino flair on it, making our turkey a bit more unique!”

Mike Lanham, Anomaly SF

“This year, I’m planning to finish up dinner service and get on a red-eye to Maryland. My usual contribution to the dinner is a box of Diamond Crystal kosher salt so we can season everything more precisely, as well as a selection of wines that have become favorites at Anomaly SF. I’m not responsible for any particular dish, rather I run around and help people with whatever they’re preparing. It’s like a cooking class in which I’m basically sitting in their hats and pulling their hair like the rat in Ratatouille. And at the end, we get to share this fantastic meal, my girlfriend’s family is excited to have learned some new skills, and I get to relax and experience a more laidback way of cooking. 

“The menu tends to be rather traditional, with a turkey front and center, but they’re not committed to any particular recipe. I sometimes try to convince them to roast the turkey legs separately from the rest of the body, as this helps the meat cook evenly, but they’re just not having it!”

David Fisher, 7 Adams

“I’m making a smoked turkey breast that’s been brined and then aged for 10 days. I always do either a roasted or smoked turkey, but I try different things in my pursuit of ‘perfection.’ This year, I am trying a 10-day age, which I feel is great for white meat birds. The meat loses moisture as it ages, which concentrates the flavor, helps with the smoking process and also results in a much crispier skin. I typically search for the best bird I can find available through the meat purveyors we use. Sarah from Golden Gate Meat Co. always steers me in a good direction!”

Sayat Ozyilmaz, Dalida

“We put ghapama, a rice pilaf cooked inside a winter squash, at the center of the table in our home. The dish looks incredibly celebratory and deserves to be placed center stage. It’s the national dish of Armenia, but the name of the dish is Turkish in origin, making it reflective of the interwovenness of Middle Eastern cultures before the invention of borders. The dish is reflective of our embrace of the region as a whole rather than one nationalized cuisine. It’s also vegetarian and is thus more inclusive, especially in the Bay Area where we have a lot of friends who don’t eat meat. We get our winter squash from our friends at Fiddler’s Green Farm — it tastes as sweet as the team behind the farm.”

Chef Victoriano Lopez, La Mar Cocina Peruana 

“Center stage at my Thanksgiving this year will be an organic turkey from Golden Gate Meat Company, stuffed with green rice and marinated with Peruvian ajies and spices. I use corn cake, kabocha squash puree, quinoa and dried fruits to garnish the turkey. I also love to provide apple empanadas and hot chocolate for the table. 

“I usually stray from traditional things and like to do something different and exciting each year with a focus on utilizing seasonal products. I like to be innovative when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s always a fun surprise for my family and friends.”

Tony Gemignani, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana  

“It’s pretty traditional at our house. The traditional Brown Paper Bag Turkey is what we’ve been doing since I got married 23 years ago. It’s a turkey that my wife’s Sicilian mother would make for her when she was growing up, and the tradition has carried on to our family. We buy it from our local butcher in Little Italy, North Beach, San Francisco, called Little City Meats. The last few years I’ve purchased an imported Italian ham and then smoked it with hickory and cherry wood in my Big Green Egg, basting it with a house-made maple bourbon pineapple sauce.”

Scott Koranda, Terrene

“For the last few years, rather than roasting a whole turkey, I have broken it into two parts. This lets me use two different cooking techniques, allowing for a taste of the traditional and something more inventive. This year, I’m planning to prepare the turkey breast as a roulade stuffed with caramelized local apples and fennel with black garlic in a cornbread stuffing. I’ll confit the leg meat with lots of aromatics after dry brining them to ensure delicious flavor. The two preparations complement each other beautifully and really bring the best out of the whole bird.

“This year, I went with the Northern California-based Diestel Family Ranch. They’ve been a family-owned farm for more than 70 years that values transparency, sustainability, communit, and are overall right on-par with my values as a chef and what I want to serve my loved ones.“

Sam Gimlewicz, Rollati Ristorante

“This Thanksgiving I will be continuing tradition by cooking a Thanksgiving smorgasbord, as my multinational family has done for my whole life. From my Polish fathers side, pierogi and barszcz soup are a must. From my Swedish mother, it’s a beautifully smoked turkey from local purveyor Mary’s Free Range Turkey with plenty of preserved fruits to balance the sweet and savory. The meal has never made sense on paper to me, but it always is delicious and indicative of the holiday season. I’m following my mother’s recipes, that her mother taught her, that my great grandmother taught her before that.”

Gordon Drysdale, Scoma’s

“Our Thanksgiving centerpiece will be a spatchcocked Diestel turkey. This is my second year preparing it this way, which hopefully will make me more confident in prepping the bird! I chose this centerpiece because a) the family demands turkey, b) there will be a lot of demand for oven space and c) a spatchcocked turkey cooks way faster and more evenly than any other approach.”


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