Five Top Toques' Favorite Holiday Meals
by Walter Nicholls
Vanilla-bean-infused pannacotta with fresh figs, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. Roasted pumpkin and laurel-scented farmer's cheese on a buckwheat crepe.
Christopher Edwards, executive chef of the farm-to-table Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, in Lovettsville, Virginia, recalls numerous holidays over the years when 50 or more extended family and neighbors gathered together for his grandmother’s must-haves, such as rumaki and sweet yellow squash pickles. His own “guilty pleasure” is all-American pork ribs and coleslaw. But after an early September marriage to a native of Ethiopia, he is making this year’s parties, now for a joined family, berberespiced. “I’ll do my own spin on a traditional Ethiopian stew to show my appreciation to her family for their hospitality and welcoming me in,” says Edwards. A presentation ace, the chef offers a not-too-spicy version with roasted pumpkin, laurel-scented farmer’s cheese and buckwheat crepes. “I’ve reduced the heat. A lot of people can’t take it,” he says. “Still, my wife and in-laws approve of my Ethiopian dishes, so that means a lot to me.”
For first-generation Greek-American Terry Natas, all major holidays are about keeping both family and kitchen traditions alive. “Everything revolves around food, with my mother and her sisters preparing lamb, stewed vegetables like okra, and making the phyllo by hand for the baklava,” says the Atlantic City native, now executive chef of Washington’s largest restaurant—the whopping 700-seat Carmine’s, an outpost of the legendary New York-based eatery of the same name. His flavor roots may be Ionian, but for more intimate home entertaining, he prefers to venture into Italian cuisine, which reflects his professional training. His dessert choice: a molded, vanillabean- infused panna cotta with fresh figs, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. “All put together, it’s fresh, simple and beautiful,” he says. For Natas, the use of a premium vanilla bean, in place of extract, is essential. “The direct source and quality of ingredients takes this dish from good to great,” says the chef. “That’s what cooking is all about.”
Growing up, there were no surprises on the holiday dinner table for 701 executive chef Ed Witt. Year after year, the family’s menu was the same. “Roasted turkey, frozen vegetables and mashed potatoes with a lump of margarine in the middle. That’s how my mom cooked,” says Witt, who joined 701 in July. Nowadays the chef, noted for his local and seasonal modern American cuisine, prefers a festive porcine presentation—“pig is something just about everyone is drawn to,” he says. He plans to gather together 15 to 20 friends and serve a suckling pig stuffed with spicy, sage-scented ground pork and walnuts. Witt suggests presenting the entire crispy-skinned entrée tableside. “Then,” he says, “everyone can fight over the head.”
“When I was a kid, one Christmas I ate 10 dozen snails. Oh, man,” says chef Robert Wiedmaier, who grew up in Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands and now oversees his own restaurant group, which includes Marcel’s and Mussel Bar. There was always plenty of escargot, shaved French ham, cheese fondue and scrapings of raclette cheese on the table—but never any game. Moving to America brought change: This Christmas he will serve a roasted rack of venison. He uses a long-simmered stock for the sauce and marinates the meat in three bottles of Cabernet for four to seven days. Beets are juiced, and blackberry liqueur is added. “It’s different, something special,” he says.
Mumbai native and Rasika executive chef Vikram Sunderam is of the Hindu faith, but there are always the trappings of Christmas at his family’s McLean home: “We exchange gifts and have a tree.” For people who grow tired of eating turkey after Thanksgiving, he suggests preparing murgh musallam—a rich, savory dish that consists of chicken stuffed with minced chicken, quail eggs and lots of spices, including saffron. The addition of kewra water, an extract distilled from the male flowers of the screw pine, gives the dish a heady aroma. Says the chef: “For me, that fruity, sweet fragrance makes it the holiday dish.”
Photographs by Scott Suchman
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.