From frozen schnitzel sandwiches to lobster boils and côte de boeuf feasts, some of the country’s top chefs, bartenders and sommeliers share their personal holiday traditions with Karen Pinchin
Jesse Vergen, chef, Saint John Ale House, Saint John
Our holiday food tradition is pretty simple. It’s always a big feast of seafood – everything from cheap little cans of oysters, to freshly shucked New Brunswick oysters, to a big feed of lobster. There are also copious amounts of dark rum. It’s a big joke in our family that we’ll get 40- or 60-pounders of dark rum, in varying degrees of quality. Everybody digs into all the different things. I’m lucky my friend Cornell sometimes drops off a tin of caviar and it becomes an orgy of seafood. The next morning we’ll have a little brunch because the fridge can only hold so much, so we’ll have a seafood frittata the next morning. It’s something to give you a little bit of your soul back – the dark rum can have quite the effect on you on Christmas.
Connie DeSousa, chef, Charcut Roast House, Calgary
Deep-fried turkey is a highly anticipated holiday tradition in the DeSousa household. We use Winter’s organic, pasture-raised birds from Alberta and my dad has become quite the fry expert, ensuring that he uses his official water-displacement method to measure the oil so that it does not overflow and set the yard on fire. A 16-pound turkey takes about an hour to cook and it always comes out of its hot-fat bath with a super-crisp exterior and succulent, moist interior. Every single inch of the bird is golden and crispy.
Unfortunately this method doesn’t allow for us to cook stuffing with the turkey, so we always prepare a Portuguese-style “dressing” on the side and it comes from an old family recipe. It starts with the giblets of the bird, slowly simmered until tender. Then we tear off big chunks of day-old Portuguese buns and moisten them with the stock from the giblets. The stuffing is flavoured with a traditional Portuguese pepper sauce my dad makes himself, chopped green olives, onions, garlic and the diced-up giblets. It’s baked in the oven until hot and steamy. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Angus An, chef, Maenam, Vancouver
My parents never celebrated Christmas, so it wasn’t a big thing for me. We moved to Canada when I was 11. I never had a Christmas tree until I had my own family, and we wanted to start these traditions for my son [Aidan]. My first Christmas tree was the one I bought with him. We make sure he has a stocking and tons of presents, and he’ll try to help me put up Christmas lights.
We’re a family of three, including our son, and we usually don’t have that many people over. So usually we’ll have duck, and just roast it whole. Other than eating, it’s about spending that time together. Aidan will bug us to make sure we have Christmas music on and the fireplace going, so it’s nice to see it through his eyes.
Jordan Alessi, sommelier, The Chase, Toronto
Because I come from a very English mother, we always eat mince pies and sausage rolls. I could eat hundreds of sausage rolls. I just stand over the tray and eat and eat. My mother has five sisters and one brother, and when they were growing up my grandfather would always make sure they all went to the orphanage every year. They would all give a gift away and they’d come home for sausage rolls and mince pie. That tradition has very much carried through to our household.
What would I pair with a sausage roll? I’d say a good bottle of white Burgundy. Something not too big, not too oaky, but with a bit of minerality and Christmas to it. Not to be too pretentious, but maybe a Meursault?
That would be ideal for me, to sit with a good glass of white Burgundy and a sausage roll, watching The Godfather with my brother.
Danielle Tatarin, general manager, The Keefer Bar, Vancouver
I have a big extended family and every year we get together over the holidays for dinner together. We always drank eggnog over the holidays but no one ever made it from scratch. So, as the family bartender I started the tradition of making it for my family about five years ago and now make a big batch of boozy eggnog every year. The making of it turns into a meditation and time spent in the kitchen with my mom. I put it back into the rum bottle and another big jug to serve the next day.
- 1 litre Appleton Rum
- 1.5 litres almond milk (or whole milk)
- 8 eggs
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 ounce coconut sugar
- 1 ounce ginger syrup
- Zest of one orange (fine)
- 1 ounces peppercorns
- 3 star anise
- 2 vanilla beans (split)
- 1 x 2-inch raw cinnamon stick (grated)
- 1⁄2 of a whole nutmeg (grated)
Add 1 vanilla bean and the star anise to the rum and let sit while mixing the nog.
Separate yolks and whites between two large bowls. Add 1 cup of sugar to both yolk and egg whites and whip each separately until creamy and thick.
Add the peppercorns to the coconut sugar and muddle with a mortar and pestle. Add this to the rum.
Once the egg yolk is whipped, add orange zest and ginger syrup, then add almond milk and continue mixing. Add the egg whites until blended, then add the spiced rum. Let all ingredients sit together in the fridge for 24 hours.
Strain off the spices and store in glass bottles.
Todd Perrin, chef, Mallard Cottage, St. John’s
For us, there was always one thing we always did with our grandparents, who have since passed on now, but every Christmas morning we have fresh sweet raisin bread, plain boiled salt fish with butter and a side of smoked salmon that we cook in the oven. It is as if you are baking a side of salmon. That’s how my grandfather liked to do it and that’s something we’d do when we were kids. I would never dream of cooking smoked salmon like that any other day of the year, but Christmas morning that’s something we always do.
It’s a real connection to those Christmas mornings when I was a kid. My grandparents just lived down over the hill from us, you’d walk in the door and you always knew you were getting soft warm raisin bread that Nan just made, salt fish that Pop made himself, and smoked salmon that was cooked in the oven.
Michael Caballo, chef, Edulis, Toronto
My father and I always go ice fishing in Edmonton over Christmas, and we always have a scaloppine sandwich, like a schnitzel sandwich. It’s one of those things we can’t do without. We’ll go ice fishing and we’ll bring these sandwiches that start off delicious and by the middle of the afternoon are usually frozen because you’re outside all day. There’s something about it that’s very close to both of us. We’re usually
fishing for whitefish and pickerel, or walleye. We never catch anything, but we still go. We love it.
Marc-Alexandre Mercier, chef, Hôtel Herman, Montreal
There are two things that mean Christmastime. The first, I don’t really like it, but all my family likes it. We call it pain sandwich – literally, bread sandwich – but I don’t know if there’s an official name for it. It’s a whole loaf of white bread, sliced on the long side and then layered with classical sandwich toppings: a ham layer, an egg layer, a cabbage layer, and so on. Then they use Cheez Whiz to cover the whole thing, like an icing. In my whole life, I’ve never, ever even tried it. But it’s comforting.
When I have a meal with my family, I like to see it there. It makes me feel like everything is still going well. But I’ve never tried it, because it kind of grosses me out. The second is that my dad always drinks crème de menthe verte, a green mint liquor. It’s something so cheap, and it’s something he would never drink otherwise, but around Christmas he always buys a bottle and drinks it. I don’t even know if he likes it. It tastes like Christmastime, I guess.
Christopher Cho, general manager and bartender, Ayden Kitchen and Bar, Saskatoon
As a bartender, and being away from home for so many holidays, we have a tradition of an “orphan dinner.” Being in this industry, you tend to hire staff from across the globe, so we collect all the staff that are away from home during the holidays and we throw a holiday feast. It’s not your traditional orphan dinner, because it’s really upscale. We usually do côte de boeuf, seared foie gras, shaved truffles and all the regular fixings of a feast.
Christmas to me isn’t just about a celebration but about spending time with the people you care so much about. Being away from home is always hard, especially during the holidays, and we see our staff not only as employees but also as family. It’s important to let them know that we are family and that they are loved, and taken care of. Plus, every year I shake up my classic eggnog.
- 1.5 ounce dark rum
- 1 ounce milk
- 1ounce winter syrup
- 1 egg yolk
For winter syrup: In a pot add 1 litre of water, 6 cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 grated nutmeg, 2 vanilla pods. Bring to a boil. Double strain into a container. Add equal part sugar and whisk until the syrup is thick and sugar has dissolved.
For eggnog: In a Boston shaker add the egg yolk, milk, dark rum and winter syrup. Dry shake for 30 seconds. Add ice and shake vigorously for another 30 seconds. Double strain into a coupe or rocks glass. Grate some nutmeg overtop to garnish.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.