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Cooking for the Holidays? Food Services Executive Chef Eamon Lee Shares His Top Tips and Insights
A food industry veteran with over three decades of experience cooking and working in restaurants, Eamon Lee, executive chef in Food Services who began his tenure with the University earlier this year, knows a few things about holiday cooking. We sat down with Chef Lee to pick his brain on how to please a crowd, characteristics to bring out in holiday meals and the supply chain woes plaguing the food industry.
01First thing’s first: What the heck should I make for the holidays?
The great thing about experiencing the holidays in the Northeast is that they’re all framed by a particular season—late fall, early winter—so you can ask yourself, what type of food does this weather beckon? Comfort food, for starters.
It’s cold out, maybe you fired up the fireplace, you’re starting to bring out the warm clothes … naturally, you start to think about things you can roast. Roasted root vegetables: celery root, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, all the ugly little knobby things you start to see at the market this time of year. When you roast them, it evokes the sugars and then everything gets to be my favorite acronym, GBD—golden, brown and delicious. This applies not only to meat, but to veggies.
Grains are also called for, and not just brown rice. We have more options for grains today than we did even 20 years ago … freekeh, farro, heirloom wheats, all sorts of different beans. Together, grains and what I’ll call “keeper” vegetables—the sturdy, winter crops—create this really wonderful, muted color palette that goes hand-in-hand with holiday cooking. A good axiom to keep in mind while menu planning is, “If it grows together, it goes together.”
This time of year also evokes large-format, family-style cooking. No cutesy things and fancy plate-ups—it’s time to gather around the table and have a meal together. This year in particular, it’s not only about getting together to eat but it’s about getting together to heal. We’ve been roughed up these last couple of years. Food plays an important role, but at the end of the day it’s just the light that gets everybody around the table to do something way more important.
02How can I accommodate different dietary restrictions or preferences for my loved ones when planning a menu?
I go back to vegetables, which check all the boxes for some of the more specified diets we see. Veggies are, generally speaking, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, non-animal-protein, dairy-free and nut-free.
I think protein, and animal protein specifically, have presented somewhat of a false value in the American diet. People seem to think that if two-thirds of their plate isn’t occupied by animal flesh, they’ve somehow settled for less. If we spent as much time thinking about how to prepare vegetables in as many different ways as we would, say, chicken breast, could you imagine how much more colorful and delicious those experiences would be?
Most people will steam broccoli and put butter or olive oil on it and that’s it. Try something new! Shave it, turn it into a slaw, shave it and roast it at high heat, turn it into a quasi-grain by ricing it, grill it, turn it upside down and braise it in a sauce, turn it into broccoli osso bucco—you can do so many things if you look at it as if it were a piece of meat and then ask yourself, “how else can I prepare this?”
I always try to do one or two knock-down vegetable dishes that are just plain awesome dishes—that also happen to be vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, etc. It’s not just about accommodating somebody, which invokes a lesser experience for some people. It’s about satisfying the dietary preferences while also elevating a dish to a new level, making it into something that’s memorable and delicious.
03I keep hearing about grocery supply chain issues on the news. Is there any way I can limit the impact of supply chain woes on my holiday table?
It’s all about cooking seasonally and cooking locally. Over the long term, I think these supply chain issues will serve as a good thing because people have discovered exactly how fragile our supply chain system and food system are.
Going back to what I’ll call “grandmother economics,” we historically ate based on what could be teased out of the land in our immediate area. If all your dirt provides is rutabagas, parsnips and turnips … you ate rutabagas, parsnips and turnips. But you treat them with humility and celebrate them and develop them any way you can.
In today’s America we suffer from an embarrassment of riches, with access to an unnatural amount of food at any given time. In many cases, we’ve lost our connection to the agrarian-based society we derive from. So much so that it seems quaint or poetic to think about having a relationship with the people who grow your food. But I encourage people to develop relationships with their local farmers. Introduce yourself, shake their hands, talk to them, ask them questions, reestablish that connection.
The supply chain disruptions have shown how perilous it is that we have grown accustomed to having our food shipped halfway across the world on a boat. A local supply chain is far less susceptible to that. I think people are going to start to say, “maybe my friends or neighbors started buying local and sustainably grown food because they were idealistic—but now I’m going to start talking to my local providers because I don’t want to run out of food again.” It’s quite a different set of motivations.
04Any advice for timing out a large meal to get everything warm at the same time?
Two tips: one, a cooler is no different than a thermos, technically speaking. It does an equally good job of keeping stuff warm, so coolers are your friend when it comes to timing out a big meal. Wrap dishes in a towel and place them in a cooler and they’ll stay warm enough to serve.
Two, invest in a good instant-read thermometer, keep it calibrated and make sure all of your dishes stay above 145 degrees (except for meat which have their own internal temperatures). Best practice is to aim to serve all your food within two hours of pulling it from the oven.
05What do you personally enjoy about the holidays?
My culinary life has meant different things at different times—when working in public restaurants, the holidays were the busiest time of year. After cooking for 1,000 people there’s a tendency to take off your jacket, hang up the toque and be like, “can somebody just bring me a bowl of soup and first aid blanket?! And I’m good.” Now that I’m more removed from the restaurant scene, it’s easier to remember how much I love the holidays.
I’ve always valued gathering at the table as a family or community or group of friends, even as colleagues and coworkers—I think it’s one of the most important, profound things we can do. It’s a healthy thing to do. It’s the best place to form relationships and learn from one another.
At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of critters living on a small rock and we have to understand how to get along with each other. Gathering at the table is a panacea for a lot of things, and the holidays provide the perfect opportunity to do so.