Orlando’s international food pros share favorite holiday traditions
by Rona Gindin • photos by Megan Valdivia
Americans tend to take for granted culinary classics like Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas eggnog. Our neighbors from other lands, or people with immigrant parents, entwine global flavors into their holiday dinners. Here, seven Orlando-area chefs and restaurateurs share a peek into their at-home celebrations.
JASON CHIN • Korea (first-generation American)
Jason Chin grew up in Chicago. Talk to him on the phone and you’d think he’s from, say, Clermont or Dayton.
His parents, Korean immigrants, were unfamiliar with turkey and stuffing, so his family enjoys gool-bo-ssäm for Thanksgiving.
What’s so good that they’ll forgo the cranberry sauce? Try this take on the so-called lettuce wrap: braised, fall-apart-tender pork shoulder or belly and raw West Coast oysters are encased in a leaf with garlicky radish kimchi and jazzed up with a pinch of salted baby shrimp. The wrap is napa cabbage, which has been brined to make it pliable and flavorful.
“David Chang’s Bo Ssäm bar at Momofuku in New York is built around this concept,” says the owner of Baldwin Park’s Osprey Tavern and Seito Sushi restaurants. “Take one huge bite and gool-bo-ssäm is the holy trinity of meals.”
The Chin clan takes shots of chilled soju to accompany the meal. “It’s a traditional Korean spirit like sake, but it’s distilled instead of brewed,” he says. “It’s made from barley and sweet potato, and it’s a little bit stronger.”
FABRIZIO SCHENARDI • Italy
While we’re talking turkey here in the United States, Italians spend their autumns gobbling another way—by munching on Bone of the Dead cookies. So while Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi is planning bird-based holiday meals for his guests at the Four Seasons Resort at Walt Disney World Resort, his culinary heart, in a way, is back in his hometown of Rivoli, Italy.
“In early November, we start baking these cookies, which are crunchy, like, er, skeletal remains,” he says. The occasion is the Day of the Dead, which begins Nov. 1 and runs a couple of months. “The cookies are really thin and very crunchy, almost like communion wafers,” he explains. While every family makes them differently, the basics are flour, water and sugar. “Some people put in butter or eggs,” he notes. “They’re usually made over an open fire, and chestnuts are in season at the same time and they’re roasted together.”
Adults like to sip Nocino with their cookies. It’s a liqueur made from unripe green walnuts.
Schenardi’s father is from nearby Liguria, Italy. There, when locals tire of Bone of the Dead cookies, they start making batches of castagnaccio, a soft cake mixing pine nuts with those seasonal chestnuts. Some add rosemary.
It seems homes don’t need American Thanksgiving staples to be aromatic in November.
Duck, Duck, Callalloo
MARC KUSCHE • Germany
Marc Kusche so adores his childhood Christmas Eve staple that he makes the German specialty every year at home and for the guests of the Alfond Inn’s Hamilton’s Kitchen. “I roast a duck and serve it with braised red cabbage and potato dumplings,” he says. The cabbage is marinated in red wine and red wine vinegar with onions, vegetables, duck fat and cranberry juice, then cooked slowly four to six hours with salt and pepper, bay leaf and peppercorn. “It’s even better when it’s reheated,” Kusche says.
At Hamilton’s Kitchen last Christmas, more guests chose the roasted duck than the prime rib, to the executive chef’s surprise.
At home, that succulent quacker is only one of many dishes, and the only one from Europe. Kusche’s wife, Lucyette, is from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and members of her family join the Kusches around the holiday table. “We mix and match. She makes macaroni and cheese pie, marinated chickens and callalloo, which is greens cooked with coconut milk and cilantro, and way more.”
As for their son, Liam? “He grew up eating everything.”
His Goose Is Cooked
LAURENT HOLLAENDER • France
Laurent Hollaender tends to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas in the kitchen at the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando, but the chef manages to integrate French traditions into both celebrations at home.
For Thanksgiving, the Strasbourg, Alsace, native makes a turkey stuffing with andouille sausage, a French specialty. His wife, Lisa, is American, so she adds a more familiar side dish: sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows. The repast ends with crème brûlée French toast. “It’s a brunch-type item that’s almost like a bread pudding,” the chef explains. “I put it in the oven before I heave for work, my wife takes it out and I eat the leftovers when I get home.”
In France, Hollaender’s family made Christmas Eve the main holiday meal. Now the chef leaves work early on Dec. 24 to follow that tradition. “We always start with smoked salmon and oysters,” he begins. “Then we do something we do a lot in France: We bake chunks of foie gras into biscuits. The duck flavor is great.”
A goose is the poultry of choice on Hollaender’s Christmas table, as it was near the German border. Roasted potatoes with butter and herbs de Provence are often a side dish.
Dessert is most special of all. The Hollaenders serve a chocolate cake known as a yule log, or bûche de Noël.
Summer in the City
MARIANO VEGEL • Argentina
Mariano Vegel, the chef de cuisine of Primo in the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, lives in an apartment, so he can’t host extended family for an all-day cooking, barbecuing and eating fest like the ones he grew up with in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Besides, the weather is on the chilly side in Orlando. In South America, the seasons are switched. “December for us is summer,” he says, “although we still eat heavy foods for Christmas.”
Back home, Vegel is from a family of cooks. His mother and sister are pastry chefs, his father an amateur chef. Dec. 24 is the big celebration. The family gathers early in the morning, and his grandmother makes lasagna while others prepare salads like potato with mayonnaise, bell pepper, parsley and hard-boiled egg. Dad fires up the grill—built in, as most are in Argentinian homes—with “real wood charcoal, not presoaked in lighter fluid.” Over the course of the day, the “men of the house” put up sausages, chicken and a whole suckling pig, and “everything from the cow like the offal, the tripe, the kidneys and the beef ribs.”
While food cooks, and between small meals of one dish or another, the adults sip red wine, aperitifs like Gancia and aperol and a digestif of Fernet mixed with Coca-Cola. The meal is multicultural, reflecting Argentinean families.“Every family has someone Italian, German, Jewish and/or Spanish,” he notes.
To bring his favorite holiday flavors home, Vegel might encourage local friends with grills to barbecue Argentinean chorizo (“It’s like bratwurst”) and blood sausage. On his own, he might toss together a Spanish omelet filled with diced potatoes, and top his ice cream with dulce de leche picked up at a Latin American market.
At the hotel’s Whisper Creek Farm outdoor catering venue, Vegel will sometimes roast a whole young lamb or suckling pig on an Argentinian grill. In Primo itself on Christmas Day, he follows another Argentinian tradition: He sends each party home with a miniature panettone, an Italian fruitcake that’s ubiquitous in his home country during the season.
Caribbean in a Cooler
WARREN DIETEL • Trinidad and Tobago
Warren Dietel hides out in North Carolina with his wife and son every Christmas.“That’s our quiet time,” explains the owner of Puff ‘n Stuff Catering. The menu reflects wife Melissa’s seventh-generation American heritage—roasted turkey or standing rib roast, Brussels sprouts, “all those great things you’d see on most American Christmas tables are foods we might have,” he says.
Yet Dietel was born in the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, and a Venezuelan food called pastelles is an integral part of the family tradition.“They’re like Puerto Rican pastelles,” he says. “They’re a wet cornmeal mixture that’s smashed out and filled with a ground beef mixture, and the things that go inside like raisins and olives offer a very unique taste—but let me tell you what, they’re delish.” The pastelles are wrapped in banana leaves, then in foil, and steamed. “We eat them all Christmas season long,” says Dietel.
Camaraderie is as integral to the pastelles as the olives and raisins. Dietel’s mother, Susie, gathers the family’s females to make them once a year. Melissa joins her, as does Dietel’s sister and sister-in-law, laughing while they smash, fill and roll.
Warren and his family pack a cooler full of these savory West Indian treats for the road trip to the mountains. “We eat them for lunch, other times for breakfast, where we steam them up and serve them with scrambled eggs on the side,” he says. “It’s a sign that Christmas is coming.”
Pleased as Pudding
TONY HULL • England
When he’s at the Orlando Airport Marriott Lakeside, Executive Chef Tony Hull is all about cooking. Yet come the holidays, his two must-have traditions involve no culinary skills at all.
Hull is from England, and he insists on ending his Christmas Day meal with Christmas pudding, which he buys from a local market that carries British foods. “It’s a very rich, dense fruit pudding that you steam,” he shares. “Some parents put coins inside it, and if children get a slice with a coin, that’s good luck.” His kids—ages 3 and 6—aren’t fans of the “acquired taste,” so, for now at least, Hull gets to hog all the pudding that he pleases.
At his holiday table, every place setting gets a cracker, a tube wrapped with ornate silver or gold paper. Two people tug at each end, a spring inside snaps and one of the participants reaps a novelty such as a key chain, a golf tee or “a really bad joke on a piece of paper,” says Hull.
It took a while for Hull to get his family to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. His wife, Carla, is from Ecuador, and her family follows midnight mass with a 1 a.m. turkey dinner. What’s more, the turkey is “drunken”—marinated for two days in red wine, garlic and herbs. “I did try goose one year, but that’s very old-school English and I was the only one really enjoying it,” he concedes.
Accompanying the pink-hued turkey, now served at dinnertime on Dec. 25, is green rice. It’s cooked with parsley and cilantro, then baked with mozzarella cheese.
Thanksgiving hasn’t yet become part of the Hull tradition, but the children are American, so the parents are thinking of giving it a go. “I’m sure we’ll put a little English-Ecuadorian twist on it,” Hull says with a laugh.
Roasted Duck (Marc Kusche)
2 (5 to 6 pounds each) ducks, innards and wing tips removed
Kosher salt for seasoning plus 1 tablespoon, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Granny Smith apples, chopped
2-3 cups chopped mixed white onions and celery
1 -2 medium carrots, chopped
½ cup chopped fresh marjoram, or ¼ cup dried
2 quarts chicken broth
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Unwrap ducks and allow to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. With a fork, prick each duck’s breast skin four or five times without piercing meat. This will allow fat to drain off while ducks cook.
Season ducks inside well with salt and pepper. Mix together apples, onions, celery, carrots and marjoram, and stuff ducks.
Pour chicken broth and 1 tablespoon salt into a roasting pan with a wire rack large enough to hold both ducks. Heat over medium-high heat until boiling. Very carefully, add ducks, breast side up, on wire rack. Bring stock back to a boil and then simmer 10 minutes. Cover ducks loosely with aluminum foil.
Place in oven; after 15 minutes, lower temperature to 350°F. After 45 minutes, remove from oven and remove any fat in bottom of pan. Carefully turn ducks over, place back on rack in roasting pan and return to oven for 35 minutes.
Remove from oven, remove fat from bottom of pan again, and carefully turn ducks back over so breast sides face up. Return to oven. If you have 5-pound ducks, cook for another 15 minutes; for 6-pound ducks, cook for another 20 minutes (total cooking time should add up to about 22 minutes per pound), to an internal temperature of 175°F at the thickest part of the leg and thigh joint.
Transfer ducks to a cutting board and let stand 15 minutes. Remove stuffing from cavity, and discard.
Serve warm with potato dumplings and braised red cabbage.
Baked Oysters with French Butter, Fines Herbes and Breadcrumbs (Laurent Hollaender)
6 ounces French butter
1 tablespoon chopped fines herbes (parsley, chervil, thyme, dill)
1 dozen fresh oysters
1 dozen lemon wedges
Preheat oven to 250°F. To make breadcrumbs, slice baguette into 1-inch-thick slices and bake on a baking sheet for 25 minutes, or until dry. Break into chunks, place in food processor and pulse to coarse breadcrumbs (like panko).
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add herbs and breadcrumbs.
Preheat broiler. Carefully open oysters and place on a baking sheet. Top with herb mix and broil until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Serve oysters on bed of rock salt and garnish each with a lemon wedge.
Drunken Turkey (Tony Hull)
5 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 red onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons salt
15-pound pasture-raised turkey
1 bottle Malbec red wine
Blend all ingredients except turkey and wine.
Two days in advance, season turkey with blend and refrigerate, massaging turkey once a day with juices.
On the second day, use a needle to inject some of the Malbec into the turkey, and pour the rest over the turkey. Massage again to combine flavors. Let it rest another day.
Preheat the oven to 275°F. Place turkey in a roasting pan, cover with aluminum foil and bake for two hours. Uncover, increase the temperature to 375°F and cook until done, basting every 20 minutes.
Green Rice (Tony Hull)
½ bunch parsley, chopped
½ cup chopped cilantro
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups white rice, cooked
1 cup shredded queso fresco cheese
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 x 9-inch glass baking dish.
Blend parsley, cilantro, cream and salt.
Start layering with ¹⁄³ rice, then ¹⁄³ herb blend, then ¹⁄³ queso. Repeat for 2 more layers. Sprinkle with Parmesan.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until hot in center and golden brown on top.