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Home for the holidays, chefs stick (mostly) to the sidelines

Chef Ryan Poli helps his mom Rachel South Side home where he grew up his mom hosts Thanksgiving. | Rich

Chef Ryan Poli helps his mom Rachel in the South Side home where he grew up and his mom hosts Thanksgiving. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:35AM

When it comes to the major holidays, none is more fraught with culinary anxiety than Thanksgiving. It is, after all, the only one where the primary focus is on eating (drinking and football aside).

So what happens when the annual family gathering includes a professional chef? You might be surprised.

“I’m a chef, but I don’t throw the party,” says John Hogan of Keefer’s. Rather, it’s his sister, Mary Boch, who’s been in charge of the event for the past 16 years.

For Kristine Subido, the chef of Wave in the W Lakeshore hotel, Thanksgiving has always been the domain of her mother, Melinda.

Zealous’ Michael Taus now hosts the holiday at his house, but that wasn’t always the case.

“It used to be a rule that I couldn’t come over until my father was done cooking,” Taus says.

And while Ryan Poli, the chef and partner of soon-to-open Tavernita, has worked at top restaurants all over the world, including Madrid’s La Broche and the French Laundry, it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that he was allowed to carve the turkey at his parents’ South Side home.

For the monumental event, Poli nixed his father’s electric knife and instead used his professional tools, carving the bird as he would a chicken in a restaurant.

“Everyone was so amazed,” he says. “It was like I invented bread.”

Now the official carver, Poli also contributes appetizers and a dish or two, including a side such as truffled mashed potatoes and creamed corn with jalapenos. His mini crab cakes and stuffed squash were a hit last year; pate en croute from a few years past, not so much.

“I learned really fast what my family likes,” he says, adding that even with his restaurant experience, he doesn’t turn up his nose up at his family’s prized recipes. “There is still something very comforting about my aunt’s candied yams.”

For Poli’s chef-inspired contributions, “it’s important to know your boundaries,” he says. That philosophy also works well when it comes to the division of power in the kitchen, chefs say.

“My mother is an alpha,” says Subido. “If I do any cooking, I have to do it in my space since she thinks I slow her down.” Subido’s space is conveniently located upstairs from her mom’s; the two own a two-flat together. For the big meal, Subido makes all the traditional dishes, including the turkey and sides. But her mom’s Filipino specialties take center stage.

These might include pancit palabok, an elaborate rice noodle dish (similar to paella, says Subido); morcon, a slowly braised stuffed meat dish, and chicken relleno.

“Since Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in the Philippines, we’ve created our own,” Subido says.

Known for her cooking skills, Melinda Subido sells some of her specialties around the holidays (“She makes a killing,” says her daughter). Sometimes the turkey goes uneaten.

“It’s often more of a centerpiece,” Subido says.

Embracing variety at table

Heather Terhune of Sable Kitchen & Bar admits she has “control issues” when it comes to Thanksgiving. Rather than fight it, she’s been hosting the event at her house for the last 13 years for assorted family members and friends.

While there are some items she always has to make, including the turkey, wild mushroom stuffing and a few desserts (she’s also a pastry chef), Terhune relaxes when it comes to the rest of the menu.

“The cool part of having different people come every year is that you see different dishes from what they remember from their childhood,” she says. “It’s great to have this melting pot of other people’s Thanksgivings and not just mine.”

Taus’ father — a “frustrated chef” who loves to cook, says Taus — may have loosened his grip on Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t contribute to the meal.

In addition to making sauerkraut, a Taus family holiday tradition, he also always brings a meaty surprise. “Every year he cooks something he killed,” says Taus. Past meals have included wild turkey, venison and squirrel.

Like his father, Taus is a control freak, but he’s getting better: His mother-in-law’s Filipino lumpia rolls are a given now at Thanksgiving, as is a “killer apple pie” from his wife, Annette, who’s also in charge of the table set-up.

“She’s like Martha Stewart but hipper,” Taus says.

Hogan and his sister have it down when it comes to the division of duties at Thanksgiving.

“When I get there, I take over and do the finishing touches,” he says, including making the gravy and adding his own spin to the mashed potatoes. “When nobody’s looking I throw in another pound of butter and more salt.”

The arrangement allows Boch a break to visit with guests, while Hogan only has to dabble in the kitchen.

“The expectation is that I show up and have a good time,” he says. “It’s nice because I never get invited anywhere. People are intimidated to cook for me.”

Over the years, Hogan has offered culinary tips to his sister, including getting as much prep work done the day before and the importance of brining the turkey and letting it rest after it’s cooked.

“Most of the time the reason the turkey is dry is because people cut it too soon and all the juices bleed out,” he says.

Food safety is another pet peeve of his, from bringing the bird up to temperature to storing the leftovers in the right amount of time. Subido has learned to give everybody space in the kitchen and not micromanage. On Thanksgiving, she can often be found cleaning up after her mom.

“As chefs we work so much, so any time we can spend with family is a blessing,” she says.

It’s taken him some time, but Taus has realized the importance of letting his guests help. “Giving everybody a separate job makes people feel a part of it,” he says.

But there are limits.

“The host is always in charge,” says Poli, who considers himself a “sous chef” to his mom at Thanksgiving. “You want to be a support system, not a nuisance. That is, if you want to be invited back next year.”

Lisa Shames is the dining editor at CS magazine.

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