As a video depicts chef Grant Achatz behind a kitchen counter explaining to diners how to prepare a turkey — part of Alinea’s $325 Thanksgiving meal for four — Chicagoans are reminded again how the 2020 holiday season will be different. If the chef of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant is channeling the Butterball hotline, conditions are unique. And with COVID-19 increasing, health experts continue to warn against large gatherings and what typically is America’s most food-centric holiday will be smaller and more isolated.
Folks are learning to say “no” to their families to avoid riskier gatherings. In Chicago, restaurants owners like Alex Argirov of Ascione Bistro in Hyde Park are getting multiple orders from customers who intend to gather around screens and Zoom rather than stuff themselves inside a crowded room surrounded by extended family. Argirov isn’t complaining. While he’s had to cut employee hours since March, he’s proud that he hasn’t laid off any of his 32 workers at his 50-seat restaurant that opened in 2019. They’ve gotten by with a new takeout menu and a heated tent to cover the patio.
With that backdrop. this Thanksgiving, Alinea — one of the best restaurants in the world — and Ascione — a popular neighborhood restaurant — find themselves in the same boat trying to take advantage of Thanksgiving as indoor dining has been suspended at Chicago’s restaurants.
“It can be from the dishwasher, server, owner, to the accountant,” says chef Giuseppe Tentori, of GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime Steakhouse in River North. “We try to survive day by day and every morning when we wake up we don’t know what to expect. It’s very frustrating with the uncertainty.”
Boka, one of the city’s most successful groups with Tentori, plus chefs Lee Wolen and Stephanie Izard, laid off several workers earlier this year. Now, the group is trying something new and gearing up for the holidays. Thanksgiving was traditionally time for home cooks to demonstrate their skills. But in 2020, many are sick of cooking during the pandemic. Without larger holiday parties, the seasonal profits from catering have vanished and restaurants see Thanksgiving as an opportunity.
The popularity of Thanksgiving takeout has risen in recent years as people are less likely to be shamed for forgoing kitchen labor in favor of leaving the cooking to the pros. In Hyde Park, Argirov is asking the public to support local restaurants, even over gimmicky options such as Popeye’s cajun turkey — a ploy that is generating social media buzz. Though the clear preference is to ask diners to keep their dollars local, Argirov isn’t going to ridicule anyone who is curious to try the fast-food sailor’s bird: “Well, what if it’s good?” he says.
Even bars are getting in on the action. This is the first year Chicago’s taverns can sell to-go cocktails. The Whistler, a popular cocktail bar where bartenders mix up thoughtful and fancy drinks, is offering a special Thanksgiving package via Tock with old favorites and beverages that pair well with traditional holiday fare. Co-owner Billy Helmkamp says the package includes drinks where customers can add their own booze from their home bars, non-alcoholic beverages, and even a creamy dessert drink that’s a cross between a White Russian and a Grasshopper.
“We’ve always had the flexibility to put drinks on the menu that we’re excited about, or what’s fitting for the day’s weather or the season or holidays,” Helmkamp says. “We’re kind of extending that with Thanksgiving and we’ve had some history doing prix fixe menus.”
Helmkamp says the Whistler hasn’t had difficulty with tracking down special mixers or spirits. However, some restaurants struggled find turkeys, especially smaller ones in the 10- to 12-pound range which are in demand thanks to smaller gatherings. At GT, Tentori says they’ve had to be careful with orders: “I can’t just order 500; we’re going to lose the restaurant, we can’t just make sandwiches and sell it.”
GT eventually found a supply so Tentori and staff could confit thighs and drumsticks while roasting the breasts for GT Prime’s package. Tentori says he used to cook unorthodox Thanksgiving meals at home, avoiding turkey and trying new recipes. His wife set him straight: “She said ‘I don’t care chef, just make the turkey, please,’” Tentori says.
Meanwhile, Zubair Mohajir of Wazwan, a South Asian restaurant that operated at Politan Row, says he’s struggled finding turkeys for his meal give aways for the Oasis Initiative. He’s looking for donations to help his effort. Wazwan is also making halal turkey day for the general public.
In Evanston, caterer D’Andre Carter of Feast and Imbibe and Soul & Smoke has been offering Thanksgiving meals for the last six years.
“Right now, the orders are raining in,” Carter says.
This is the first year he’s been using Tock, and Carter says it’s helped expand his customer base. A Soul & Smoke Thanksgiving includes smaller portions and customers can order a la carte. The menu is social distance minded and includes sweet potato pie. Carter says he’s not a huge pumpkin fan, though he did recall making a pumpkin soup during his time working at Moto in West Loop.
At Ascione, the portions will be as large as ever before, Argirov says. Leftovers remain a key part of the holiday: “You have to make a turkey sandwich the next day,” he says. “It’s the best day!”
The holiday also bring a gust of melancholy for bar and restaurant workers. While he’s proud of his bar’s Thanksgiving offerings, Helmkamp misses the opportunity to bond with colleagues and to experiment behind the stick. For Tentori, he misses the large holiday meals he shared with coworkers.
“After six months of that, we are still trying to keep our heads above water,” he says. “It’s so hard, we really need some help from the government like never before.”