When you talk to Chef Eli Dunn about Thanksgiving, it’s clear that the two-time Chopped champion loves the holiday.
“My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. She had a beach house in Connecticut at Groton Long Point and that’s where we would all go for the holiday. Thirty or 40 of us would gather at her table every year.”
Nostalgia for this large family gathering shines as he confides, “She had one of those singing lobsters you buy at CVS that sings Elvis Presley or whatever. And we’re always saying, ‘don’t press the button.’ And every year, someone presses the button.”
With Dunn’s recent pivot from restaurant owner to micro-catering and private chef services, he’s had countless requests to take charge of other people’s holiday. But with his own family to focus on, he won’t work the Thanksgiving feast.
Instead, he’s offering a micro-catered seasonal Friendsgiving option for those who want to celebrate the harvest bounty before they rush off to their family obligations on Turkey Day. “Friendsgiving is perfect for my type of cooking,” he notes. “Community-based, casual, and inclusive. It’s a very personal experience.”
His family was big on potluck holidays, which Dunn believes is the way to go for large gatherings. “The secret to a successful holiday is to have everybody cook. People take it all on themselves and say ‘oh no, I got this.’ We’ve forgotten about the community aspect of the harvest celebration. Everyone took part.” With a smorgasbord of styles, abilities, and tastes on display, the event becomes “really fun.”
“I come from a very Yankee family, so we always had a traditional Thanksgiving feast,” says Dunn – things like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce. “We even did flaming pudding.”
But Friendsgiving is where you can go more eclectic. “Thanksgiving is a once-in-a-year celebration. If you are hosting Friendsgiving, you don’t want to be redundant.” Otherwise you risk losing that special feeling a traditional Thanksgiving feast evokes. “Think seasonally appropriate but without stealing Thanksgiving’s thunder,” he says.
Rather than cooking a giant turkey, Dunn suggests making an herb and mustard roast turkey breast. Instead of traditional cranberry sauce, go for a cranberry, onion, and rosemary chutney. Adding playful twists to some of the more conventional foods can give them a fresh perspective.
Dunn notes an apple crisp he made for an outdoor event that could easily stand in for apple pie. Using a mix of tart and sweet local apples, he covered the classic fruit, cinnamon, lemon, and sugar filling with a crumbly streusel of oats and brown sugar. Once baked, he added homemade whipped cream and salted caramel. Taking that first bite in the crisp fall air “was heaven,” he recalls.
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