The turkey is on the table, along with the tamales and pasteles, hummus and kibbeh, and soul-food sides. Maybe the bird is marinated in Haitian epis, a sofrito-esque blend of herbs and aromatics. Maybe it’s stuffed with Taiwanese sticky rice. This is what Thanksgiving looks like today in America, where cultural traditions simmer side by side, their flavors melding, always, into something new.
Boston’s restaurant industry reflects this same diversity. Like the country itself, it is fueled by people of all races, religions, orientations, and backgrounds. Spanish is the language of the kitchen, which doesn’t run without immigrants from places like Colombia and El Salvador. On the table are handmade Italian pastas, Asian small plates, French bistro fare, Senegalese thiebou djeun, tacos, diner classics. Whatever the dishes, people from all walks of life have come together to create them, working in tandem. It isn’t always pretty. There might be disagreement and mistakes and a few nasty burns along the way. But the food is served. People are taken care of. There’s grace in that. It’s something to be proud of.
For this holiday — which asks nothing more than that we all come together at the table — we gathered members of the local restaurant community to tell us their Thanksgiving stories.
Shadia Ahmed, Flour
Ahmed, who works in the front of the house at Flour Bakery + Cafe, is from Toronto. Her parents are from Somalia. She came to Boston with them seven years ago; she is 20 now and hopes to become a US citizen. “I’ve been trying to get a green card for seven years,” she says. “I was going to get one under my mom. I turned 18, and a couple months after, she got hers, and I had to start all over.”
Passionate about food, she writes about her adventures in eating and cooking at her blog, ShadiaEats. She often signs off on her posts with the word “Alhamdulliah,” meaning “All praise is due to Allah alone.” As she writes, “It signifies gratitude for what you have. Although I am the creator of this site and the creator of my content, I acknowledge that all of these opportunities do not come from me. Rather I have been blessed with them.”
Recently, Ahmed had a run-in at Flour. “There was a homeless man in the bakery, and as I was escorting him out he yelled that I needed to go back to my home country. . . . All the people sitting out there jumped to my defense.” It wasn’t really a big deal to her, she says with a quiet laugh. “I’m used to it.”
Ahmed’s Thanksgiving plans this year are low-key — getting takeout from Flour and eating it with a Canadian friend. But she celebrates the spirit of the holiday every day. “The most exciting thing about Thanksgiving for me is connecting over good food,” she says. “That’s why I love my job at Flour. I connect and meet people from all over the world talking about good food and enjoying good food together.”
Izzy Berdan, Aquitaine Group
Berdan was born in Texas to a Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother. Why’d he move to Boston? “To get out of Texas!” He dropped out of school to become an artist, donned an array of colorful hats (photographer, self-help columnist, furniture designer, dog walker), and is now creative director for the Aquitaine Group (Aquitaine, Gaslight, Cinquecento, and more).
His grandfather left Puerto Rico for Cleveland, to work in the steel factories, and his mother followed. When he was growing up, his family didn’t speak Spanish in the home, only English. Berdan’s grasp of the language comes from restaurant kitchens: “I speak enough Spanish to get in jail, but not enough to get out,” as he puts it.
In Texas, his family was viewed as middle class. When he relocated, he discovered what that meant for other parts of the country: “I realized I wasn’t anywhere near it,” he says. His mother raised her kids with proper etiquette, teaching them, for instance, the right forks to use even though they didn’t own those forks. “Her introduction to the US was that of the 1950s housewife magazine,” he says. “I was raised with a very traditional, picturesque Americana concept.”
His Thanksgiving feast is picturesque, too. He drives to Lancaster, Pa., to spend the holiday with his brother and nieces and nephews. The spread includes turkey, ham, green bean casserole with fried onions on top: traditional. That’s what they ate throughout Berdan’s childhood, too — “a mash-up of Texas and whatever my mom saw in a cooking magazine,” he says. Mixed in would be Mexican tamales and enchiladas and Puerto Rican pasteles, with Mexican rice at the table next to mashed potatoes. “OK, so I guess it’s not that traditional.”
Tiffani Faison and Kelly Walsh, Tiger Mama and Sweet Cheeks
Walsh is from Scituate; her father was a drill sergeant in the Marines. Faison, whose father was a warrant officer in the Army, was born in Germany, and her family moved all over — to Greece, California, Oklahoma. “There’s this assertion that Democrats aren’t patriots,” says Faison, who came to national attention on the first season of “Top Chef.” “But in a military family, one of the things you really experience when you live outside this country is that there is no difference between us: We are all Americans. We all have a really similar understanding of our lives.”
One of the first trips the couple took together was to Thailand, where they fell in love with the food as well as each other. So the inspiration behind Tiger Mama, their Southeast Asian restaurant in the Fenway, is sentimental as well as culinary. (Faison is also chef-owner of barbecue restaurant Sweet Cheeks and has another project, Fool’s Errand, in the works.)
Because Faison moved around so much as a child, food has always helped create the feeling of home. Thanksgiving was classic: There was turkey, stuffing (“or dressing, as we call it”), mashed potatoes, broccoli and cheese casserole. “Always the same things, which we love.” Nowadays, the couple tries to spend time with Walsh’s family in the area around the holiday.
Faison came out at 18; she’s now 39. “It was hard. It was a different time. Ellen [DeGeneres] hadn’t even come out on TV.” Faison and Walsh met in 2007 and got married in 2012. “It’s better now. My mom loves Kelly. She really saw my life come full circle, falling in love with Kelly and having her be such a big part of my life.”
Kristen Kish, Chef, traveler
Former chef de cuisine at Menton, Kish is a TV personality and professional rover (”Top Chef,” Travel Channel’s “36 Hours”). She was born in Seoul and adopted, then grew up in Kentwood, Mich., just outside Grand Rapids. “My childhood was very quintessential suburbia — playing outside until the street lamps came on, home-cooked meals but nothing fancy, family dinners, sports practice. It was perfect.”
And it was all-American, which is to say reflective of America. “My high school was really diverse,” Kish says. “I had a couple of friends who were also adopted, and a couple of Korean friends who had traditional Korean upbringings and families. It was a school of every ethnicity and orientation — a melting pot.”
For Thanksgiving, her family would spend the holiday with relatives on either her mother’s or father’s side. “Growing up, we had a turkey that was mildly cooked well,” she says. Once she started working in restaurants, which often means spending the holiday in the kitchen, it became more of a Friendsgiving: “My friends and I started this tradition of going to Eastern Standard, going to the bar, and having a great traditional meal,” she says.
This year, her family celebrated together, but early; Kish is traveling in Colombia over the holiday. She prepared the turkey, a significant improvement over the birds of her childhood. “I nailed it,” she says. She stuffed it with mirepoix, herbs, and citrus and flavored it with lemon-herb butter. Her advice: Keep it simple. “People say tent this, cover that, start at this temperature, then go to that temperature. I just put it in at 375 for a few hours. Don’t overthink it. And baste the [bleep] out of it.”
Douglass Williams, MIDA
Williams has cooked at the likes of Radius, Coppa, and New York’s Corton. Next week he opens his own restaurant, the Italian-influenced MIDA, in the South End. Originally from Atlantic City, N.J., he is the son of a Syrian-Lebanese mother and an African-American father. “I grew up eating a lot of Syrian food, a lot of Lebanese food — tabbouleh, kibbeh, baklava, everything. I had amazing eating traditions in the household that [my mother] tried to keep up the best she could,” he says. “That was one part of my America. Then there was my black side, which was the big family dinner, laughs, comfort, smiling, joy, crying, yelling.”
These culinary traditions were reflected on the Thanksgiving table. There would be Lebanese lamb stew, but also baked chicken, brown-sugar sweet potatoes, the sweet-and-hot macaroni one aunt is known for (she puts sugar in the bechamel). “Everyone has their specific thing, and no one else can do anyone else’s,” he says.
Williams finds parallels between this food-focused holiday and the restaurant experience. “With Thanksgiving, we all want to experience this warmth, this love, this monstrous amount of food, everything we enjoy about dining,” he says. “That’s essentially what restaurateurs try to produce. . . . A true professional tries to create the feeling you have on Thanksgiving every night, no matter the climate, no matter the weather, no matter the time of year.”
And Williams is a true professional. About the experience of being a black man in fine dining, he says: “If there’s adversity or a piece of bias that comes out, I just handle that accordingly, as a gentleman, with grace and maturity. It doesn’t become an issue anymore. I just go in and I kill it every day.”
Carlos Javier Rodriguez, Orinoco
The executive chef at Orinoco in the South End, Brookline, and Harvard Square, Rodriguez grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. He first came to the United States as a private chef in Florida, then relocated to Boston 12 years ago to help open Orinoco with restaurateur Andres Branger.
Last year he became an American. “It was the happiest day of my life,” he says. “I was sworn in at Faneuil Hall. It meant a lot to me, with the history of Faneuil Hall. It feels different. [Before], you always feel like you don’t have something you can call your own. I’m now so proud to say that I’m an American. This is my country. This is the country I will hopefully die in.”
The recent election marked the first time he ever voted. “I never believed in the government in Venezuela. I was like, ‘I’m not going to vote. Votes really don’t count,’ ” he says.
“But the most wonderful thing was, when I went out of the country with my new passport and came back, they said, ‘Welcome home.’”
Rodriguez is newly married, to an American, and this will be his first Thanksgiving since becoming a citizen. “I’m not cooking. My wonderful sister-in-law is doing it.” He and his wife just purchased a new home, so next year they will probably host a Thanksgiving meal, he says. They might incorporate some of the flavors of Venezuela into the feast. But Rodriguez knows the real secret to Thanksgiving: “I just put a lot of bacon on my turkey, and people seem to love it.”