Gavin Kaysen is one of the most ambitious young chefs in the country, helming the kitchen at Daniel Boulud’s fine-dining stalwart Café Boulud, coaching the 2013 US Bocuse D’Or team, and, as we found out recently, offering a mind-boggling Thanksgiving Dinner at his restaurant. Complete with a to-go bag of leftovers. Leftovers that aren’t leftovers at all, really. Read on for more, as well as some tips for tricking out your bird, your sides, and of course, your leftovers.
When was the last time you cooked Thanksgiving at home?
The first year I was in NYC, five years ago, because we were closed [at Café Boulud], and then we started to open after that.
OK, so say you have eight or nine people coming over. What’s a pro tip for cooking the turkey in a way that’ll blow people away?
I actually did this last year for my wife because her family was in town. I took the All-Clad slow-bean cooker. It’s sick. It’s like a VIP crockpot. I use it for confit-ing things because it sets the oil perfectly. So I butchered a turkey for her, and the breast I just kept on the cage and then filled it with a bunch of herbs and butter under the skin and roasted that separately, and then I confited the leg for like 12 hours. I just stuck duck fat, a bunch of herbs, garlic — and I just let it cook all night. The smell was intoxicating in my apartment.
Hmm, that sound good. If you’re a professional cook! What about for the novice?
My main advice is to keep things separate. To me, the legs are so much better either roasted alone or confited, but I think cured is very important for the legs, and then the breasts, if they’re brined and then rubbed down and roasted in the oven — because they cook so differently. You can’t keep ’em all the same. It’s impossible.
So your wife must have come off like a rock star when you left her that dinner, right?
Totally. She just pulled the legs out. Like there’s the confit legs, there’s the breast already cooked.
What about a side dish that’s not so obvious?
We just started a salad not too long ago at the Café, that I would say would be a great side dish. We take the pumpkins and cut them into quarters and then rub them down with the traditional aromatics like nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, butter, some brown cane sugar and then eight or nine different peppercorns. We bake it in the oven til it’s 3/4 of the way done, take the skin off, and then we deep fry them. Take them out of the deep fryer, and then roll them in honey and black pepper and vinegar. And then we deep fry them again so the honey caramelizes on the pumpkin. They’re sick. The reason I wanted to do it is that you know the dish where you take the sweet potato and the marshmallows on the top and you bake them? It’s basically the same concept but without the marshmallows.
What about turkey as a protein, what’s your take?
The problem is it’s a dry bird. Even if you cook the breast perfectly, it’s still gonna be somewhat dry because it’s so big. The most important thing with turkey is you buy from someone you know. It should be a heritage breed (Read A Guide To Buying Heritage Meats), or an organic bird, and try to get a small one. People think, Oh, I’m having 10 people over — I need a 15-pound bird. It’s like, you do not need a bird that big. Get two 8-pound birds.
Take the time to brine it, dry out the skin. Get the oven roasting. I remember when my dad used to do Thanksgiving he used to take that old school syringe and take the butter and baste it. That’s’ really important to do that too. Turkey’s a wicked animal.
Organization-wise, what’s a tip to keep things in order?
When I used to cook it at home with my parents we would always work two days out. Morning of, all we’d have to do is cook the turkey. Mashed potatoes were done. Everything after that was just put in dishes — then heat and done. You don’t want to be doing anything day of. You gotta get ready. The kids are running around. You can’t do anything. Do it all two days before and your good.
How can you trick out your mashed potatoes?
Put truffles on ’em. [Laughs.] You can get white truffles, so those are amazing. No, but even moreso, I like twiced-bake potatoes a lot better. We used to do that at our house even more than the mash. We would take the potato skins and we’d boil the potatoes and cut it in half and scoop out the center, and it’s still really wet, right? So we’d bake the potato skins off and dry them out completely and put that in the bottom of a casserole dish, and then I’d whip the mashed potatoes with sour cream, cheese, chives, scallions, rendered bacon, bacon fat. I’d whip that all up and put it back in, and then I’d bake it in the oven again. And that was so much better than a mashed potato.
Let’s talk leftovers. Are they better than the meal itself?
A couple of years ago I asked myself that same question. So when you eat at Café Boulud, everybody gets a bag of leftovers. I started the year we opened Thanksgiving. We call it turkey to go. We make everything fresh. I order 40 turkeys for the restaurant and then 16 turkeys for the leftovers. We roast the whole bird, confit the legs, and we make a turkey sandwich on a garlic focaccia bun, and there’s always braised red cabbage; we do a honey-mustard aoli, the turkey and some lettuce. We cut it and wrap it up in some paper and then there’s a jar of German sweet potato salad, cranberry jab and a pecan or pumpkin bar.
Boom! More Thanksgiving tips from the masters of the kitchen: