FR Thanksgiving Interview: Jeff McInnis

I thought I knew Jeff McInnis, the former Top Chef breakout star turned fixture in some of Miami's buzziest kitchens. But when he stopped into the Food Republic Thanksgiving Test Kitchen and Interview Lounge last month, I got schooled on the man who's now executive chef and partner at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in South Beach.

Turns out he's not the guy with surfer-boy good looks and subtle charm that TV and even my personal interactions in the past had led me to pigeonhole him as. He's a committed fisherman and chef who plays off his deep Southern roots and experiences to turn out rib-sticking fare with just the right amount of sophistication. You practically can't swing a chicken wing without hitting an award that McInnis and his restaurant has won or at least been nominated for in the past year, from Beards to Bon Appétit. As I also found out, he's a man who knows his way around a bird.

Let's start with the turkey? Would you brine it?

Yes, absolutely. Some basic brining techniques would be sugar, salt, spices. The longer you brine it the better basically, but you don't want to do it too long so it doesn't get salty. But a three-day brine would be awesome, maybe two days. At the restaurant we brine our chicken (3-5 lbs) for a day and that really comes in perfectly, so if you have a 10-pound bird, go for two days, or a 15- to 20-lb. bird, shoot for three days.

How could someone store that big of a turkey for three days?

It's hard to fit that in a refrigerator. What I've done at home is taken a cooler, put it on the floor, and throw ice in it. It's usually a water-based brine, so you can just throw it in there. If you're cooking for your family, which I do a lot, then you have green beens, stuffing, all this stuff in your fridge, you don't really have space for a turkey. So a cooler's good. Just remember if you take out some water to throw in more ice then add some salt and sugar. It's not rocket science. The water needs to taste like ocean water but a little bit sweet. You can put in sage and thyme and whatever you want.

How would you suggest prepping a family meal for Thanksgiving?

Start a week out (edit note: that means today!), get all your ideas, write them on a paper and stick to them. If you start changing your ideas then you'll stress yourself out; that's what I usually do. The main problem I was having at home is how much room do I actually have to cook all these things far out and keep them in casserole dishes. Start slowly, brine the bird, if you're going to do ham, then you can do that in advance too. I used to smoke a lot of ham.

What about a side dish?

We did a side dish at the restaurant of brussels sprouts. Take the brussels sprouts and cut them in half or quarters, and cook them. Then it comes out as this dense, little chunk of cabbage. I usually take the sprout and core it, and literally take the root out of the bottom and once you do that and knock out a little whole in it, the brussels sprout will peel and you can flake it into little leaves. It takes some time, but it's worth it. If you do it with 20 or 30, you get this humongous bed of fluffy leaves, little baby cabbage leaves. You can serve it raw with a hot bacon vinaigrette over it so it's slightly wilted or you can throw it in the pan. What I like to do is throw it into a pan with brown butter and then hit it with a little bit of vinegar, a nice, expensive red wine or cider vinegar and maybe some pecans. Just a lot of butter, a little bit of vinegar, and just pull it off quickly. Don't sauté it till it's cooked; make sure to pull it off when it's still a little fluffy.

What's the trick for light, fluffy biscuits?

There aren't lots of tricks to biscuits; it's just staying true to the ingredients. When we were opening Yardbird we tried about 100 different biscuit recipes, 1,000 different fried chicken recipes, and the ones we wound up going back to were the basic, good, old school, tried and tested recipes from hundreds of years ago. The only thing that I found that makes the difference is that you roll, bake and serve it right away. So at the restaurant, we roll and fold biscuits every half hour. It was difficult opening in Miami because you don't have a lot of space, you don't have a big pastry kitchen, just a little oven. And it's the same at anybody's house: the best biscuits are the ones coming out of the oven. Once they sit they get dense. We tried everything, put them in a cooler, freeze them. But you just can't cut corners with biscuits.

What about cranberries. How do you make yours?

I'm going to sound really white trash with this, but I love opening a can of cranberry sauce. I mean, I don't serve that at the restaurant — I have my own recipe — but when it comes to going home to Grandma's, she opens the can and it has that line effect because it just came out of the can. That does it for me! I grew up on the stuff!

Any thoughts on heritage turkeys?

Since opening Yardbird I've gotten way into poultry. I'm kind of a poultry know-it-all, and it makes a difference. I'm not going to dog on the big conglomerates — they have their market — but it makes a difference. We are buying a bunch of wild stuff from Southern guys in that area, and there are so many awesome little farms in Florida. We can't get all our chicken from one farm because we serve about 150 orders a day, so we would wipe out a little farm! So we do have free range but it's produced on a bigger scale somewhere else. But when it comes to Thanksgiving we are going to buy a bunch of wild turkeys and brine them a few days out.

You guys are doing a Thanksgiving service at Yardbird?

Yeah, this is the second one. Our one year anniversary was October 1st. So last year, when we hit Thanksgiving, we were only open for a couple months, so this is our big one. We're confiting the turkey leg and a lot of really good traditional stuff but with good techniques.

What's your favorite way to put leftovers to use?

I like to take take the leg meat and shred it and warm it up. I know it's hard for people to take pig feet and cook them down, but we are constantly cooking pig feet and ears, and there's a huge gelatinous amount of liquid that comes off. You can cheat and use gelatin if you want. If you take that and take your pulled turkey meat and fold in whatever you want — cranberries or raisins or whatever — and then you take a casserole pan and push all the meat in it and pack and put another pan over it, then you can flop it out and you've got this meatloaf-looking dish and you can slice and and then pan-sear it and glaze it with ketchup or whatever you want. It's not hard if you already have the turkey. But the gelatin is important.

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