Their honest takes might surprise you.
When you think of a traditional Thanksgiving menu, your mind might automatically think about the staples like turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie. If Aunt Carol’s special casserole has been served (and enjoyed) for years, why mess with a good thing or break a family tradition?
But I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all experienced a Thanksgiving dish flop at least one holiday season in our lives. Maybe there’s a dish that one family member insists on bringing every year but no one really eats. Or perhaps one year someone tried to act like they went to culinary school and made an ultra-complicated, extra fancy recipe that was the epitome of a “Pinterest vs. real life fail.” Mistakes can be made, we’re only human!
To avoid dish fails or menu regret, I tapped some professional chefs to get their takes on the dishes they would never make for Thanksgiving. Some are understandable and some might be controversial. Just remember—it’s your menu and you’re the one who will be making and eating it, so do your own thing if you don’t agree with some of their takes!
Well, it turns out a lot of chefs don’t like green bean casserole. And I mean, really don’t like. “I know, I know—it’s a staple in a lot of households, but for me, why ruin wonderful green beans with everything else?” The Resort at Pelican Hill’s Director of Culinary Operations Kyung Carroll says. Just blanch your beans in salt water, shock cool in ice, set it aside with minced garlic, minced shallots, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper. You can top it with crunchy garlic or if you want the feel of the casserole, get some French’s crispy onions and sprinkle on top.” Hernan Melendez, executive chef of Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California, also recommends serving blanched or sauteed green beans with a classic bearnaise sauce and the crispy onions.
But there are some chefs who suggest serving Brussels sprouts instead. “Green beans are not built to be stewed in a casserole, they are meant to be blanched and served right away,” says Ewart Wardhaugh, director of food and beverage at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown. Instead, serve Parmesan Roasted Brussels sprouts—toss with coconut oil, season with salt and black pepper, bake in a hot oven set to 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes (till blistered and charred). Remove from the oven and toss with chili flakes, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and shredded parmesan.”
Chef Martin Heierling of Parmizza in Culver City, California, also suggests roasted Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, which has a “similar vegetal flavor with nutty toasty notes.” And Jesse Mallgren, executive chef at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California, likes serving Brussels sprouts roasted in olive oil or chicken schmaltz and finished with sherry vinegar and salt.
Canned or fresh? That is the polarizing question. Some chefs were very anti-canned, but others actually like it. Chef-restaurateur Matt Horn of Horn Barbecue, Kowbird, and Matty’s Old Fashioned in Oakland is one of the many chefs I spoke to who prefer to make homemade cranberry sauce. “I tend to steer clear of serving canned cranberry sauce at holiday meals,” explains Horn. “While it’s a classic and convenient option, it often lacks the texture and freshness that a homemade sauce can offer. Instead, I opt for a homemade cranberry relish or sauce, which allows for customization in sweetness and provides a personal touch to your meal.”
But other chefs prefer the can—many say their guests like the canned version better and that it’s nostalgic. “When I first started making Thanksgiving dinner, I thought I had to make everything from scratch,” says chef-owner of Oakland’s Bombera Dominica Rice Cisneros. “I learned pretty quickly that homemade cranberry sauce was not a hit. Everyone likes the canned version. I gave up and now only serve the canned.”
Chef Katianna Hong of Yangban in Los Angeles doctors up her store-bought sauce: “I always use a recipe given to me by my mother and it’s the best: 1 can whole cranberry sauce, 1 can cranberry jelly, 1 lb bag frozen raspberries, and 1 can crushed pineapple (adding roasted chopped walnuts is optional).”
And then there’s some people who don’t serve cranberry sauce at all, like Christopher Osborne, executive chef at Wolfie’s Carousel Bar in San Diego, California. “I have, at restaurants and at home through the years, made quite a lot of cranberry sauce. It always seems like a good idea but people never like it as well as what they are used to or they just don’t eat it,” he says. “I believe making a seasonal jam is better and has more applications so it doesn’t get wasted. Try peeling and cooking a few apples with sugar, lemon juice, and a couple pinches of nutmeg over low heat. Soon you will have a wonderful fall apple jam that is great on stuffing, pie, and ice cream. I even add it to a cocktail with dark rum.”
Yes, another classic side dish that the chefs don’t agree with. Most say it’s too sweet! “Throw the sweet potato casserole scenario in the trash. I don’t know how it passes as a ‘savory’ dish for Thanksgiving,” says Dave Beran, chef at Pasjoli in Santa Monica. “It’s literally brown sugar, sweet potatoes, marshmallows… in some cases bourbon, caramel, pecans, or some kind of streusel topping. Frankly, it’s a waste of calories and gives no real joy. Save room for the pie. What would I serve instead? Maybe a roasted beet and carrot salad, herb pesto vinaigrette, some crumbled goat cheese, and pistachio. It’s still root vegetables, it’s still naturally sweet, but way cleaner. Salads are the way to go.”
If you still want sweet potatoes on the table, we’ve got a lot of alternative suggestions. Suzanne Goin serves sweet potatoes with bacon, romesco, and spinach: “In this dish, the salty, meaty bacon really helps balance out the sweetness of the sweet potatoes (which are cooked with sherry, brown butter, and brown sugar)—and then the romesco (a Spanish sauce made with chiles, tomato, fried bread, and toasted nuts) gives it some spice and texture to counter the softness of the sweet potato. The spinach lends a fresh green-ness to balance it all out. This dish is always a huge hit!”
Jeffry Chen, executive chef at San Laurel at Conrad Los Angeles, recommends simple roasted root vegetables (including sweet potato) garnished with hot honey and toasted nuts. Jeremy Shigekane, executive chef at 100 Sails Restaurant & Bar at Prince Waikiki in Honolulu, does a sweet potato casserole sans marshmallows with a mixture of chopped pecans and brown sugar.
Others just like to serve sweet potatoes with butter. Chef Joe Hou of Tenderheart and Rise Over Run in San Francisco suggests roasting the vegetable with butter, herbs, a little brown sugar. And chef David Varley of The Sundry in Las Vegas roasts the potatoes until tender and then whips them with a spoonful or two of red miso, some good butter, and a splash of maple syrup.
“Pre-packaged gravy can lack the depth of flavor that homemade gravy provides,” explains Massimo Falsini, chef of Caruso’s at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, California. “Making gravy from the pan drippings of your roasted turkey or other meats is a more flavorful and traditional choice.”
And Kevin Tanaka, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, suggests uses some of the drippings for a homemade stock to freeze: “You spend all your time roasting the bird, why not use the drippings to make a roux and use that to thicken a little homemade turkey stock. Make the stock from the leftover carcass and then vacuum seal and freeze it for a later use.”
“Green beans and asparagus somehow always find their way onto holiday menus, but they’re completely out of season this time of year,” says Ryan Pollnow, co-chef at Flour + Water Hospitality Group. “We encourage everyone to cook from the market at the moment—things like Brussels sprouts, delicata squash, cauliflower, and hearty greens are all at their peak this time of year.”
Pollnow doesn’t recommend fish on the menu because he says it’s “just too risky to smell up the house!” And in the same vein, Chef Tony Nguyen of Crustacean Beverly Hills advises being careful about the seafood you do serve: “I would not serve anything that gets cold and rubbery quickly like mussels or clams. King crab is very forgiving and does not get dry easily.”
Fruit cake might not be a Thanksgiving mainstay, but still, some chefs had it on their “Do Not Serve” list. “Fruit cake! I am traumatized by my father’s ‘famous’ fruit cake recipe that he made every year on Christmas,” says Joel Hammond, chef de cuisine at Uchi LA. “I always go with extra cookies. Everyone loves cookies, and they can bring some home!”
And Marcel Childress, executive chef at the Rustic Root in San Diego agrees, adding, “it’s always dry and tastes like it is past its expiration date.
If you’re willing to part with your beloved pumpkin pie this year and try something new, Hayley Feldman, co-owner of Coucou in Los Angeles, has a suggestion. “Pumpkin Pie has never made an appearance on my table, mostly because I prefer the flavor of kabocha squash,” she says. “It’s a one-to-one substitute and delicious.”
It’s too complicated for such a busy, high-stress, high-stakes day, a couple of chefs told me. “I love cheese soufflé, but it takes up extra oven space and is finicky to make the day of and does not hold up well once it’s been removed from the oven,” says Kathy Sidell, owner of Saltie Girl (locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and London).
And Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows FIG’s Executive Chef Damon Gordon agrees: “Hot chocolate soufflé would be wow if executed perfectly, but it has too many opportunities to fail. I would serve a warm flourless chocolate cake in its place with vanilla bean ice cream and brandied caramel.”