Tips for first-time Thanksgiving chefs from Charlotte pros

Tips for first-time Thanksgiving chefs from Charlotte pros

Photo: Courtesy Chef Alyssa Wilen

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Plenty of people in Charlotte will become first-time Thanksgiving chefs this year.

From common mistakes to the perfect gravy to deciding how many dishes to make for the meal, we asked experts for their tips so we could share their wisdom with you. We spoke with chefs Alyssa Wilen, Chris Coleman (The Goodyear House), Leah & Louise co-head chefs Courtney Evans and Brandon Staton, personal vegan Chef Joya and chef William Dissen (Haymaker).

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Happy cooking.

What are common mistakes first-time Thanksgiving chefs make?

Chef Alyssa Wilen: Let your Turkey rest!

  • Just like a steak, don’t cut in too early, let the juices settle.
  • Oven space is at a premium and that will get full fast. I recommend planning out the order of how things will be cooked and reheated. Don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring something!

    Chef Chris Coleman: There are two common mistakes.

    • One: Choosing a menu that is too ambitious. When planning your menu, think of how many people you’re feeding, how much refrigeration/stove/oven space you have, and your overall level of cooking ability (it’s ok if you aren’t Julia Child- you can still make tasty food; maybe just rein it in a smidge).
    • Two: Waiting until the day of thanksgiving to prep/cook anything. Meal planning is the name of the game when it comes to pulling off a feast and not ruining your day in the process.

    Chefs Courtney Evans and Brandon Staton say overcooking the turkey and dry mac and cheese are the two most common mistakes.

    Chef Joya encourages you to stick to the fundamentals. Just because that dish you saw looks cool on social media, doesn’t mean you should tackle it for the first time on Thanksgiving.

    Dissen: A lot of people who don’t cook regularly get really excited about Thanksgiving try to cook all at once. Take the time to plan the meal out. There are a lot of things you can make beforehand, like cutting your vegetables or brining your turkey. Thanksgiving is more of a symphony than a hoe down.

    How many dinner dishes, main dish included, should you prepare, and what’s your favorite side dish?

    Chef Alyssa: 6 to 8 makes a great spread.

    • Think about the categories you want to fill like green veg, colorful veg, starch and striking a balance on textures as well. My favorite side is stuffing!

      Coleman: My all-time favorite side dish is old-school green bean casserole, complete with a mushroom béchamel (canned cream of mushroom works fine too) and canned crispy onions. Thanksgiving is about nostalgia, pure and simple.

      • No such thing as too many sides; they’re the best part. We usually end up around 6 or 7.

      Evans: I like options, that’s how we grew up.

      • 7-8 mains/meat options/sides included. My favorite side dish is definitely my mom’s BBQ meatballs.

      Staton: There should be between 5-7 dishes up for grabs.

      • My favorite side dish is collard greens.

      Chef Joya: A good full Thanksgiving can be somewhere between 6-8.

      Dissen: I want all of it. To me Thanksgiving is the day to pull all your tricks out. I love really perfect buttery mashed potatoes and really good turkey gravy.

      How many desserts should you prepare, and what’s your favorite dessert?

      Chef Alyssa: Between 3 and 5 depending on your crowd. A couple pies, maybe a torte and add in some fresh fruit or chocolates to balance those. 

      Evans: 2-3 is enough for me. The first thing I’m running to is definitely banana pudding. If it doesn’t have Nilla wafers you’re doing something wrong. 

      Staton: Usually an abundance (like 3 of each) of 2 desserts suffice. My dessert is apple pie no matter the time of year! 

      Chef Joya: You have to have at least two desserts.

      • Sweet potato pie (my favorite) is a must. The other dessert can either be some type of cobbler, or a banana pudding or bread pudding.

      Dissen: Make all of them. It’s a day to celebrate; worry about calories later. I love a good bourbon pecan pie, or a good pumpkin pie with a graham cracker or cornmeal crust.

      chef alyssa Pies

      Thanksgiving pies from Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen (courtesy Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen)

      What alternatives would you recommend for people who don’t like turkey?

      Chef Alyssa: A roast pork loin or smaller birds like pheasant or quail would complement the sides as a substitute for turkey.

      • If you are vegetarian, stuffed squash or seared tofu with toasted pecans and sage would be great.
      • It’s a tradition for my meal to prepare a smoked brisket, too.

      Coleman: Ham or beef roast? Or just load up on the sides since they’re the best part.

      Evans: My family Thanksgiving is a little different. We don’t do traditional Thanksgiving proteins/sides. We do either jerk chicken or curry chicken over rice instead.

      • You can also do braised chicken thighs.
      • Ain’t nothing wrong with ham for sure!

      Staton: I usually prefer doing braised/slow roasted turkey wings.

      • Roasted be whole chickens, braised pork shoulder, roasted ham. If you are vegan/vegetarian whole roasted vegetables (ie: cauliflower and  broccoli).

      Chef Joya: I make it as more of a turkey loin.

      • I actually take some shredded mushrooms and I fill the inside with some other filling.
      • Then I shape it so when I slice it, you can actually see the different layers of food I put in the inside.

      Dissen: My wife is an Indian immigrant who doesn’t eat meat. We’ll make dal, split yellow lentils, or we’ll cook a bean dish.

      What tips do you have for mashed potatoes?

      Chef Alyssa: I always prepare sweet potatoes and for those always roast whole and in the skins before peeling and mashing.

      • If you are cooking white potatoes, be sure to rice them through a food mill and don’t over mix them.
      • Either style you make, don’t prepare them too early before your meal. I’d recommend about 2 hours prior.

      Evans: Make sure add warm cream and room-temp butter when making mashed potatoes, instead of water.

      Staton: I personally think it’s OK to use box mashed potatoes if you’re not the greatest cook. Just use butter and cream instead water on the instructions.

      • Tip: if using raw potatoes, have everything ready (cream/milk and butter) when you’re ready to whip your cooked potatoes.

      Chef Joya: Boil your potatoes with the skin on. People tend to peel potatoes before they boil them, but boil with the skin on and salt your water heavily.

      • That way while they’re cooking, the potatoes can absorb some of the salt, or even if you use a vegetable bouillon, it will absorb that flavor.

      Dissen: I am a calm chef but the one thing I do get uptight about is when somebody messes up mashed potatoes. Make sure you have enough water in the pot. This’ll help the potatoes cook evenly.

      • Strain the potatoes, then I dry them in the oven at about 300 degrees. Put them into a mixer with paddle attachment. Whip potatoes then add in the cream/butter. But you don’t want to add butter/cream while they’re cold.

      What about stuffing? Can it be boxed stuffing, or should it be homemade?

      Chef Alyssa: No way with the boxed stuff.

      • For a shortcut buy a loaf of bread or cornbread a few days prior, or pre-cut vegetables.

      Evans: I grew up on the box. You can spruce it up, but homemade is always superior.

      Staton: I love cornbread stuffing but I’ll eat just any of the stuffing options homemade or boxed.

      Chef Joya: I always made my dressing from scratch until about two years ago.

      • I make it from scratch, but then I combine it with a box stuffing. It just makes it fluffier.

      What about cranberry sauce? Can it be canned, or should it be homemade?

      Coleman: I love homemade cranberry sauce, but let’s be honest, canned is superior.

      Dissen: Homemade 100%. I’ve got a recipe I make for cranberry and Grand Marnier relish. It’s fresh cranberries, oranges, thyme and flambé Grand Marnier liquor into it. You’ll want to eat that with every piece of turkey.

      Courtesy of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen

      What’s the perfect time to start cooking/serving the meal?

      Chef Alyssa: I used to always serve at 5pm but I’ve moved that up over the past few years. And a little has to do with now having two kids (toddler and infant) at home!

      • Now we usually gather at 2pm and have a couple appetizers then eat around 3:30 or 4 pm so we can have a break between the meal and dessert.
      • My family plays a few games and we all get a chance to work up an appetite for dessert. 

      Coleman: Start cooking 3 days before: Grab a roast chicken from the grocery store, pick it for dinner that night, and use the carcass to make a great chicken stock. You’ll need it for gravy.

      • Two days before: Cook anything that is braised/stewed (we always do sweet and spicy braised kale); toast bread for stuffing; rub turkey down with spices and let “cure” uncovered on the bottom shelf of your fridge (definitely brine a farmers market turkey; I recommend not brining store-bought turkeys).
      • Day before: Cook every other side you’re making. You don’t want to mess with sides ON thanksgiving, unless you don’t care about watching the parade/football/hanging out with your fam.
      • Day of: I usually wake up around 5am and fire up my Big Green Egg (I smoke my turkey); pull the turkey out of the fridge so it starts to come to room temp; get the turkey on the smoker around 6am (and it’s done by noon); around noon, I turn the oven on and reheat all the sides in casserole dishes, make gravy, let the turkey rest. We eat around 1. Then we watch football.

        Evans: Depending on how much you are doing yourself, starting in the mid-morning  is the way to go.

        • A good time to eat is around 4pm, so you can come back for seconds later on.
        • My family we talk junk, play games and dance throughout the whole day.

        Staton: Start cooking in the morning day of and serve around  5-6 pm.

        • I’m personally not fan of eating really early.

        Chef Joya: Start at least the day before, especially when you’re cooking for a lot of people.

        • Perfect timing for Thanksgiving will probably be around 4 pm, because at about 6-7 pm you’re going to be ready to come back for more, and it’s not going to be too late.

        Dissen: I usually start cooking on Tuesday. On Thanksgiving I want a drink in hand, kids running around, football on TV, and I want time to run around outside too. I want most of it to be made ahead of time.

        Gravy is always a tricky one. What are your secrets?

        Chef Alyssa: A well-made turkey stock is the secret to both the gravy and the stuffing.

        • I always break down my turkey days before the holiday and I get to use the bones to build a fantastic stock. (I do this because I sous vide my turkey.)
        • Aside from that just thicken it classically with a blonde roux (equal parts butter and flour cooked to a blonde color) and finish it with fresh herbs. Not dry herbs, always fresh.
        • If you need some excellent quality chicken stock, Chef John Schaal makes and retails stock and you can find out more

        Evans: Best way to start  to make gravy is from pan drippings, you want all that flavor.

        • Add your flour, make a roux, and then add stock.

        Staton: People just over complicate gravy. All you need is flour, butter, chicken/ turkey stock, salt pepper and patience.

        • I like to make a nice light brown roux and add in hot stock gradually to prevent lumps then just let it simmer.  

        Chef Joya: My mom always made gravy like voila (Ashley: Same, Chef. Same. I don’t know how they do it). If it’s your first time making gravy, one of the things you can do is make a slurry and that’s making it outside the pan.

        • Add some flour, and then you slowly stirring water into the gravy.
        • Stir it slowly.
        • Then add it into a hot pan and heat it up that way. That way you can avoid it getting clumpy.

        If you’re a little bit a little bit more advanced:

        • Add some butter to the pan and you add your flour, about two or three tablespoons of flour.
        • Take a fork or a flat whisk and make sure you blend that butter and the flour until it has a nice color.
        • Then slowly add water and whisk at the same time.
        • Once you get the water in there is going to be a little bit thinner and you have to remember that because it’s going to pick thicken up.
        • Then start to add your seasoning and in about five minutes is to be the consistency that you need it to be.

        It’s easy to overeat before the main course even arrives. What are good appetizers to enjoy beforehand, without spoiling dinner?

        Chef Alyssa: I usually make a cheese and charcuterie board and a dip.

        • It’s great to have something around because guests always arrive hungry and it doesn’t make me feel as rushed if I know my guests have something to snack on. 
        • An easy way to really impress is to focus on a flavorful dip that you can make ahead of time. 

        Coleman: Pickles, olives, Triscuits and cheese spread. Easy stuff that can be thrown on a platter and people don’t want to fill up on.

        Evans: Dips are definitely a good way to go. I make Buffalo dip with pita. Other good options are fruit and  pasta salad.

        Staton: I usually don’t do appetizers for Thanksgiving. A good snack might be some light things like some fruit and some dips of your choosing with crackers.

        Dissen: I love a good charcuterie and cheese board — pickles, crackers, mustards jams, pimento cheese and crackers.


        Cheese and charcutie tray from Mere’s in Dilworth (Axios Charlotte file photo)

        What is your favorite Thanksgiving memory/tradition?

        Chef Alyssa: No matter what prep I need to do for the meal, I save Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes to prepare with my younger cousins. It’s a sweet time we get to spend together before the meal and as my own kids get bigger I look forward to them helping too.

        • Another favorite part one is a game my family plays that Andrew and I started after we got married.
        • We set out cards and pens; throughout the night everyone writes what they are thankful for anonymously.
        • After the meal, we pass around a basket with the cards and pull one out, read it aloud and then have to guess who wrote it. I think we all look forward to that. 

        Coleman: My wife Ashley and I have been married for 17 years, and we have hosted Thanksgiving every year. Every year is special.

        • There are family members who aren’t able to join anymore, … but it’s always a fun time.
        • We open a few bottles of wine, we eat, we relax, some (if not all) of us fall asleep on the couch. And we watch football.
        • But my favorite tradition is probably the early morning hours, when the smoker is getting rolling, the house is quiet, and I’m able to reflect on who/what I’m thankful for. And then the family joins me and we watch the parade and cuddle on the couch. And it’s magical.

        Evans: It always my family’s skate/ dance sessions. We have a mini rink in our backyard so we pull out our skates and start jamming! If you don’t have some you’re definitely getting down in your own way.

        Staton: My favorite memory is just sitting around talking and catching up with the family you don’t usually see or hear from.

        Dissen: For me growing up, we always went o my grandparents’ farm in West Virginia. They lived off the land, they canned and preserved and did all these wonderful things that inspired me as a chef. My grandmother made all of these buttermilk biscuits and I remember watching her cook and everything was so delicious.

        • Having those memories when you’re together as a family or Friendsgiving, it’s wonderful. After last 20 months … we all need something to celebrate.

        Courtesy of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen

        Recipes from the experts:

        Chef Alyssa’s recipe for mushroom duxelle stuffing

        • “I’ve named it Jessica’s Favorite Stuffing because it’s my sister-in-laws favorite,” Chef Alyssa says. 

        Serves 8 to 10

        Prep time: 45 minutes (additional if baking the cornbread)

        Inactive prep time: 2 hours

        Bake time: 1 hour

        1 batch of cornbread (recipe follows)

        2 to 4 Tbsp unsalted butter

        1 cup small diced onion

        ½ cup small diced celery

        ½ cup small diced carrot

        2 ½ cups minced shitake and button mushrooms

        ½ cup heavy cream

        3 Tbsp parmesan cheese

        4 eggs

        3 cups turkey or chicken stock

        A few sprigs of each fresh herbs: thyme and sage

        Salt and pepper to taste

        1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Dice cornbread and toast it in the oven until the edges become golden brown and the cornbread is fairly dry, about 15 minutes.
        2. Meanwhile, heat 2 Tbsp of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Once melted and beginging to bubble, add the onion, celery and carrot and stir occasionally with a wooden spoon until they soften; the onions begin to smell sweet and the oranges turn bright in color. Transfer to a sheet pan and spread out to cool.
        3. Place the pan back on the stove and add 1 Tbsp butter, increase the heat to medium-high and add the minced mushrooms. Cook until they sweat, reduce to about ½ their amount and begin to turn brown on the edges. Pour in the heavy cream and stir to bring everything together and thicken to a rich mushroom duxelle. Add the cheese to melt and then turn off the heat.
        4. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs and stock. Season and then add the minced herbs, you want about ¼ cup total.
        5. Spread the remaining butter onto the sides of your casserole dish. Spread in the toasted cornbread. Sprinkle the mirepoix around and then pour in the egg-stock mixture. Allow everything to sit in the refrigerator for 2 hours so the flavor can develop and the cornbread can absorb the liquid.
        6. Spoon dollops of mushroom duxelle around the stuffing mix so there are pockets of the filling. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until set and the internal temp of the dish is 160°F.

        Classic cornbread

        Serves 8

        1¼ cups coarsely ground cornmeal

        ¾ cup all-purpose flour

        ¼ cup granulated sugar

        1 tsp kosher salt

        2 tsp baking powder

        ½ tsp baking soda

        1/3 cup whole milk

        1 cup buttermilk

        2 eggs, lightly beaten

        6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

        1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
        2. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Whisk in the milk, buttermilk, and eggs. Whisk in the melted butter.
        3. Pour batter into an 8×8 baking pan and place it in the center of the oven. Bake until the center is firm and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from the pan. 

        Chef Courtney Evans’ creamy rosemary mustard braised chicken thighs

        8-10 boneless chicken thighs
        2 1/2 tablespoons Salt
        1 1/2 tablespoons Pepper
        2 table spoons Garlic powder
        2 tablespoons Smoke paprika
        3 tablespoons Onion powder
        1-1 1/2 c Flour ( lightly dredge chicken)
        2 Shallots small diced
        5 cloves of Garlic minced
        2 sprigs of Rosemary
        1/2 cup White wine
        1 1/2 cup Chicken broth
        2 tablespoons Whole grain mustard
        3 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard ( 1 tablespoon separate )
        1/4 cup Greek Yogurt
        1. Pre heat oven 375 degrees.
        2. Season chicken thighs with salt, pepper, smoke paprika, garlic and onion powder. Lightly dredge chicken then set aside.
        3. Heat an oven safe pan with 4 tablespoon of oil. Sear chicken, skin side first, 3-4 min on each side then remove.
        4. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté shallots, garlic, and Rosemary. Deglaze with white wine, add mustards , and then chicken broth. Stir until combined.
        5. Placed chicken back in the pan. Cover and place in oven. Cook for 15min or until chicken is 165 degrees.
        6.  Remove pan from oven and place on med heat . Remove the chicken from pan. Bring sauce to a simmer add 1tb of Dijon and reduce some. Turn off heat and whisk in yogurt. Add chicken thighs back in.

        Chef Brandon Staton’s Braised turkey wings with cranberry glaze

        5lb turkey wings
        Salt & pepper to taste
        2 sprigs rosemary
        3 sprigs thyme
        4 cloves garlic, smashed
        1 tbsp. Crushed red pepper
        2 chicken bouillon cubes
        6 cups chicken stock, hot
        Cranberry glaze:
        1 bag fresh cranberries
        2 cups brown sugar
        1 tbsp. Salt
        1 tbsp. Ground black pepper
        1 cup apple cider or juice
        1. Season wings then brown them then add in all other ingredients. Then braise til tender about 1 1/2 to 2 hours
        2. While the wings are cooking, prepare your cranberry glaze. Pour all ingredients into a medium sauce pot and bring to a boil then simmer til it’s thick. Blend glaze once it cools and set aside.

        Chef Coleman’s Caramelized Onion & Mushroom Dressing

        Makes a deep 6×9-in casserole

        Coleman: I made this the first year my wife and I hosted Thanksgiving and the family requests it every year.

        1 large boule rustic white bread, torn into bite size pieces
        1 stick butter
        1 large white onion, sliced thinly
        2 shallots, sliced thinly
        4 cloves garlic, minced
        8 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced thinly
        2 ribs celery, sliced thinly
        2 sprigs fresh thyme
        1 oz dry porcini mushrooms

        Prep ahead: Spread bread on rimmed baking sheet and toast in a 250 oven until golden brown and dried. Cool down.

        In a large high-sided saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and shallot, season with a pinch of kosher salt. Cook over low heat, stirring every 5 minutes or so until onions are soft, sticky, and brown. Add water as needed if onions start to brown too fast (ie. brown before they start to soften).

        Add garlic, cremini, celery, and thyme and cook until mushrooms have release and absorbed their own liquid and the whole mix is soft and sticky.

        Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of water to a boil and add the dry porcini. Allow to steep until dried mushrooms soften and plump. Chop mushrooms and add into the veg mix.

        Once veg is caramelized, add toasted bread, mushroom tea (pour porcini water through a coffee filter into the pan to catch sediment). Remove thyme sprigs. Stir everything together, season with salt and black pepper, and transfer to a casserole. Refrigerate overnight if desired. Remove casserole from fridge at least 30 minutes prior to baking.

        Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, or until top is browned and crisp.

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        Thanksgiving Day Parade in Charlotte (File photo)

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