Whether you keep it simple with a few special homemade dishes from multiple households or go for a grand and over-the-top smorgasbord, there’s nothing like a family holiday meal. The L.A. chefs we feature here agree wholeheartedly. And during the holiday season, when they’re hosting or attending a holiday party, they know exactly what they’re making to give the festivities that special touch.
Check out their top holiday food picks for some kitchen inspiration this season.
Holiday pick: Latkes
The story: “Hannukah is my favorite holiday, obviously, because you get presents,” Greenspan says. “But from the food perspective, I loved (and still love) gathering around in the kitchen and frying latkes to order. They come out of the oil, onto a paper towel and boom — they’re hot, crispy, fried potatoes and onions. With sour cream and some sweetness from apple sauce, there’s nothing better. Usually, they’re potatoes, onions, eggs and flour, but I get funky with mine. Anything you can do with a potato, you can do with a sweet potato, a celery root, a beet. You can have fun with it. My favorite kind of latke is a beet and carrot latke. Grate raw beets, grate raw carrots, and I do add a little bit of potato and onion so the people don’t revolt. You can only shirk tradition so much.”
Tips: Don’t let the frying step of this process keep you from making latkes at home. In a shallow pan, get the oil hot (test it with a drop of your latke batter), then place giant spoonfuls of batter in. Cook in batches and enjoy.
Courtney Van Dyke
Holiday pick: Beef Wellington
The story: “This is essentially my grandmother’s dish. She made it for the holidays, but she put her spin on it,” Van Dyke says. “Since she hated mushrooms, she didn’t do the traditional mushroom duxelles on the outside of the tenderloin; she just did straight herbs de Provence and a ton of salt and pepper. Then the crust was Pillsbury croissant dough, the twist-and-pop one. That saved time around the holidays with kids, of course. We now make it every year for Christmas. This meal is like a hug, it’s so comforting.”
Tips: Buy a whole tenderloin and trim off the edges. Sear it, with all the salt and pepper on it. Then, pack on herbs de Provence and cover it with Pillsbury dough. Van Dyke adds sides such as creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes with creme fraiche.
Executive chef of Nueva, Venice
Holiday pick: Whole braised turkey
The story: “This tradition has been going on for over 30 years in my family, led by my mom,” Lopez says. “Every year, I try to write down her secret recipe. She marinates a turkey for 72 hours on the dot, then braises it for 10 hours, low and slow. I think this is where I fell in love with cooking. I’ve been watching her work this dish since I was five years old. There’s no sense of urgency. She’s cooking with love, and you can taste it. We make it on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — all three holidays — religiously.”
Tips: Components of Lopez’s mom’s secret recipe include capers, caper berries, traditional Mexican spices such as coriander and nutmeg, plus bay leaf, an entire jar of Dijon mustard (on top and underneath the bird’s skin) and lots of pats of butter.
Pitmaster and owner of Slab, Mid-City
Holiday pick: Matzo balls
The story: “I like to ask, ‘What can I do to barbecue-ify this dish?’ — no matter what I’m making,” says Bakman. “Matzo balls are very simple: matzo meal, some eggs, some fat.”
Tips: Bakman suggests breaking out of the box when cooking matzo balls. “Instead of chicken schmaltz, I like to use smoked beef fat,” he explains. “Then, you eat them like you usually would, in a soup — a chicken soup, maybe, or better yet, in beef bone broth. Make your bone broth with beef ribs or short ribs bones that were smoked, then you have the smokiness in the soup and in the matzo ball. From above, the dish looks familiar, but as you get closer and smell it and taste it, you see that it’s different.”
Now that the weather is cooler, Bakman has plans to make a smoky ramen with bone broth and brisket at Slab. And, having triumphantly weathered the pandemic, new Slab locations are coming soon to Pasadena, North Hollywood and Woodland Hills.
Executive chef of Mes Amis, Hollywood
Holiday pick: Lamb Wellington
The story: “My wife’s family is in New Orleans and South Carolina, and we often spend holidays there,” Carson says. “It’s always a big southern meal and generally multiple days of eating. One year, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife’s aunt pulled out a whole tenderloin and said, in her perfect southern drawl, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’ I put together a beef Wellington last minute, with store-bought pastry and prosciutto. We now do that every year, and the dish became the inspiration for the lamb Wellington at Mes Amis. It’s just a little more of a fine-dining version.”
Tips: Carson sears half of a lamb loin with tons of rosemary and butter, then cools it down before dressing it in an olive and mushroom duxelles. Next comes layers of homemade spinach crepe and pastry before baking. Serve with lamb jus fortified with a bit of lamb fat and preserved Meyer lemon.
Chef and owner of Jar, Mid-City
Holiday pick: Red Pozole
The story: “For the past 21 years, Jar has been open for Christmas Eve dinner,” Tracht says. “That means our entire team is working during the holidays. Somewhere along the way, a tradition began: When our estimable line cook and runner, Jose Luis Escobar, starts making the world’s biggest pot of red pozole with pork, we know Christmas is right around the corner. We eat it for days, topping it with finely shredded cabbage and cilantro, and we squeeze in lots of lime.”
Tips: For incredible tamales, Tracht visits Tamales Liliana in Boyle Heights each holiday season. Don’t miss the chili-cheese tamales. Tracht’s children adore them, and the chef buys enough every year for her staff to bring some home to their own families.
Chef and restaurateur, A.O.C., West Hollywood and Brentwood
Holiday pick: Veggie sides
The story: “I love the Spanish twist of my sweet potatoes with bacon and spinachfor the holiday season,” says Goin. “The sherry gives the sweet potatoes a deep and rich unexpected note, and I always include Brussels sprouts [in a holiday meal]. I dreaded them as a child, finding them mushy and cooked to death, and my mom alwayshated them, too, until I made this version — pan-braised with pancetta and balsamic vinegar.”
Tips: Home cooks can find versions of these recipes in Goin’s cookbook “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.”
Chelsee Lowe, a writer and mom in L.A., writes about food, culture and travel.