Turning the tables: A restaurant critic’s first time as Thanksgiving host

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

Along with the traditional turkey, stuffing and gravy this Thanksgiving, I’m afraid I’ll be getting a spoonful of my own medicine.

For the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of working as one of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s restaurant critics, a dream job if ever there was one. It’s a huge responsibility and a lot of work, but it’s also an incredibly interesting and rewarding role. I get to dine out constantly, and there’s nothing better than celebrating a restaurant that gets things right. The opportunity to recognize and share the good in Atlanta’s dining scene never gets old.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this when, along with my wife, I volunteered to host Thanksgiving for the first time this year. But now that my favorite holiday is almost here, it feels like the doors have been thrown open on my ivory tower.

Soon, I could face the same judgment I regularly dish out.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

That’s because my wife and parents are my most frequent dining partners for restaurant reviews. My brother lives in Alabama, but even he has made it to several dinners.

I often tell people that I won’t criticize anyone’s cooking unless I’m being paid to do so, but for the past 18 months, my family members have been more than happy to offer their criticism for free. I fear I’ve created a group of monsters — and now I, too, must face them.

Luckily, our Thanksgiving dinner is more of a group project, so I’m hoping my dining partners will bring side dishes and check their critical inclinations at the door. Also, the past year and a half has allowed me to speak to quite a few chefs and pick up a few tricks of the trade. So, while this will be my first year playing host at Thanksgiving, that doesn’t mean I’m unprepared.

To start, we’ve ordered a turkey from White Oak Pastures, the powerhouse progressive farm in Bluffton known for its humanely raised, grass-fed beef and pastured poultry. White Oak products feature prominently on restaurant menus around Atlanta, and their turkeys, which my mom has ordered for several years now, have been excellent.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

We’ll be cooking that turkey on a Big Green Egg, the Atlanta original, which is like a cheat code for Thanksgiving. The kamado-style grill frequently can be seen billowing smoke on restaurant patios and in their back alleyways, but what chefs don’t tell you is that they’re nearly foolproof cooking machines. The smoky, indirect heat and moisture-trapping ceramic of kamado grills make it difficult to dry out proteins, even notoriously finicky meats like turkey. It adds flavor and a gorgeous color to your bird, and it frees up your oven for other dishes.

The next technique I’m borrowing from restaurant kitchens sounds significantly less fun: organization. That’s usually my Type A wife’s arena, but making a detailed plan is crucial for Thanksgiving. There are plenty of components that can be made well ahead of time, such as cornbread for stuffing/dressing, chilled desserts or appetizers, such as dips, crudites or my family’s favorite, smoked salmon.

I began planning Thanksgiving with the cooks in my family at the beginning of November, and I will make a spreadsheet that works backward from dinner time to tell me when each hot dish needs to go into the oven. Some only need to be warmed; some will need to be cooked through; and some, like the turkey, will need time to cool.

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

With all those plates spinning, I plan to borrow another restaurant technique to keep my family members happy and distracted: the batched cocktail. While it annoys me when “barrel-aged” cocktails on a bar menu are somehow more expensive than the made-to-order drinks, you can’t beat them for speed of service. We’ll have plenty of wine, but for anyone looking for a pre- or post-dinner drink, I’ll have a clarified milk punch on hand. These boozy drinks pack a lot of sophisticated flavor, and they’re shelf-stable, so you could make a batch months in advance.

Ultimately, I believe our Thanksgiving dinner will have many of the qualities I seek out in a good restaurant: The food will be made from scratch with care, effort and high-quality ingredients. There will be refined cocktails and interesting wines. The atmosphere will be welcoming, cozy and energetic.

My main concern is the noise level, if our 5- and 7-year-old nephews are extremely loud, as usual, but no dining scenario is absolutely perfect. Hopefully, my family will take it easy on me, despite having become cynical gourmets.

As much as I love my work, one of its greatest unforeseen benefits has been the opportunity to dine out so often with the people I most care about. Food always has been a major point of connection in my family, and we’ve shared some wonderful memories exploring Atlanta’s unique, vibrant restaurant scene.

By playing host at Thanksgiving for the first time, I hope to start a new tradition that grows, improves and lasts for years. Still, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and I know how tough the critics can be. With this group, I’ll be happy to earn a two-star rating on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s review scale, which is considered “very good.”

However, in addition to the memories we’ll make, the ultimate measure of success will be how many repeat customers I get next year.

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