The holidays are like a treasured family recipe: Take a bunch of traditions, add a hefty amount of food, combine with togetherness and season with nostalgia. Yield: A most wonderful time of year.
Whether you learned to bake gingerbread cookies with your grandmother or cherish the thoughts of time spent gathered around the table, cooking and eating are integral to holiday memories here in the U.S.
But what about family holiday traditions elsewhere? And what do they mean to people for whom cooking — and eating — are a profession? We asked five San Diego chefs from five different countries about their most memorable holiday experience or meal and how their heritage is reflected on their menus. From large raucous get-togethers to small intimate moments, Mexican pozole to Filipino adobo, here are the holiday remembrances that have had a lasting impact on these chefs and what they serve today.
Pietro Gallo, Italy
Most memorable holiday experience or meal: “The most memorable holiday for me was the last Christmas I spent in Italy with my family. This was six years ago, right before my brother, Dario, and I left our country to come to San Diego. Christmas, for southern Italians, is the most celebrated holiday. It is a three-day event which mainly revolves around food and sharing quality time with family. It starts on Christmas Eve where the family gathers to make snacks and in the evening prepares a seafood dinner. On Christmas Day, we also cook together all day sharing all kinds of dishes (which) are mostly meat-based dishes. On the 26th, which is Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen’s Day), we close the celebrations, still all together with zuppa santé, a broth that is meant to purify your stomach after the the feasts from the past two days.
“I have great memories about Christmas and cherish these moments. Our southern Italian families are very large. (At the) last family gathering, there were about 40 of us all together, eating delicious, traditional Christmas food, playing typical Christmas games and enjoying the time with everyone together which can usually only be had around Christmas. I’ve always felt so much peace when I think back to those moments. Any and all problems seem to vanish because you are surrounded by those who love you unconditionally no matter what might be going on in your life. I feel lucky to be able to have that in my life and have such a large, loving family.”
Dish on the menu that captures your traditions or upbringing: “The dish that reminds me of the holidays the most is called ‘cuddruriaddri.’ This word is impossible to pronounce for anyone that is not from my hometown Cosenza. … This dish is made with dough consisting of potatoes and flour. It is formed into doughnut shapes and deep fried. It is served either plain or with anchovies. We usually eat this dish on the 24th for lunch. According to tradition, it is supposed to be a light snack (they are not light) to prepare your stomach for the big meals to come on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When the smell of cuddruriaddri reaches your nose, that is the signal that the three-day feast and celebration has commenced.”
1845 India St., Little Italy. (619) 431-5990. civico1845.com
Davin Waite, England
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub and The Whet Noodle
Most memorable holiday experience or meal: “One of my favorite things about the holidays is that we would always have a proper English supper. This included some type of roast meat, gravy, some sort of bird, ham, and my favorite, Yorkshire pudding. Nana’s mint sauce was another staple; chopped up mint leaves, onion, malt vinegar and some sugar. My brother, dad and I would cook together all day. Once at the table, we started the meal with English ‘crackers’ — festively wrapped tubes containing small gifts.”
Dish on the menu that captures your traditions or upbringing: “As a nod to the motherland, our tempura batter at Wrench & Rodent is a version of fish and chip batter. Also, in the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would use the turkey carcass to make English-style curry. As a shout to this tradition, we are featuring a turkey curry ramen at The Whet Noodle. I have been on a secret mission to make mushy peas, an English staple, cool in California. Upcoming for The Plot, our forthcoming plant-based, zero-waste restaurant: carrots steeped in kelp broth and battered in a vegan fish and chip batter, served with mushy peas.”
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, Mexico
Most memorable holiday experience or meal: “Growing up, our holidays were always filled with delicious food — it was at the center of our family gatherings and part of what inspired me to embark on my path to become a chef. Ultimately, however, my most memorable experience was having my family come to El Bizcocho while I was the pastry chef there. I felt good treating my parents to a fine dining meal that I was a part of. My parents hadn’t eaten where I had worked up to that point, so it made me proud to be able to share something I had created with them.”
Dish on the menu that captures your traditions or upbringing: “My mom’s albondigas and the pozole are the biggest time warp dishes currently on the menu at El Jardín. The arroz a la asturiana on our dessert menu is also one of the dishes that takes me back to my childhood. We are currently serving it with poached quince.”
2885 Perry Road, Liberty Station. (619) 795-2322. eljardinrestaurantbar.com
Stéphane Voitzwinkler, France
Most memorable holiday experience or meal: “In my hometown in the Alsace region of France, many of my holiday memories are centered around oysters. My hometown was a twin city of Brittany, on the coast of France. During the holidays, we received a plentiful amount of oysters from them in exchange for the wine that we produced. These oysters would come in large wooden crates. During the holidays, I’d go down to the laundry room in the basement, which had a big sink, where I learned to shuck oysters with my dad. We’d then eat them simply with a squeeze of lemon. The oysters were so fresh that you could tell they were still alive based on how they reacted to the acidity of the lemon. We’d also treat ourselves to foie gras served on white Pullman bread during the holiday time. This was a delicacy that I always looked forward to enjoying. Finally, we’d pop open a bottle of crémant d'Alsace and toast to the holidays.”
Dish on the menu that captures your traditions or upbringing: Tartiflette with pork belly and prosciutto accurately captures my childhood. I was raised in the valley of Muenster cheese and the cheese is made from cows raised in Alsace. This is a typical winter French dish, indulgent and rich.”
2550 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill. (619) 239-1377. asrestaurant.com
DJ Tangalin, the Philippines
Most memorable holiday experience or meal: “Filipinos are known for their hospitality and … during the holiday season it’s a Filipino tradition to open up your doors for your friends and neighbors, not just your family members. I remember going from house to house checking out what everybody cooked for the night and eating with neighbors and meeting new people. One of my favorite things to eat growing up in the Philippines is a dish called suman, which is a sticky rice cooked with coconut milk wrapped in banana leaf and then steamed. You open up the banana leaf and sprinkle brown sugar on it and the steam from the rice melts the brown sugar.”
Dish on the menu that captures your traditions or upbringing: “Nothing really says Filipino food more than adobo. We have a fried chicken adobo with rice cake bibingka and seasonal fruit jam on our menu that a lot of people really enjoy.”
3986 30th St., North Park. (619) 725-0844. bivouaccider.com