Thanksgiving with Chef Sara Johannes

Chefs, Holidays, Meet, Thanksgiving

Sara Johannes is the chef de cuisine of WP24, Wolfgang Puck’s fine-dining, modern-Chinese restaurant, which opened to critical acclaim in 2010.

 

Johannes graduated culinary school in 2005 and immediately began working for Puck, joining the staff of his Asian-inspired restaurant in Minneapolis, 2021, as a line cook. Over the past six years she has worked her way up the restaurant group’s ladder, becoming sous chef of 2021, then chef de cuisine of 560 Restaurant in Dallas before moving to her current position in Los Angeles.

 

She credits Puck, her mentor, with inspiring her to constantly search for new flavors and new concepts, while staying rooted in the farmers market and the seasons.

 

The Dish: Green Beans with Sweet-and-Sour Dressing

 

Sweet, salty and sour flavors mingle irresistibly in this simple yet bold-flavored dish of green beans dressed in bacon vinaigrette. Chef Sarah Johannes says these beans are famous in her family, and are a staple at her holiday gatherings in the Midwest. Though the beans are a festive foil to a Thanksgiving spread, we’ll be saving the recipe for picnic season, as well.

 

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving in Wisconsin means FOOTBALL.  It doesn’t matter what time you eat, there is always a football game playing in the background. For many years, when I went home I would meet friends for our annual “Turkey Bowl.” We’d get up at 6 am, bundle ourselves up against the cold and go play football till we were numb. If it was really a good Thanksgiving, you’d watch the Packers crush Detroit. Thanksgiving and football are inextricably linked in Wisconsin.

 

What is your number one tip for someone cooking Thanksgiving dinner?

Relax. The worst thing you can do is to make Thanksgiving into a stress-fest. Plan ahead, ask for help, and don’t be afraid to (gasp) buy a pre-made pie.

 

What’s your favorite pick for Thanksgiving wine and why?

I used to wait every year for Beaujolais Nouveau. It was seasonal and appropriate. But now that my tastes have expanded, I like Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving. I especially like the Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve. It has nice fruit, but also has toast and spice that pairs beautifully with the robustness of holiday foods. Its tannin levels are excellent as well, and help cut through all that richness in the meal. I keep returning to it year after year and have yet to be disappointed.

 

What is the inspiration behind the recipes you created for Williams-Sonoma?

These recipes are adapted from family favorites of mine throughout the years. The holidays are all about comfort foods, and there is nothing more comforting than Grandma’s cooking!

 

Brine or no brine? And why?

To brine or not to brine? It depends on your bird. If you are a Butterball diehard, or choose a basic store-bought bird, then more likely than not, it is already brined. Check your label: If it says “solution added,” then that bird is brined. If you want the real deal, you have to look for it. Finding an all-natural, free-range turkey is worth the effort. We used to get amazing birds from a farm called Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, MN. I would definitely brine those guys. You are simply enhancing their natural flavor, of which they have plenty. Choose whatever you are most comfortable with.

 

But my best advice? Don’t cook the bird to death! Buy a good thermometer, learn how to place it properly in the turkey, and pull the bird out five degrees under the temperature you want, to account for “carry-over cooking.” Let it rest on the counter for 15-20 minutes before you dare touch it.  Your turkey will be moist and juicy, and your guests will thank you!

 

What’s your favorite way to use Thanksgiving leftovers?

My grandmother used to make turkey soup. But my favorite thing to do is to simply eat more later.

 

What was your most memorable Thanksgiving dish and who made it?

My grandmother’s famous sour green beans. We strived for years after her passing to get them right. I have come close, but hers were the best. Everyone loved them, and they have even become favorites of people outside the family. But I’m pretty sure you could put that hot bacon dressing on my kitchen clogs, and they’d taste good.

 

What was your favorite Thanksgiving dish when you were a kid and what is it now?

Every family get-together in Wisconsin had steak tartare on the table. It used to freak my friends out, but I love it. Fresh chopped sirloin, good rye bread and raw red onions. We also had many avid fishermen in the family, so there was always someone’s catch in the smoker, and it was on the table at every meal–lake trout, walleye or bass.

 

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?

My Aunt Diane is an amazing baker, and is prolific during the holidays. Russian tea cakes, her famous chocolate-covered peanut butter balls, and these crunchy, chocolaty, butterscotch-y things that all us cousins fight over every year.

 

What does Mom or Grandma still make better than you?

My mom makes the best sausage stuffing and wild mushroom gravy. I’m a sucker for stuffing — and gravy, for that matter.

 

What’s your favorite kitchen tool?

A pasta machine. I can’t live without it. I have three of them.

 

What do you think is going to be the next big trend in dining?

I think we are seeing a return to simplicity. It’s funny how we have reconstructed and deconstructed our food.  Now we are seeing a return to fresh, local and whole. You know it is catching on when the big restaurant chains start to adopt these ideals. Strange how going back to basics seems like wonderful progress.

 

When it comes to food, what is your guilty pleasure?

Cheese. I love it. The stinkier, the runnier, the more mold-riddled the better. I would happily take a cheese plate over a chocolate soufflé any day.

 

What’s the one dish you’re always trying to improve?

All of them.

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