Justine Kelly is chef de cuisine of The Slanted Door, chef Charles Phan’s famous Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Kelly began her culinary career in 1989 as a pantry cook at one of San Francisco’s first organic restaurants, the Ironwood Café.
She spent the next seven years learning her way around the kitchen and running a small breakfast and lunch café in the Mission district, The Red Cat, where she first met Charles Phan, a frequent diner at the café. Phan enjoyed her pastries and hired her to be the pastry chef for his lauded restaurant, where she became chef de cuisine in 2007.
Every Thanksgiving soiree needs an easy and elegant appetizer to keep guests satisfied until the main event. This recipe from chef Justine Kelly is just the thing: simple, pretty and delicious, with caramelized onions, apples and grated Gruyère atop pre-made puff pastry.
How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?
We have, over the past few years, held Thanksgiving at my house—partly because I’m a cook, partly because we have enough bedrooms for all the little ones to crash after dinner and leave the evening for the grownups.
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. It’s simple; it’s about food, family and friends. My good friend Lisa has this wonderful tradition of bringing me a craft from her neighborhood nuns. Usually it is a “crafty” turkey of some kind fashioned out of a pinecone and feathers, and there is usually a pipe cleaner or two involved.
We have a small family, but when we add good friends to the mix we end up with about 20 to 25 people. Everyone brings something—food, wine, cocktails. But I make the bulk of the meal.
Over the last few years, we have reverted to the style of meal that we grew up on. It’s pretty basic: roast turkey, oyster stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy. We add a few new things each year, like veggies and appetizers, but that base stays the same.
What is your number one tip for someone cooking Thanksgiving dinner?
Plan ahead, shop early and prepare what you can the day before. I take most of the week off work so I don’t stress too much. I like it to be a relaxed and family-focused day.
My father (who is the first person to inspire me to cook) has always been insistent on one thing at Thanksgiving, and that is that I make my caramelized onion and apple tartlet. He’s just about as insistent as the rest of the family is that he makes his pie and sweet-and-sour pearl onions and!
Brine or no brine?
Yes, always brine, for the obvious reasons of adding moisture and flavor to the bird. I buy organic birds, and think it’s better to do two smaller ones for a crowd as opposed to one large bird. I have had too much trouble with brining bags, so I fill my picnic cooler with brine and sealed ice packs and brine the bird overnight in that.
What’s your favorite way to use Thanksgiving leftovers?
I start making a stock with the turkey carcass at the end of the night and let it simmer overnight. The next day, I use the rich stock as my base for turkey tortilla soup. We have a standing poker party at our house the next evening for any one who wants to come and eat tortilla soup and turkey-cranberry-stuffing panini.
What was your favorite Thanksgiving dish when you were a kid and what is it now?
My favorite when I was a kid was oyster stuffing with gravy, and it still is my favorite.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?
My dad’s apple pie.
What do you cook at home that you would never think of cooking at the restaurant?
Almost everything, as I run a Vietnamese kitchen. I rarely cook Vietnamese at home. I tend to lean toward Spanish and Italian when cooking at home.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
A Microplane and a 6-inch chef’s knife.
What’s the one dish you’re always trying to improve?
Oyster stuffing. I think I have it almost perfect, but with cooking there’s almost always room for improvement. I am always experimenting with different oysters each year… By the way, I am not at all an oyster fan, but somehow this stuffing I can’t get enough of.