Feasts of Burden

Think your Turkey Day prep sucks?  Try cooking for 1,300 strangers.

feasts of burden

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Thanksgiving dinner is the best meal of the year — unless you’re the one cooking. So it makes sense that local restaurants can make a killing by hosting stressed-out families who’d rather forgo the whole National Lampoon–style Thanksgiving disaster, thank you very much. Many Boston restaurants, in fact, have reported massive turnouts in recent years. Maybe that’s because we’re busy; maybe jellied Ocean Spray no longer meets our food-snob standards. The truth is that most reservations come from families looking to skirt the dirty dishes, says Beacon Hill Bistro chef Richmond Edes, whose Thanksgiving crowd consists mainly of large parties and a few stray out-of-towners. It’s similar at the Four Seasons, where executive chef Brooke Vosika says he rarely serves couples.

Mark Porcaro, who has overseen Thanksgiving at Top of the Hub for the past decade, prepares food for about 1,300, including other people who work on Thanksgiving, like security guards and firefighters. “The most difficult part is trying to get a head count,” he says. “You can’t run out of turkey.”

Porcaro usually cooks 50 to 60 birds, along with classic trimmings like stuffing. Even at edgier restaurants, the offerings are on the traditional side. Mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberries have all been featured on Beacon Hill Bistro’s menu, and while the restaurant does whip up unexpected choices like New England oyster stew, Edes estimates that 80 percent of his patrons will go hot turkey. Of course, there’s always someone with a strange request, says Stefan Jarausch of the Oak Room. A diner there once asked for an egg-white omelet.

Turkey Day duty can be grueling: The Oak Room’s workday starts at 3 a.m., when the first shift of cooks begins prepping the 50 birds, 40 gallons of gravy, and 200 pounds of potatoes required to fill the buffet tables. Jarausch arrives around 9 a.m. and often stays until 10 p.m. or later.

The true dinner rush hits at 1 or 2 p.m. Then comes a second wave, which peaks around 6 p.m. “Last year we sold out, and the year before, we had to turn people away,” says Jarausch.

A complete feast usually costs at least $90 per person. But the chefs pay dearly, too: “My Thanksgiving tradition is to work,” laments Jarausch. Still, the kitchen is also a good place to be thankful, says Edes. “The guys I work with have become my family. I probably see them more than I see my wife.”