This Thanksgiving, Take a Break From the Kitchen and Help Out a Restaurant
The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto has a loyal following when it comes to its lavish Thanksgiving dinner, but this year customers took advantage of to-go dinner and high tea options, with the kitchen set to cook 100 birds. Photo: Courtesy of the Fairmont Royal York.
If you are the person in your extended family who typically sources, schleps, preps the day before and then spends a very long Thanksgiving Day slaving over a hot stove, maybe – just maybe – you are celebrating a year off. In my home, I am called the holiday martyr (I come from a long line of determined cusses), who insists on doing every detail myself and then winds up exhausted, dishevelled and not even remotely hungry at the dining table. There isn’t enough therapy in the world for this situation, but perhaps this year off is a nudge in the healing process. If you are normally the guest of a martyr like me, you, too, get a reprieve from watching us work ourselves into a lather over stuffing.
If you are doing the holidays solo this year – or with a small, sanctioned group of nearest and dearest – perhaps you want to make hay out of the strange circumstances and splash out on fancy order-in options. In any case, we all deserve it, and restaurants really need the support.
October marks the tail end of the patio-dining season, which offered a temporary lifeline to restaurants across the country, particularly in provinces hard hit by COVID-19 and experiencing a second wave. The pandemic-wrought devastation across the hospitality sector has been met with a lot of pluck and innovation, with restaurants pivoting to special takeout options for food, wine and cocktails.
No Turkey Required
Social media exploded this week as we woke up and realized we had to make or alter our plans at the last minute. The takeout options range from vegan feasts (love the festive recipes on the blog at Greenhouse.ca, which are totally inspiring) to decadent TV dinners, available at Local Public Eatery locations across the country. The latter come complete with fried chicken, a warm potato salad, fancy corn and a bourbon sugar pie. Eataly in Toronto offered a pre-ordered Thanksgiving feast with an Italian twist: you could choose your own local turkey producer (from details on the turkey’s pampered, pasture-raised upbringing) with antipasto platter, seafood, lasagna and tiramisu options. Although the window for pre-ordering turkeys has closed, you can still put together a pretty serious feast from their takeout options.
In Vancouver, this is the seventh year for chef Dan Olson’s major Thanksgiving To Go program at Railtown Café and Catering. Trained in Lyons and Paris under Michelin-starred chefs, Olson went on to work at the Century Grill and Bacchus at The Wedgewood before launching Railtown. “We sold out with 225 whole turkey packages and 165 half turkey packages,” Olson says about this year’s offerings. “We are so thankful this is taking off the way it is. We needed it so badly right now. It’s like a gigantic life injection.”
Railtown had eight vans on the go last February; only two are in service now for individual meal deliveries and promotions like their summer barbecue package. They are developing soon-to-launch simultaneous catering deliveries to different households for Zoom parties and corporate schmoozing.
“People seem to want to treat themselves this year,” he says. “Plus it’s so expensive to go to the grocery store, to purchase the ingredients, not to mention your time spent making the feast. Plus turkeys intimidate a lot of people. You get a bad taste for it if it is dry and gross.” Railtown’s annual turkey program is also a fundraiser for Mission Possible down the street, fighting poverty, addiction and homelessness in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
Necessity Meets Invention
“We’ve been changing it up every single day trying to stay afloat,” says Darlene Mitchell, proprietor of beloved small indie dining room Greta Solomon’s on Toronto’s east side. That includes adding pantry and wine sales and extending the patio season with heaters, as well as special meal orders for takeout. On Monday, she posted a Thanksgiving special of duck confit (with traditional holiday sides such as cranberry, mash, ham and lentil stuffing and pumpkin crème brûlée). The small kitchen with one teensy oven can do 50 orders, max, and those sold out in 10 hours.
“It’s a super special treat for a couple of people. Everybody is looking forward to some form of enjoyment amid the doom and gloom. If you take our holidays away from us, what is left?”
A Side of History
The turkey meal-to-go at Toronto’s fabled Fairmont Royal York has been a staple since chef jW Foster arrived at the legendary hotel a dozen years ago, when they would ship out 500 or so birds. Dining at a hotel used to be a Thanksgiving tradition for many Canadian families, he says, but this year, “With everything upside down, there is still a community.” That includes the restaurant and hotel industry banding together and supporting each other, as well as “an institution such as this hotel and its loyal clients,” who are now turning to takeaway options.
Turkey and trimmings to go “maintains a connection to tradition and the history of the hotel,” he says. The to-go program was way down last year, but it’s on the rise again this season, largely because of COVID-19. Some 100 or so birds are set to go out through the weekend. “Families are ordering several packages for separate households,” he says, so they are together in spirit even if they are eating apart. This year, the smaller packages for four to six people are popular, in keeping with protocol restrictions. “People seem to be being responsible.” And if you don’t want to do a big turkey, the hotel has had much success with its new Thanksgiving Tea to Go program as well, which would add ritual and some pretty tiny treats to a group Zoom scenario. Update: turkeys for this year are sold out, and the tea order desk for this weekend is closed, but the hotel will be putting out new elegant options in the run-up to Christmas, which is always their biggest to-go festive meal service and looks like it will be even bigger this year.
Eat and Drink Online
Virtual is the backbone of HyrLive, a pandemic-born company from two Canadians who moved home from NYC during the lockdown. In a few short months, it has grown to include local chef-designed meal-kit delivery service tethered to online cooking classes from the same chefs. And if you don’t want to order the meal kit, you can watch the videos and order ingredients with a click from Instacart. The service is on a subscription model, which costs $7.99 a month after a 30-day trial.
Co-founder Joshua Karam says people are ordering multiple meal kits so they can cook along with the chef and then Zoom the meal itself from separate households. “Thanksgiving has taken off the past few days,” he says. “This is perfect for people who do not consider themselves accomplished home cooks.”
Karam uses his own family’s plan as an example of how to make virtual dinners interactive. He is sending the same meal boxes out to each outpost of his extended family. “It is more than following a recipe: the chefs give you the tips and tricks to take your cooking to a different level. Still, everyone’s will turn out a little differently. I think that is where the fun could come in. I’m very competitive and I look forward to comparing my Cornish hen to the rest of our family’s Cornish hens.”
The Thanksgiving offerings range from a traditional turkey to the aforementioned hen as well as pork loin. This year can be anything you want it to be, right? HyrLive also offers access to a sommelier and a cicerone (beer expert) to add to the restaurant-at-home with drink pairings.
Drinks and Decorations
Whatever meal and method you choose, you can raise your spirits with special cocktails, going all out on the table or tablescape, which is the new social media-driven passion for fussing around table decor, linens and settings. (Pro tip: follow ultra-posh British housewife @MrsAlice on Instagram for the dreamiest country house-fantasy co-ordinated settings and shop the website – she ships to Canada!) And don’t forget the pics-or-it-didn’t-happen frenzy for porch decor. If you buy enough pricey heritage-coloured organic pumpkins, it may just fill the void for a moment or two. And if you aren’t doing the cooking yourself (or if you are taking a clever shortcut with a meal kit), you will have more time to dress up for your smaller party (and the Zoom camera) and actually sit down and be thankful for a moment.