Hosts With the Most

11.18.09

Though Jill Barron has “pork!” tattooed on her inner lip, she’s one of Chicago’s best vegetarian chefs. It’s precisely this kind of revelry in contradiction that also has the chef and owner of Wicker Park restaurant MANA Food Bar indulging in the tough feat of cooking for 60-plus people every Thanksgiving.

She has done it for the last 15 years in her tiny Logan Square condo. For the last 10 years, she’s also gotten some help from her husband, Chris Barron, the executive sous chef of Market in the West Loop.

Oh great, you think, just what I need — another holiday story about professional chefs who whip up a 20-course course meal of caviar whipped potatoes and foie gras-basted organic turkeys for their coterie of beautiful friends without breaking a sweat, while toasting with magnificent cordials for the cameras, and then sending everyone off on their merry way with goodie bags and homemade doilies copped from a Martha Stewart episode.

At least that’s what I thought this could turn into, but if you couldn’t tell from the pork tattoo, the Barrons aren’t like everyone else.

Their modest condo, the bottom of a typical Chicago two-flat, is stuffed with what has to be one of the city’s most prolific velvet painting collections, reclaimed tools and tchotchkes from the Maxwell Street Sunday Market (think clothespin Christ on a crucifix).

Their party guests range in age from 6 to 90 and include a heavy dose of cooks, tattoo artists, bikers and, as Chris Barron says, “a whole host of folks, both straight and gay. The more open the better.”

Their Thanksgivings also are themed. There have been Think Pink, Cowboys and Indians and Plaid Bondage turkey days. This year, it’s Leopard Print –everyone has to incorporate leopard print in some part of their wardrobe.

Most importantly, the Barrons might be less equipped to hold the big day than you. You probably have a full-size dishwasher. Theirs is only 18 inches wide. And they’re not especially good home cooks.

Says Chris Barron: “We have a hard time cooking for two people. It never seems to work out. The question around here is often, which box of macaroni and cheese do we open?”

The way they pull off the whole thing is a combination of careful planning, creativity and sheer will, something the rest of us really can learn from.

START EARLY AND ASSIGN TASKS

Consider their tiny dishwasher conundrum.

Jill says, “We got a good male friend of ours who doesn’t cook, so we set him up near the sink with a really hot chick to keep ‘im happy. He’ll wash all day.”

This is an extension of their philosophy that you should always find ways to get your guests involved.

As soon as people start arriving, they tag different people to roll silverware in napkins, act as food runners, set up the buffet and even carve the turkey.

“One of our vegetarian friends did it a few years ago,” Chris says. “Of course, now he turned [to meat]. Bacon got him.”

Everything, including the assignment of those tasks, starts out with lists. The Barrons’ living room coffee table is covered in stacks of yellow Puckered Pickle Company stationery featuring shopping lists and daily itemizations of tasks for the four days preceding Thanksgiving.

Starting early is one their biggest secrets. “If you wait until the last minute, then everything turns out ridiculous,” Jill says. “I try to do a dish a day and put it away.”

She cooks her cranberry tangerine relish on Monday and lets it set up in the fridge for a few days. As a nod to her childhood summers in Montreal, Jill also does a creton, a loose pork pate or rillette that benefits from some aging.

“There’s actually very little done on Thursday,” Chris says. “We get up, have some coffee, do some spot checks around the house. Most of the prep is done.”

FOCUS ON FAMILIAR DISHES

Part of the reason they host Thanksgiving is that it is the holiday most centered around food.

As such, it honors the core of their being as chefs, and they see the day as an opportunity to share their talents with their friends and family.

To that end, the one task they don’t dole out is the cooking. (They do allow guests to bring desserts, but ask that they be bite-sized or already portioned.)

To alleviate the stress of providing all that sustenance, they make lots of smart adjustments in the kitchen. They pull out all of the serveware and cookery they’ll use ahead of time and label what’s going where with sticky notes.

They understand Thanksgiving isn’t a time to reinvent the wheel or get really lavish. They used to bring lots of limes and lemons from their restaurant and cut them up for their cocktail bar, but found the bowls of garnish always moldering on the counter untouched the next morning.

While they want to be generous, the Barrons understand they’re not trying to feed the Chicago Bears’ offensive line. They make decent portions of every plate, but they also expect and hope to run out. A little bit of 10 dishes goes a long way.

They also don’t get all cheffy and start improvising. They generally focus on the same familiar dishes each year. They do try to accommodate special needs; for example, they took the bacon out of the green bean casserole so the vegetarians would have more options.

But, they also put their foot down a bit, and don’t extend themselves for every little need.

“I don’t think Thanksgiving is made for vegans,” Chris says. “Especially when we did Black Leather [themed] Thanksgiving.”

When they make accommodations, they use smart kitchen shortcuts. In a move straight out of Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade playbook, they make a stuffing out of sauteed vegetables and White Castle hamburgers. Jill cooks twice as much stuffing base, but mixes half with the burgers and half with white bread for the vegetarians.

Jill is quick to point out that such “trashy” recipes are used only if they’re also tasty.

“Someone brought a Tang pie one year. Tang mixed with Cool Whip. Ugh,” she says.

Chris uses dried morels from the pantry for his peas and morels dish. He doesn’t waste time shucking fresh peas from the farmers market, but instead pours a flash-frozen bag of the stuff straight into a wok.

Of course, it’s not just any wok, but a 70,000 BTU patio wok that sounds like a F-14 jet turbine when it’s fired.

SPREAD OUT

This is just one more canny move, the extension of the kitchen to the backyard.

Because the Barrons have only one standard kitchen oven and cooktop, they use the wok, a backyard rotisserie and occasionally the grill to expand their arsenal.

Cooking equipment management is key. All casseroles and stuffings are prepped and ready, so they can be cooked immediately once the turkey is removed from the oven to rest.

Once dinner is served, they also use the backyard as an extension of their condo, running a fire pit and using a patio heater to provide more warm spots for people to nosh and congregate.

Inside, there’s lots of folding chairs, but people mostly improvise, sitting on stairs, the futon, even the floor.

At the end, when the turkey’s been gutted and the buffet rifled through, all the organization and planning should be in the service of one final principle: having a blast.

“It’s not easy going to work the next day,” Jill says. “I’m not gonna lie, there’s always some element of hangover involved.”

White Castle Stuffing

MAKES 12 SERVINGS

4 tablespoons butter

1 large white onion, peeled and diced

1 head celery, diced

1 pound brown mushrooms, sliced

1 ounce fresh sage, chopped

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

18 White Castle hamburgers (no pickles), chopped into 1-inch pieces, or 1 small loaf white bread, cubed and toasted

1 cup chicken stock Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large saute pan, heat butter until foamy. Add onions and celery and cook until tender but still slightly crisp. Add mushrooms and some salt. Cook until mushrooms are brown and liquid is gone.

Add sage, paprika and nutmeg to the pan and cook until spices are fragrant.

Pour the mixture into a bowl and add diced White Castles; toss together. Put the stuffing in a baking dish and drizzle chicken stock over. Toss again and season to taste.

Bake for 20 minutes, uncovered, until the top is brown and crispy.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in a different form

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