Award-winning chef Bradley Ogden presents his first cookbook in over a decade. Holiday Dinners with Bradley Ogden (Running Press, 2011) includes 150 cherished recipes for a range of winter holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — in one delicious guide for making the most memorable meals for the most special occasions. In this excerpt from the introduction, Ogden explains his love for food, family and where the two come together — the holiday dinner table.
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People have many gifts in life — music, languages, painting, and even gab. Mine is a special talent for food. I spent the summers of my youth on my grandmother’s farm in Windsor, Ontario. In retrospect, this was the beginning of a fabulous career that I never could have recognized at the time. Both of my grandmothers were great cooks. I believe my mother was as well, although with seven children to look after, she seldom had the opportunity to really demonstrate what she knew. My father, on the other hand, considered himself the world’s greatest cook, and was especially known for his breads and homemade ice cream. Of course, the young spindly arms of my six brothers and sister and me were the engine for his churned creations. Nevertheless, to us, it wasn’t about hard labor but rather playing a game, resulting in a reward of creamy fresh flavors, from cherry to peach to strawberry, all of which we felt were awesome.
Being around good cooks was important for educating my young palate, but the other even more essential lessons were learned from the farm, regarding the importance of seasonal fresh quality ingredients. Every season held a gift of fresh new produce to be picked, prepared, and, most importantly, enjoyed. I vividly remember anticipating certain times of the year for summer tomatoes fresh off the vine, asparagus and morels in the spring, pumpkin and macintosh apples in the fall. There is nothing more flavorful than the simplicity of a farm-fresh egg or a trout taken from an icy creek and placed directly into a sizzling frying pan. Experiencing and appreciating these pure unadulterated tastes and flavors unwittingly helped lay the foundation for my cooking philosophy and successful career.
There is no exception to my love of all things fresh from the farm. These days that means regular visits to my local farmers’ market to buy seasonal items, and purchasing organic and sustainable produce and meats. It’s the best way to get the fresh flavors I remember so well from childhood. Still, when I come across cherries I have mixed feelings of love and dread. I’m sure this came from overexposure, brought out by the fact that I had to spend endless hours picking them in my youth. Fortunately, I’ve long ago learned to appreciate cherries for what they are, and find great satisfaction in cooking with them, as long as I don’t have to pick ’em!
Churning ice cream might have been the extent of my culinary career except for the fact that my father read a feature in the Detroit Free Press about a cooking school called The Culinary Institute of America, based in Hyde Park, New York. I was only eighteen at the time, but from the CIA article, my father developed a plan. His logic was simple: “If you can cook, you can always find a job!” Another ulterior motive might have had something to do with someday owning a family restaurant. Up until this time, he had owned and operated a rock-and-roll dance hall, named the Tanz Haus. Traverse City, Michigan, might seem an unlikely location for such a venue, but he was able to book the big-name talent of the day, drawing from nearby Detroit. His vision might have been to convert the dance venue to a dining room and kitchen with me as the cook. Instead, it functioned for twenty-five years as a dance hall.
Prior to my first days at the CIA, I had never set foot in a commercial kitchen, but by the time I emerged from the CIA four years later, I recognized that I had an innate talent. It was a bit of a fluke that I fell into something I loved. I reflect on it sometimes. I might have been a draftsman, since I had studied drafting for three months. Had it not been for my father’s plan, born out of desperation for fear of unemployment, I might have been just like a musician whose talent never found a stage for lack of piano lessons.
In the years since, at every one of the restaurants at which I’ve been involved, we have paid special attention to the holidays. It has become part of my signature, just as farm-fresh, organic ingredients have been my theme for the last thirty-five years. I’ve paid special attention to holiday meals because they meant a lot to me growing up. In my youth, other than holidays, Sunday afternoon was the only time we, as a family, came together for a meal. All of the other meals of the week were one-pot dishes consumed individually whenever each of us found the time. The food was good, to be sure, but there was no real celebration or intimate sense of family that I love so much.
At the restaurants, I’ve constantly strived to create the feeling of a special family meal. Everyday at work, I imagine that patrons are coming to my home for me to cook for them. I always serve expected and traditional foods, prepared with an exciting and creative touch. At Lark Creek, for example, we offered turkeys with a twist for the holidays: fresh, natural turkeys, grilled outdoors or roasted with interesting spices. Always something new, flavorful, and exciting delivered continuously to the dining room, which patrons appreciated and devoured. Menus were always prix fixe, and engineered so that each course supported and complimented each other. Never heavy, always fresh, and definitely designed to leave room for dessert.
On hearing that I was working on a cookbook about the holidays, a friend pointed out that there were already many resources for holiday recipes, and questioned why anyone should use my recipes versus someone else’s. My reply was that I create amazing American food on a daily basis and that there may be people out there who would like to put a new creative twist on their routine holiday meal. My recipes are tried and true. They are traditional, accessible, and inspiring, and have been lovingly refined and served over a lifetime of real cooking. These recipes are important to me. They are what I like to eat and share. Since they have worked so wonderfully for me in my professional career, I would like to share them with anyone who is interested in my philosophy of cooking. Some of the recipes that appear in this book have been born in restaurants, but all have been tested at my home on equipment found in virtually all homes. I would be honored to reinvigorate someone’s holiday feast and introduce tempting new flavors with my recipes.
Some ingredient lists and procedures you will find here might look long and more ambitious than other recipes. Where that is true, I invite you to persist. This is the way I cook and you won’t be disappointed. Quality ingredients and certain techniques make the difference between a good recipe and a great one. Where practical, I will point out a recipe or portion of a recipe that might be done in advance, and often it will be the better for it, as flavors will get the opportunity to meld and develop.
Inside I am still that little boy who grew up in the Midwest and savors the traditional, down-home flavors of good old American food, and my recipes reflect that. My repertoire has been built on this great country’s food and traditions. I have always strived to improve on the familiar and make it the best it can be. I think you will agree when you prepare these recipes for yourself. Happy holidays, and bon appétit.
Reprinted with permission from Holiday Dinners with Bradley Ogden, © 2011 by Bradley Ogden, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Buy this book from our store: Holiday Dinners with Bradley Ogden.