Austin Chefs Share Their Holiday Traditions

Try something completely different this year

Freda's (Photo by John Anderson)

Christmas and Chanukah are right around the corner, and once we've crossed that tinsel-frosted New Year's Eve finish line, we'll have survived yet another holiday season. By now, you've likely been regaled with familiar carols, showered with sugar-laden treats, and faced with a couple of stressful retail situations. But it's not the only way to celebrate the season. If you are feeling burnt out on all the commercialized cheer, read on to see how seven Austin chefs and restaurateurs are sharing their culture and family traditions with our city. You may just feel inspired to try something completely different this year.

Sonya Coté, Eden East

This past weekend, Sonya Coté threw a winter solstice party at Springdale Farm – the Eastside property where she operates her restaurant Eden East – creating dishes using the seasonal harvest plus vegetables and botanicals foraged on-site.

"I like to celebrate the Earth and not necessarily a creator or a commercial holiday," says Coté, who comes from generations of Italian Catholics but grew up with a mother who started studying Transcendental MeditationTM in the Seventies. "Instead of the traditional Christmas, we would celebrate many holidays on campus at the Maharishi International University .... We would hang cookies from the trees as gifts to the woodland creatures, light bonfires, and dance around as little wild children under the stars."

Though those celebrations were strictly vegetarian (grilled veggies and tofu on a stick were the bread and butter of the meal), Coté's recent dinner combined her love of Texas cuisine with the celebration of the rebirth of the sun. A roasted pig was the centerpiece of the meal, which also featured grilled veggies, quail on a stick, and caramel apples – plus Argus cider and hot cocoa spiked with Fernet BrancaMenta.

"Celebration is important," says Coté. "It brings people together to pay homage to our days' work and play. We share traditions and good food. We get stronger together."

Jacob Hilbert, The Hollow

Shortly after the election, Jacob Hilbert arrived at his Georgetown kitchen to find a swastika etched into the back door. In an eloquently penned open letter to the perpetrator, Hilbert wrote, "I thought of my great-grandmother's hands breaking challah, rolling egg noodles with a broomstick, engaged in the traditions of life and breath .... All of the tattooed arms of relatives were reaching out of the Earth knocking at the back door of my kitchen. And it was not hate that was knocking. It was not pain or resentment. It was love."

Hilbert reacted in the best way he could – by cooking. He began re-creating the Yiddish foods he'd grown up eating: mandelbrodt, kreplach, gefilte fish, spaetzle, hamantaschen, and b'sirra. "It was, in a quiet way, our answer to the question posed by the symbol on our door," he says.

“Where the world has failed politically, the dinner table has unified two cultures that have seemed to be at odds in perpetuity.” – Jacob Hilbert, the Hollow

He promptly added these dishes to the Hollow's menu and, as Chanukah approaches, he has been realizing new variations informed by his own memories as well as the global tradition of Jewish cuisine. "We are Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Spanish, Germanic, African, and all brethren culturally and at the dinner table," says Hilbert.

One such example is an aromatic lamb tagine simmered with butterkin squash and matzo balls made from couscous. The clay tagine and couscous represent Morocco, a largely Arabic country which has historically been home to a large Sephardic Jew population.

"Where the world has failed politically, the dinner table has unified two cultures that have seemed to be at odds in perpetuity," says Hilbert.

Other current offerings available this holiday season include coq au champagne with caramelized onion latkes, almond crusted pork basteeya with mother sauce, and falafel with tartar, lardo, smoked mushrooms, and watercress.

Freda Cheng, Freda's

Restaurateur Freda Cheng grew up in Taipei before moving to Austin, where she ran a Chinese restaurant in Georgetown. During this time, travels to New Orleans with her late husband introduced her to Cajun culture and cuisine, and she fell in love with the bold flavors and traditions.

"There's a lot of great memories there," says Cheng, who decided to close Orient Square 14 years ago and open a Cajun restaurant called Freda's Seafood Grille in North Aus­tin. Cheng traveled all over the country, researching Creole- and Cajun-influenced restaurants. "I was afraid that people would find out that I'm Chinese and wouldn't take me seriously," says Cheng. "You get to a certain age though, and you stop caring what people think. You just want to work hard and create experiences that make you happy .... There's a white guy doing some of the best sushi in Austin, so why can't a middle-aged Chinese lady do Cajun?"

Cheng recently partnered with Tim Lane, who worked at WD-50 under Wylie Dufresne and at Michelin-starred Glass Hostaria in Rome before accepting the position of executive chef at Burn Pizza + Bar. However, Lane's first love was Cajun cuisine – and he's acting as Freda's guest chef before his own hot sauce company launches next year.

On Dec. 24, Freda's will celebrate with a prix fixe Cajun Réveillon (French for "awakening") dinner. In New Orleans, it is tradition to fast on Christmas Eve, then begin a feast after midnight mass that is to last until dawn.

"Leave it to New Orleans to jazz up Christ­mas Eve into something even more festive and decadent," says Lane. "It's a city filled with so much vitality, exuberance, and a knack for throwing a hell of a party. That's probably why turducken was created in Louisiana and served on Christmas with various stuffings. What could be more ridiculous?"

In addition to Cajun turducken, guests will enjoy cornbread and oyster sausage stuffing, sweet and sour cranberry jam, holiday gumbo, bread pudding, and more – plus wine pairings and live jazz.

Julio-Cesar Flórez, Isla

After recently joining the team at Isla and consulting on the new Peruvian menu, chef de cuisine Julio-Cesar Flórez has been running holiday specials inspired by his childhood in Peru, where Christmas Eve is the main event, filled with fireworks, carols, and plenty of food.

"The whole family – mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma, and grandpa – gathers at someone's house and we have a large feast," says Flórez. "We do a countdown New Year's Eve style and when the clock hits 12am, we yell 'Feliz Navidad!!' and everyone hugs and kisses each other. The kids open the mountain of presents that surround the Christmas tree. It is so much fun."

In Peru, typical Christmas dishes include turkey and pork roasted with garlic and spices, tamales, humitas (savory steamed corn cakes), causa limeña (a cold layered potato dish), arroz árabe (a sweet rice dish prepared with Coca-Cola, raisins, and fideo) and mashed sweet potatoes with pecans, accompanied by plenty of pisco. For dessert, slices of panettone loaves are enjoyed with chicha morada (a sweet purple corn drink) and hot chocolate from Cuzco.

On Christmas morning, leftover turkey is used to make a stock with ají amarillo (a yellow pepper) and cilantro purée. The meat is cut into cubes and added, along with potatoes, carrots, peas, and cooked rice. "We call that dish aguadito, which literally means 'runny,' because the dish looks like soupy rice," describes Flórez. "But it is so good and so comforting."

Fiore Tedesco, L'oca d'oro

For the past six years, Fiore Tedesco has hosted Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrations with friends and family here in Austin – and this year he will share the epic Christmas Eve dinner for the first time with guests at L'oca d'oro, the restaurant where he is executive chef and co-owner. For Tedesco, the meals are the continuation of the traditions Tedesco grew up experiencing with his large Italian family in upstate New York. "My brothers and I knew that we would all get to open one present at midnight, which was exciting, but we also knew that we would be eating my grandmother's spaghetti and clams until heart's content, which was even more special," he says.

His immediate family gathered with aunts, uncles, and cousins – 20-30 family members total – at his grandmother's house each year, where she would single-handedly cook all seven seafood dishes. "My grandmother would occasionally allow a few of her daughters-in-law to clean shrimp, but that was about it," remembers Tedesco. "Otherwise, she did everything – I don't know how she did it. She was magical."

The chef will be re-creating her famous spaghetti and clams, embellished with garlic breadcrumbs and parsley, and six other seafood dishes, including eel caponata, fried bay shrimp with colatura aïoli and his favorite, brandade of baccalà with pickled onions and garlic toast. Except, instead of using the traditional cod, Tedesco will use eastern Gulf mullet, which is a much more sustainable option.

Iliana de La Vega, El Naranjo

Though tamales are commonly associated with celebrating Christmas in Mexico, that tradition comes from the north part of the country. In Oaxaca, where chef Iliana de la Vega is from, families traditionally dine on turkey, salt cod, and pork shoulder or loin cooked with adobo or achiote. But de la Vega says she and her husband and daughters also create their own traditions here in Austin.

"Every year, we choose a type of food that we find fun and delicious from anywhere in the world and we cook, and enjoy the company of each other," she says.

Growing up in Oaxaca, de la Vega was witness to a number of unique Mexican celebrations, such as Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes), where large hand-carved radishes are displayed in the public square, or zócalo. Dec. 24 is the last Posada, whereby processions gather around Nativity scenes. Festivities carry on through Epiphany on Jan. 6, when the chef's family celebrated with a sweet ring-shaped bread called rosca de reyes and romeritos, a dish made with a wild green called seepweed, then served in mole with dried shrimp, dried shrimp patties, potatoes, and nopales.

"There is a traditional drink that brings all the memories of the season, called ponche," says de la Vega, who makes hers with hibiscus, canela (Mexican cinnamon), guavas, sugar cane, prunes, raisins, tejocotes, apples, and cognac. Both the ponche and the rosca de reyes bread will be featured at de la Vega's restaurant El Naranjo throughout the holiday season.

As for the romeritos? You'll need to go to Mexico to enjoy that dish, since the essential seepweed isn't available in the U.S.

Vladimir Gribkov & Varda Salkey, Russian House

When they opened Russian House four years ago, husband-and-wife team Vladimir Gribkov and Varda Salkey decided they wanted to give each guest a true taste of Russia. They do that not only with a menu of classics, but with constant events, classes, and parties in the lofty Downtown space ... and there's plenty going on during the holiday season.

"Christmas and New Year traditions mixed during the Soviet times when religion and religious holidays were not popular," explains general manager Roman Butvin. "Russians love New Year. It's probably the biggest celebration of the year and the whole country is off for the first week of the year."

On Dec. 31, Russian House will celebrate the new year with visits from Ded Moroz (Father Frost) and Snegurochka, his snow maiden daughter. They'll serve traditional winter salads like Olivier (Russian potato salad) and Herring Under Fur Coat (which is made with salted herring covered by boiled vegetables and mayonnaise), plus caviar, champagne, and chilled vodka. For Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, the restaurant will feature a buffet filled with dishes like pork stroganoff, fresh blinis, shashlik (skewered meat), borsch, and more. There will be live gusli music (played on a traditional Russian string instrument), Slavic Christmas carols, and fortune-telling.

Since it is the only Russian restaurant in town, Butvin says these events tend to attract plenty of people from Russia and Eastern Europe plus those who are just interested in the culture and food.

"Russian House is proud to represent Russian culture here in Austin," he says.

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Sonya Cote, Fiore Tedesco, Julio-Cesar Florez, Jacob Hilbert, Iliana de la Vega, Vladimir Gribkov, Varda Salkey, Freda Cheng

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