This year, I had the great fortune of attending ChefsGiving at Pendry San Diego. The pre-Thanksgiving meal, which benefits the San Diego Food Bank, was cooked by 13 of the city’s most renowned chefs, including Brandon Sloan (Provisional), JoJo Ruiz (Lionfish/ Serẽa), Brian Redzikowski (Kettner Exchange), Nino Zizzo (Barbusa), Matt Gordon (Blue Bridge Hospitality), who presented their creative riffs on traditional Thanksgiving dishes.

The experience was eye-opening. Memorable dishes like a black bean tamal with smoked trout roe, nigiri sushi with fish gravy, sautéed chicken livers with kale, and roasted sunchoke casserole with burrata gratin opened my eyes to what Thanksgiving can be, and inspired me to do a few things differently this year.

Pumpkin flan from Azucar? Yes, please.

Don’t sacrifice flavor for nostalgia’s sake

No disrespect to your grandmother (I’m sure her green bean casserole is delicious), but Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t need to look the same year after year. In fact, it probably shouldn’t.

One of the best things about ChefsGiving was the element of surprise. A lot of the usual suspects, like brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin were present, but not in an expected or ordinary form.

The resulting menu was delicious, memorable, and it sparked conversation—isn’t that the ultimate goal of Thanksgiving?

Try a new spud

There’s nothing wrong with a bowl of mashed potatoes, but it’s difficult to get excited about them now that I’ve tasted Jojo Ruiz’s twice-baked Japanese sweet potatoes with lamb belly topped with smoked sour cream and whipped goat cheese with zaatar.

The chef of Serẽa and Lionfish sources his spuds from Specialty Produce, but even if you can’t get your hands on premium potatoes or lamb bacon, you can still switch things up by topping sweet potatoes with regular bacon, a tangy whipped dairy, and a spice blend. The combination of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds and salt in zaatar works particularly well.

Pasta has its place

It’s been several days since ChefsGiving and I can’t get Nino Zizzo’s butternut squash ravioli out of my mind. The tender pillows of sweet, squash-filled pasta were plated with caramelized walnuts and amaretto sage cream sauce.

Don’t be afraid to add a unique pasta to the holiday table, like this easy, cheesy, pumpkin and sage pasta. (You can also try Nino’s ravioli for yourself at Barbusa.)

Pop Pie knows a few things about pie. Image courtesy of Pop Pie Co.

Maybe don’t make turkey?

Ok, hear me out on this one. I know tradition dictates the big bird must be present at Thanksgiving dinner—and the two preparations served at The Pendry’s ChefsGiving celebration were both delicious—but Chef Brian Redzikowski’s pork and turkey sausage gravy with swiss chard and biscuits hit all of the right notes and momentarily made me forget there was still turkey coming.

Skipping turkey in favor of turkey sausage or turkey pot pie might not fly with your in-laws or extended family, but for a more casual dinner, it’s a worthy substitute that can be on the table in way less time than it takes to brine, stuff, roast, and carve a bird.

Leave dessert to the pros

Time is money and there’s only so much of it in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Unless you look forward to making a dessert or two, leave the sweets to the pros and treat yourself to some time off from cooking.

There are pies aplenty available for pre-order from popular spots like Herb & Eatery, Sugar and Scribe, and Pop Pie Co. In Ocean Beach, Azucar has a fairly robust pre-order menu for Thanksgiving with breakfast treats like pumpkin loaf and doughnut muffins, plus s’mores pie and their signature pumpkin flan with pumpkin cake and toasted pepita brittle.

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