While the rest of us are doing battle with turkey and ham, arguing over sprouts and having the annual discussion about whether or not bread sauce is an essential component of the festive meal (it is), what are Ireland’s top chefs going to be eating on the Big Day? Oysters and prime rib? Truffles and foie gras? Or are they just like the rest of us, tucking into the traditional meal followed by a big dirty trifle?
JESS MURPHY – KAI, (Bib Gourmand)
Every Christmas is the same – I’m married to a man from Carlow [Dave Murphy, co-owner of Kai], so it has to be turkey and ham, done the traditional way or, in the case of the ham, the Nigella way, in Coca Cola. Yes, I’m basic, basic. Last year, I tried to up my game by boning out the turkey and stuffing it with some truffle butter, but it just wasn’t the same.
We get our chicken from the Friendly Farmer all year round and, at Christmas, he gives us a turkey as a gift. Of course, it’s the biggest one there is, 17lbs, and there are just the two of us at home, although we might have a few stragglers, but we have a lot of elderly neighbours and we drop bits and pieces into them.
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I hate turkey curry, so it’s good we have people to give it away to. We always have three types of spuds: mash, roasties and croquettes. Dave calls me the doomsday prepper because I buy so much stuff. I’m not used to cooking for two.
We start the day watching Home Alone in pyjamas, drinking champagne and then Dave does the Christmas swim for Cope Galway. Then it’s on with the elasticated jeggings for dinner followed by lots of crap box sets. When we get hungry again we have dessert, which is trifle. I like the idea of making trifle mainly because I like going into Sheridan’s wine bar and having a few glasses of wine while I buy the bottle of sherry to go in the trifle. Now, though, I can let people in the west of Ireland in on a secret – Café Rua in Castlebar does an amazing sherry trifle that you can order and collect on Christmas Eve, and there’s an apple and calvados version too. It’s the best trifle in the world.
The perfect cheeseboard has three cheeses, and they all have to be ones that melt well so there’s no waste and we can have a deluxe three-cheese panini type thing while playing Cards Against Humanity. This year, we are closing for seven days and getting a proper break. I never go home to New Zealand for Christmas because it’s 36 hours away, but I make all the lads and girls in the kitchen go home if it’s only a couple of hours away. It’s important they see their families.
KEELAN HIGGS – VARIETY JONES (Michelin Star)
I always cook on Christmas Day. I took over from my dad about 10 years ago. There are usually eight or 10 of us. I cook the same thing every year and I love it because it’s just one day a year. I get a good organic bronze turkey and make a glazed ham. We always have braised celery, it’s a family thing – my granny did it and my great granny before her.
There’s bread sauce and cranberry sauce too. I do the sprouts with smoked bacon in a garlic, shallot and truffle dressing with white wine vinegar, using a jar of truffle paste if I can find one knocking around the restaurant kitchen. You just lightly cook the sprouts in boiling water for a minute and finish the dish off with a squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper. I prep most of the meal in advance in the restaurant, but on the day, the lack of oven space is a bit of a logistical nightmare and there’s not enough room for roasties, so it’s mash or boiled baby potatoes.
I love Christmas pudding – just flamed in brandy with cream on the side. Last year, I made a treacle tart too. We don’t bother with a starter, otherwise it ends up feeling like a restaurant service for me. We have champagne with breakfast – either a fry or smoked salmon and brown bread – and a few snacks during the afternoon. The family feed me cocktails while I finish off the meal and it all comes together at the last minute. Food for me is all about bringing people together around a table and that’s the thing that I like most about Christmas.
GAZ SMITH – MICHAEL’S AND LITTLE MIKE’S
Each year, I give everyone the same advice: does anyone need 18 different dishes on the table? No, they’d prefer five or six things and a happy host. But I’m a complete hypocrite and every year I fall into the same trap. On December 21, I say I’m not going to do one of those end-of-days shops and every year I’m the idiot pushing a trolley out of Nolan’s in Clontarf having dropped €400. We always get through it though.
Usually, I slip away from the restaurant at around seven or eight on Christmas Eve. We never have turkey; instead I cook two joints selected for their sandwich-making potential and for giving good fat to cook the roast potatoes. This year, it’s going to be a Thornhill duck and a shoulder of lamb. The shoulder can go into the oven the night before to get really crisp. On Christmas Eve, I do braised cured pork belly instead of ham – it cooks faster, there’s nice fat content and a larger flat surface to glaze. We don’t have a starter, we’re nibbling all day on cheese and pork belly.
Ignoring my own advice, I do three starches – mash, roasties and Yorkshire puddings. It’s not unheard of to have a potato gratin knocking around as well. My guilty secret is Paxo sage and onion stuffing. If you bulk it out with butter and cook it with pigs in blankets, the balls get nice and crisp. We have a buttery carrot and turnip mash and cauliflower gratin; I have a blanket ban on sprouts.
I never make dessert – who has the time? We buy in something from somewhere good or if we are having guests, then I beg one of them to make a trifle. Our food isn’t anything fancy, it’s more about creating the feeling. I’d ask people please not to text chefs on Christmas morning asking for advice on how to cook the turkey. There are people I only ever hear from on December 25 each year, and it’s the same question every time.
DENIS COTTER – CAFÉ PARADISO, CORK
I’ll be cooking at home this year and it’ll be very traditional. I’ve created my own traditions over the years. The centrepiece will be a variation on the theme of the cashew squash loaf in my book For The Love Of Food. I keep going back to that as a staple and serve it with a few different sides – roast potatoes, mash, Brussels sprouts with chilli and ginger, braised turnip, parsnips and braised fennel, which has a real Christmassy flavour.
We don’t serve a starter, I think people prefer wandering around, snacking, before the main event. I don’t want to impose formality on that, and for the cook, once you sit down, you want to stay sitting. I’ve made Christmas pudding a couple of times, badly, but now my sister makes one for us using my mother’s recipe.
We’re hardcore, we serve it with Bird’s custard. It’s Christmas Day after all – you don’t want to be putting yourself out too much. It’s been a long time since I went to a ‘turkey’ house for Christmas dinner, but I think that if you do go to someone else’s house, you can’t be imposing your weird food thing on them. Bring something for yourself that works with the sides that your host is serving and don’t make a fuss.
GRAINNE O’KEEFFE – CLANBRASSIL HOUSE (Bib Gourmand)
I took over our family Christmas dinner about 10 years ago, I’m 28 now. We start with hot smoked trout, which I cook the way that we do in Clanbrassil House – my sister and brother have been obsessed with it ever since they came in and tried it.
At first, I used to change around the main course every year – duck one year, goose the next, then chicken, then turkey – but since my nephew was born two years ago, it’s turkey every year because it’s more traditional. We have dinner in my sister’s house. Last year, I boned out a turkey leg and stuffed and rolled it, porchetta style. There are lots of ligaments that have to be removed, so it takes a bit of time – you can ask your butcher to do it for you, but it will cost a little more.
I prefer leg to breast because it has better flavour and is less dry. We have three types of potatoes – mashed, roast and dauphinoise – plus sprouts and gravy. The ham is collar of bacon that I brine, simmer and then glaze with sugar, honey and mustard, and roast in the oven. We don’t have Christmas pudding, but my sister makes a basic trifle with jelly, custard and cream, but no sherry because of my nephew.
I love cooking at Christmas because I very rarely get the chance to cook for my family unless they come in to the restaurant – it’s one day that I can spend time doing it.
BARRY SUN JIAN – VOLPE NERA (RAI Chef of the Year 2018 at Etto, recently opened own restaurant in Blackrock)
I grew up in China, where we didn’t celebrate Christmas, so I haven’t got the same Christmas traditions that most people in this country would have. However, we always use it as an excuse to get together and celebrate with friends, and for many years now, we have hosted this celebration in our house. We have about 15 people – friends and family – for a big meal on Christmas Day, for which I do all the cooking.
We have two young children, so on Christmas morning, there is so much excitement with the opening of presents that we don’t really have a good breakfast, so as you can imagine, everyone is very hungry by the time food is served.
I don’t do starters, main course, dessert – I put lots of dishes on the table and let everyone help themselves. A lot of what I cook on Christmas Day is dictated by my family and the food that they love to eat. I do a Côte de Boeuf every year as it’s always a huge hit, in particular with my six-year-old daughter, Emma, who would eat it all to herself if allowed.
I cook plenty of sides with it, vegetables and potatoes. I definitely take a more relaxed approach at home than in the restaurant, and there’ll always be some nicely lumpy mashed potato on the table. My wife, JoJo, demands that I do her favourite – a pumpkin risotto – I don’t have a choice in the matter. My son Ian, who is three years old, is a big fan of fish and seafood, so there will have to be some prawns and a fillet of fish or two for him. We don’t really have desserts, but I do put a selection of cheeses on the table and everyone helps themselves.
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