Thanksgiving equals plenty. And nowhere is the visual fact of plenty so immediately, mouthwateringly established as the buffet. Match made in heaven, right? Wrong. Alas for lovers of steam-tray abundance, everything that makes the buffet appealing to diners—buck-bangishness, the sweet promise of never-ending food—lands it on a lower rung in American professional culinary esteem, and, thus, effort.
But then there’s Kai Lermen, Executive Chef of The Peninsula Chicago. Lermen hosts a handful of yearly buffets, including a grand Thanksgiving dinner, that upend lackluster stereotypes with an elegant setting, à la minute preparation, and serious attention to detail. “We make it more glamorous,” says Lermen, who’s been overseeing the Peninsula’s holiday buffets for four years (Thanksgiving always sells out). If home cooks and even some professionals tremble at the thought of answering to deluded, potentially intoxicated holiday expectations, imagine trying to achieve “glamour” with a Thanksgiving of this size—three or four seatings, around 650 diners total.
Setting, Time, and Talent
One key difference at the Peninsula: setting. “When some hotels do large brunch [buffets] like I used to do in the old days, we used to just put [diners] in the ballroom,” says Lermen. “But it just doesn’t give you that upscale restaurant flare.” Instead, he seats guests in The Lobby restaurant, with enough open space to accommodate volume, but a distinctly rich, elegant aesthetic, something to recall the warmth, if not the psychological claustrophobia, of the family holiday. It works, says Lermen. “That’s why a lot of our guests come.”
Another difference: timing. The first seating at 10:30am, presumably for those who want to get home in time for some post-gorging football, revolves around breakfast—“about 10 to 15 percent of the whole buffet.” But later seatings gravitate toward savory—and this is where Lermen finds strength in numbers. “Usually when you do a buffet it’s either the banquet department executing or the premier restaurant kitchen,” says Lermen. “One thing we do is involve everybody”—about two-thirds of the total hotel cooking staff. “Everybody has a station, [all the] different restaurants in the hotel, we involve them. They do their specialties, plus some other items that we give them.”
Having such a massive workforce on hand not only means fresher cooks and food—“we cook everything we can to order”—it means greater variety. It’s why you’re able to strut into the Peninsula on Thanksgiving morning and head to a charcuterie corner luxuriously weighted down with locally made charcuterie, house-made duck terrine, pâté de campagne, and foie gras torchon. It’s why you’ll find yourself enjoying some of the best alternative Thanksgiving Cantonese food in Chicago from Shanghai Terrace, complete with eight to 10 varieties of dim sum, five spice duck, and a Pecking duck carving station, which our traditional cornucopia sorely lacks.
They Come for Plenty
Of course that very cornucopia is where many a diner’s heart lies on Thanksgiving, which is why Lermen and the team at The Peninsula offer a stacked Thanksgiving feast, anchored on a gaggle of about 40 brined, roasted turkeys—half of which are organic and raised locally at Gunthorp Farm—and peppered with other mains like whole roasted monkfish en salve, roasted veal crown, and the immortal tri-poultrite Turducken. And the sides, the Thanksgiving sine qua non, embrace sentiment and seasonality, with homey dishes like root vegetables, glazed carrots, and green bean casserole given a fine-dining makeover. Carrots are sautéed and glazed in front of diners, root vegetables are exalted with fragrant truffles, and the green beans prepared fresh, without recourse to cans or French’s.
Rounding out the feast—and belly—is “an extremely large dessert buffet,” something that might induce shame if it wasn’t so indomitably splendid. Among the “45 to 50” different items on it are verrines, petites gateaus, fall staples like pumpkin bread, and, of course, a variety of pies: apple, pumpkin, pecan, Boston cream, etc. There’s even a corner “Candy Shop,” with house-made chocolates, candy, caramels, marshmallows, meringues, and candied nuts all displayed in glass jars. It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, minus deadly chocolate river and obscure moralizing.
Lermen couldn’t keep this all going without his staff—the dedicated two dozen-plus cooking pros who work the holiday, keeping diners happy in a kind of hybrid restaurant/buffet wonderland. For those intrepid souls there’s an ongoing parallel Thanksgiving dinner in the Peninsula’s cafeteria, where cooks and sous chefs can take a break from their long shifts and be thankful for a few minutes’ rest, and possibly even a much-deserved pie break.