By Seth Daniel
Popular writer and former restaurateur Gordon Hamersley made a name for himself cooking in the South End, often also appearing with early culinary celebrities like Lydia Shire and Julia Child, and always with a Red Sox cap on and a wonderful recipe for chicken.
This week, however, he talked turkey.
In his first talk since he and his wife, Fiona, closed their destination eatery Hamersley’s Bistro on Tremont Street in the South End two years ago, Hamersley was to appear at the South End Library to talk about the Thanksgiving meal and closing his treasured restaurant after 27 years – as well as a host of other topics as part of the Library’s South End Writers’ Series. The talk will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Library.
Prior to the talk, the Sun interviewed Hamersley about what he’s been up to over the past two years and what we can all do to have a successful Thanksgiving meal.
“The classic struggle for turkey is the thing is a beast,” he said, still as lighthearted as ever. “It’s got a huge big breast and legs that don’t cook at the same rate of time. When the breast is done and you need to get it out, the legs are still half an hour away. So then you start to sweat it out because you don’t want someone to get raw turkey or you don’t want a dry, tough turkey. So, you keep it in for a while longer and it’s a disaster and the guests say, ‘Pass the gravy’ and ‘Get me a glass of water.’”
Hamersley advised that what he does and what many chefs have done for centuries is to cut the turkey apart to cook it.
“The trick is I separate the legs and breast and cook it at different times,” he said. “Does it work out for the classic American presentation of turkey on the table? Not so much. To me, it’s much better to have that than the presentation. If it doesn’t taste good, it’s not worth it and no one at my table has complained yet…Unfortunately, we’re hamstrung by the artistry of Norman Rockwell.”
Another must-do, he said, is to brine the turkey – which is basically immersing it in salt water for several hours.
And finally, he said some chefs who don’t want to chop up the bird beforehand will use cheese cloth soaked in butter to keep the breast tender and protected while continuing to cook those tricky legs.
“The cheese cloth protects it and it slowly transfers the butter to the breast and saturates it with better, which can’t be a bad thing, while you wait for the legs to cook,” he said.
This year, Hamersley said he is making the gravy for his family dinner, and also plans to bring a stuffing containing game birds like pheasant and woodcock that he has been saving. Another adventurous side dish, he said, is a puree of celery root, which he makes more interesting by adding Bosc Pears.
“I add the grated pears at the very last and it’s good and naturally sweet,” he added.
Topping off the Hamersley table this year will be an apple pie with cranberries added to the mix.
“I’m traditional in respect to liking apple pie, but I like adding cranberries,” he said. “You have to be careful because cranberries exude a lot of liquid and they’re tart…Once you get the proper ratios, it’s a great combo.”
A final piece of Thanksgiving wisdom is to experiment with new things before Thanksgiving morning. He said to treat Thanksgiving meal like a chef might approach a new menu item, practicing it before the big day so that there isn’t a 50-50 shot that the exciting new side dish might become a profound failure.
“People have the idea that if they just follow the recipe, it will work out great – that they’ll have 20 relatives over and see how they all like it,” he said. “My suggestion is practice, practice, practice.”
And that’s just what Hamersley has been doing since he left his popular South End kitchen, except without all the pressure of owning a popular restaurant. He said he spends a lot of time practicing new recipes in his kitchen at home, calling on his old chef friends to help him out on occasion.
After being dissatisfied with his pie crust recently, a quick call to Joanne Chang of Myers + Chang in the South End eventually resulted in an improved final result for his pies.
Beyond that, he writes a column for the Boston Globe sharing recipes and culinary thoughts and tips. That’s something he has really enjoyed since his “retirement,” which he said might not be the best word for his current stage in life.
He has also concentrated on spending his time in the out-of-doors, having always been an avid hunter and fly fisherman. Beyond perfecting his “fly ties,” he also serves as an advisor for the non-profit youth cooking program Future Chefs – which is based in the South End.
Beyond that, the pressure of having to prepare his restaurant for the night rush has been lifted, and he said he has the freedom to wander.
“I can follow my nose, which is something I didn’t have time for,” he said. “You have to be cutting fish at 3 p.m. on Thursday or you won’t survive 8 p.m. on Thursday night.”