Local Chefs Dish: Tips for an Amazing Holiday Meal

Local Chefs Dish: Tips for an Amazing Holiday Meal

“I often brine or smoke the legs, sear the turkey breasts, then finish them in the oven  at a low temperature.”
Lee Chizmar, chef/owner of Bolete

“When my wife and I host, to ease some of the headaches, we batch cocktails,”
Robert van Thiel, beverage director for Molinari’s

“I like surprising people with a juxtaposition of ingredients, giving them what they think is going to be traditional and having it completely spun”
Domenico Lombardo, chef/owner of The Mint

A chef’s secret to a stress-free, delicious holiday meal? Timing.

Domenico Lombardo, chef/owner of The Mint in Bethlehem, doesn’t balk at hosting the extended family for the holidays because on the morning of the actual feast, chances are he’s doing very little cooking.

“People underestimate how far in advance they can prep for a meal,” Lombardo says. The chef, who has nearly three decades of cooking under his belt, says he starts three to four days ahead. “There hasn’t been a holiday I’ve prepared where I haven’t had everything but the turkey ready.”

He works on his casserole sides and stuffing–dishes he knows will be heated to a high temperature again before being served. 

The morning of the feast, he just has to pull them out to get them to room temperature before cooking to their proper internal temperature.

Lee Chizmar, chef/owner of Bolete in Salisbury Township and Mister Lee’s Noodles in the Easton Public Market, agrees that planning is key for a stress-free meal. He gets the prep work like peeling carrots and chopping potatoes out of the way so he’s not spending the whole holiday in the kitchen. 

Even the cocktails can be made well before guests arrive, says Robert van Thiel, beverage director for Molinari’s in Bethlehem.

“When my wife and I host, to ease some of the headaches, we batch cocktails,” van Thiel says.

For the holidays, he often makes a batch of Manhattans – a classic for cooler weather that also works well with rich, heavier dishes.

Break it down

Another time saver? Break down the bird instead of roasting the whole thing. 

Chizmar often brines or smokes the legs, sears the turkey breasts, then finishes them in the oven at a low temperature. He’ll use the bones to make a rich, flavorful stock for gravy. “People say, ‘You’re going to do what?’” when Chizmar says he’s going to break down the bird. “But no one fights me on it after they try it.”

“One of the things that bring families together is sharing food”

Lombardo also finds it’s a good way to play with new flavors, like turning the deboned bird into a turducken. “I like surprising people with a juxtaposition of ingredients, giving them what they think is going to be traditional and having it completely spun,” Lombardo says.

One year he also broke down the bird to serve Dr. Pepper turkey legs, turkey meatballs with a Yuengling caramelized-onion gravy, and dry-roasted turkey breasts with an herbed butter.

Play with flavor but play to the crowd

While van Thiel loves trying new wines, and playing with flavors at his bar, the Northampton Community College mixology instructor knows the holidays aren’t when he wants to do a lot of experimenting. “If half your guests don’t like gin, don’t go with a gin drink. But if you know Uncle Joe only drinks Diet Coke, you have to have it,” van Thiel says. 

Instead strike a balance of catering to the crowd’s tastes, but also introducing new flavors. 

To give a Manhattan something extra, add a few drops of Luxardo Maraschino, an Italian cherry liqueur, or bourbon barrel-aged cherry or orange bitters, van Thiel suggests.

Bring something

No matter who’s doing the cooking, it also never hurts to offer to bring something. Lombardo and Chizmar both say they are definitely not offended when they’re hosting a meal and someone asks what they can bring. 

Chizmar says when he’s hosting, he’s happy for any extra thing he doesn’t have to cook the day of the holiday. “People get nervous I’m going to critique their food,” Chizmar jokes. “I’m just happy to be with everyone and eat.”

On Christmas Eve, Chizmar says certain family members have dishes they’re just known for, and bringing all the dishes together makes for a delicious meal. There are shrimp cocktail and oysters, his Mom’s marinated bay scallops, twice-baked potatoes, creamed onions and mushrooms, greens, stuffed ribeye, and a Crab Imperial that Lee and his dad make every year. “One of the things that bring families together is sharing food,” Chizmar says.

Don’t feel like cooking? Bring a bottle of something. Van Thiel says often a host will plan to serve cocktails or a wine with their meal, but it never hurts to bring a bottle of chilled sparkling wine or a dessert wine to enjoy with dessert. Italian Vin Santos (with notes of caramel and honey and not overly sweet) or French Sauternes (a sweeter pick with notes of honeycomb) are van Thiel’s go-to host or hostess gifts.


Don’t put liquid in the roasting pan for a turkey. Lombardo says it’s the No. 1 mistake as the steam renders all the fat into the bottom of the pan, making for a good gravy, but a very dry turkey.

Go empty-handed. Even professional chefs and mixologists appreciate the offer to contribute to the meal.

Go overboard on too many specialty cocktails. Van Thiel says no more than two cocktails for a crowd of 20 (preferably one with clear liquor and one with brown), in addition to other beverage choices.


Add fat. Lombardo recommends adding bacon or bacon fat to make a moist, flavorful turkey.

Write yourself a cooking timeline. What goes in when? At what temperature? Write it out.

Test the pour spout of your beverage container before adding the cocktail. Avoid clogs in the spout by nixing the chopped fruit.

Get creative with your celebration. Chizmar and wife Erin Shea host an oysters and champagne party for 80-90 family members and friends on Thanksgiving morning. “Everyone really loves it as a great way to start the holiday and take a break from cooking,” Chizmar adds. “For me, it’s one of my favorite times of year because I don’t get out of the kitchen very often.”

Ask for help. “Even I say ‘I’ll do x, y and z. But I could use some help with…,’” Lombardo says.

Batch Cocktails – (Makes 25)

The Manhattan


  • 2 (750mL) bottles of your choice bourbon or rye (such as Woodford Reserve)
  • 1 (750mL) bottle of Rosso vermouth (such as Martini and Rossi Sweet Vermouth)
  • 20ish dashes of bitters (try combining orange and barrel-aged cherry bitters)


Combine all ingredients in a pitcher or vessel with a pour spout. Stir. Add ice to glasses and serve.

Source: Robert van Thiel, Molinari’s 

Buffalo Kale


  • 3 packages of cleaned and cut kale
  • 1 small onion, julienned
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced 
  • 1 1/2 cups of your favorite hot sauce (keep other’s palates in mind!)
  • 1 stick of butter (Salt and pepper to taste but typically not needed due to the hot sauce)


In the biggest pan you have, add the onions, garlic and 1/3 of the butter. Once the onions have softened, add the kale. Do this in batches to make room, and remember–a lot of raw kale equals not a lot of cooked kale. Once all of the kale has been packed in and carefully turned over a few times, dump in the hot sauce and cover with a lid. Keep everything moving on medium heat. Once the kale has wilted and braised, remove from heat. Remove the lid and add the remaining butter in chunks.

Source: Domenico Lombardo, Chef/owner of The Mint

Sweet Potato Gratin


  • 10-12 sweet potatoes, sliced slightly thicker than potato chips
  • 1/2 pound sliced gruyere
  • 1/2 pound sliced Jarlsberg
  • Herbs de Provence
  • 1/2 pound butter melted (just melted, not separated)
  • Allspice 
  • Fresh sage leaves
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2 – 9×13 non stick baking pans
  • Grated cheese, optional


Use part of the melted butter to thoroughly grease one of the 9”x13” pans. Then begin lining the bottom with the thinly sliced sweet potato, adding a layer of sweet potatoes on the bottom and around the sides of the pan. Spread some butter, salt, pepper, a light dusting of herbs, allspice, and scatter a few fresh sage leaves on each layer. Then add another layer of sweet potatoes on the bottom. Layer the cheeses and the potatoes intermittently, ending with another double layer of potatoes on top. Pour remaining butter and another sprinkling of all seasonings. Cover with plastic wrap then aluminum foil and bake at 350°F for 45 minutes. Be sure to put a sheet pan under the pan in the oven to catch the inevitable spillover of deliciousness. After 45 minutes, remove the foil and plastic wrap and return to oven for 20 minutes or until it becomes more colorful. This presents an option to add more cheese, either the same or grated cheese. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Place another layer of plastic wrap and foil over the pan (not tight), then place the second pan on top and weigh it down evenly (I prefer bricks wrapped in foil or large cans of tomatoes or soup, etc. Allow it to sit with the weight for an hour minimum. This compacts everything and makes it look super clean when cut. I prefer it be served warmed through but not piping hot and if need be this can be done ahead of time (days even) and re-warmed to serve. 

Source: Domenico Lombardo, Chef/owner of The Mint

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