Three Montreal chefs describe their ideal holiday tables

“Their tables aren’t necessarily meant to serve as inspiration for your own table (although why not?) but are meant to be an affirmation that holiday traditions, whether traditional or not, are worth celebrating. Or, alternatively: Chefs — they’re just like us!”

Every year, around this time, I set myself the goal of writing on a topic that examines a unique aspect of the holidays. Lord knows there are more than enough recipe listicles and overly opinionated manifestos on “how to cook the perfect turkey”  — I’ll save you the trouble: dry brine the bird and cook the white meat and dark meat separately.

This year, I opted to look at our personal and varied holiday food traditions. The holidays are inextricably linked to tradition. Some are archetypal, religious or cultural traditions and others are just the things we seem to do year after year because they represent small but essential roles in a grand holiday production. For many, this year will be the first time since 2019 that the holidays will be somewhat back to normal. While the last three years have been about making do in the new normal, I can hardly think of a better avatar for the old normal than a holiday dinner. 

The holiday table is unique in that it is very often a product of both abundance and compromise. That is to say that these tables, generally speaking, are set with far too much food and take into account the varied tastes and preferences of each person sitting at it — a rare instance where it’s not one or the other, it’s both. On a personal level, I love hearing about other people’s holiday traditions. More often than not, the descriptions are of the most unpretentious, comforting, guilty-pleasure foods — even if a specific dish in any other setting would be bad, when coloured by the haze of holiday euphoria, it can be incredible.

With that in mind, I spoke to three of my favourite chefs and asked them to describe their ideal holiday table. The parameters were essentially non-existent. Their tables could be set with dishes they cook, favourite dishes from restaurants, something cooked by a relative who’s no longer with us — anything really. Invariably, they chose joyful and humble food — dishes that evoked memories. Their tables aren’t necessarily meant to serve as inspiration for your own table (although why not?) but are meant to be an affirmation that holiday traditions, whether traditional or not, are worth celebrating. Or, alternatively: Chefs — they’re just like us!

Louie Deligianis (Bisto la Franquette)

holiday table Montreal chef Bistro la Franquette louie deligianis
Montreal chefs x the holiday table: Louie Deligianis (Bistro la Franquette). Illustrations by Ariana Sauder

“I’m someone who’s usually more comfortable in other people’s family settings. My mom passed away on Christmas Eve — Christmas was pretty much cancelled after that. So it was kind of perfect when I met (my partner) Renée (Deschenes, co-owner of Franquette). We usually go to her mom’s for Christmas. (Renée’s mom) is a hardcore, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebecer, she’ll usually make tourtière and we’ll help her, which is fun because it helped bring (Christmas) back for me. (Renée’s mom) judges me for how much I eat when she makes it — like, I scare her. She’s like, “Oh my God, you eat for six!” 

“She makes it in a large le Creuset pot — the orange one. She wakes up in the morning before everyone and rolls out the dough, the night before she cuts up all the meat — it’s just beef and pork, potato, onions and salt and pepper. In the morning, she bakes it and I’m pissed that I can’t eat it right away. It comes out five hours later and then sits on the stove. She makes this salad — it’s just cream and chopped green onion on iceberg lettuce — and she’ll put out Heinz ketchup and a homemade ketchup a family friend makes. I always grab the Heinz and someone makes fun of me. 

“The best meal that I’ve ever had with a bunch of my friends around Christmas time is Tripolis. I’ve got to have a big ol’ mess of thick, succulent, grilled lamb chops — some of them are medium, some of them are well-done, some are a little rare — that’s what I want! I just like eating them with my hands, grabbing them by the bone and just gnawing on lamb chops. I’ve also got to have the t-bone. 

“For sides, I need the Greek potatoes and a fat chunk of feta — like, too big of a chunk of feta. I obviously need the classic Village salad — dried oregano, big chunks of tomato and olives with the pits. Taramasalata and Tzatziki with pita will probably come a bit later on, and for dessert — the loukoumades. The grandma just sits by the kitchen and when it’s time for the loukoumades, you just see her get up and she’s fryin’ and they’re just fucking perfect — I’ve never had them any better.

“And that’s it — that’s my Christmas. We play horrible board games and drink too much red wine.”

For more on Bistro la Franquette, please visit the restaurant’s website.

Anita Feng (J’ai Feng)

holiday table Montreal chef Anita Feng J'ai Feng
Montreal chefs x the holiday table: Anita Feng (J’ai Feng)

“For me, any time I think of a celebration or a family gathering, the first thing that comes to mind is always hot pot. When I think about a hot pot meal, the room is full of steam, there’s a very aromatic smell in the air and things are cooking all the time. Generally speaking, when it comes to hot pot, the more things we have on the table, the better. It represents the wealth of the family.

“In my family, especially during Chinese New Year, let’s say, we’ll have a lot of stuff on the table. Like, we’re four (in my family) but probably ten people could be around the table and we’d still have food left over for the next day. 

“Our hot pot has a straight divider and we’ll always have two broths. Usually, my dad will go with a Cantonese type of hot pot — basically, it’s just chicken broth with some goji berries and some Chinese dates. This is more for my mom and dad who eat less pungent and spicy flavours. The other side is more for my sister and me — we’ll have the spicy Sichuanese version: tons of pepper, with beef fat and spices. You really get the Yin Yang effect. There’s an almost clear broth on one side and a very deep-red colour on the other side.

“My mom isn’t a big meat eater so she’ll keep a lot of vegetables for herself on her side. We’ll have watercress, lettuce, cabbage, bok choy, daikon, tons of mushroom — shiitake, king oysters, enoki — that would be all for her. My sister, she’s more of a seafood person so she’ll have all the shrimp, the fish — sometimes, if my dad has some extra bucks, he’ll get us some lobsters for the hot pot. Me and my dad are really the meat eaters, I would say. I love all the sliced meat. We’ll always have a mix of lamb slices, pork slices and beef slices — tons of meatballs and plenty of tofu on the table — I love all the tofu that soaks in the broth. My dad is a big chicken eater, so there’s usually a whole chicken in the middle of the table. He’ll butcher the chicken, there’s the head and the feet, and then he’ll debone the rest of the meat and marinate it with salt, oyster sauce, a little bit of soya, a little sugar and a few chunks of green onion and ginger. (After a few hours), he’ll take the meat out of the marinade and put it in the centre of a plate and place back the head, the wings and the feet. Usually, we’ll also have some tripe and some boudin, which my sister calls ‘red tofu.’  

“My sister and my mom aren’t really alcohol drinkers. My mom will have a sip just to say she drank something and my sister will have a glass to clink but that’s it. Usually, we’ll have some Bajiu, but my dad is a big scotch drinker — that’s what he’ll usually have with the meal. I join him sometimes, or sometimes I’ll bring a bottle of wine. 

“For dessert, my mom will always prepare some kind of sweet soup with red bean but, to be honest, we barely touch it. We eat for a good four to five hours and we eat so much that dessert is the last thing on our minds — usually, we’ll eat it the next day.

“Sometimes when Dad will try and make something else for our holiday and it’s not hot pot, I get really disappointed. Hot pot is what we want! We get to prepare a bunch of things together — it’s playful, it’s very cozy and it’s a good way to spend time with family.

For more on J’ai Feng, please visit the shop’s website.

Danny Smiles (The Willow Inn)

The holiday table by Montreal chef Danny Smiles (Willow Inn)
Montreal chefs x the holiday table: Danny Smiles (Willow Inn)

“There are a lot of kids now. My life changed (after I had kids) and now I see the holidays through a different lens, you know?  I just really love to see what the kids like. We just put up our Christmas tree and they went crazy. We’re all really excited for the holidays.

“My mother-in-law makes these crazy stuffed conchiglie, which are the big shells. She makes two of them: there’s the meat filling, with a lot of minced meat and cheese, and then she does a ricotta and spinach one. When the shells come out, everyone’s happy. My mom makes tortellini alla Gigi. It’s super Italian but not like an authentic dish. For some reason, we always have it at Christmas. It’s tortellini in a rosé sauce with big chunky bits of prosciutto. It’s just delicious! It’s kind of funny that it’s part of our Christmas tradition.  

“For Italian families, the pasta course is essential. So many times, I’ll be like, ‘Ah, let’s do something else,’ but we always need a pasta course. And for me, it has to be those two pastas for Christmas.

“My favourite thing is the bacala, which is salted cod that we cooked in a simple tomato sauce with some olives and big chunks of onion — very rustic. One thing that we haven’t done since my grandma passed away is Zeppoli Calabrese. It’s basically like a savoury fried doughnut with anchovies inside. It’s like having a basket of bread but it’s also like beignets — man, I could eat so many of those. My oldest son’s favourite thing, if you ask him, is shrimp cocktail. We live in Hudson now and we go to Mon Village — that’s our family restaurant — and they have a shrimp cocktail, so I’ll have that on my holiday table, too.

“Growing up, the holidays were always about the grandmas coming together with their recipes. My Egyptian grandma used to make vine leaves. You soak the leaves and then you dry them and then you fill the leaves with meat and rice and roll them and then you bake them in this beautiful consommé. In my family, we have it with this minty cucumber yogurt. 

“The main course would be a leg of lamb — we always have lamb for the holidays. We’ll put some raw potatoes at the bottom of the pan and roast the lamb over it so they cook in the juices. It’s really, really nice. Then we just slice the meat off the bone and serve it with a little lamb stock. That’s my dad’s thing, he loves to make that. 

“For dessert, my aunt used to make this crazy dessert — it was nuts. It’s made with phyllo dough and it’s basically like a Nutella millefeuille, but in cake form — I love it so much. She also used to just cut up a bunch of fruits in a bowl and then pour jello mix over top and then when it set, she’d put sliced almonds on top. I’m a huge jello fan, I don’t know what it is — I love it! 

“I have to have crispelle, too. My grandma would take all the scraps from her pasta all’uovo, shape them into little ribbons, fry them until they’re crispy and cover them with powdered sugar. That comes out when you’re having the limoncello and grappa. That’s very Christmas-y for us.” ■

For more on the restaurant at Willow Inn, please visit the auberge’s website.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.