Toronto Thanksgiving 2020

How Chef John Horne is approaching Thanksgiving a little differently this year

By John Horne, Photos by Pauline Yu

When the pandemic first hit Toronto in mid-March, I never could have imagined the devastating impact it was going to have on the restaurant industry. Acting quickly, our executive team at Oliver & Bonacini made the tough but necessary decision to temporarily close all of our restaurants across the country. In my role as District Executive Chef, I oversee the culinary visions at Canoe, Auberge du Pommier, Jump, Biff’s Bistro, Liberty Commons and Maison Selby. Each of those restaurants’ teams are like family to me, so it was heartbreaking to have to shut down — even though it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.

Now, roughly six months later, I’m so proud of the challenges our community has overcome in order to flatten the curve and find a new path forward. As we begin to hunker down for the fall and plan our family’s first Thanksgiving amid COVID-19, I’m approaching everything with a newfound sense of perspective and gratitude. Here are the top three things I’m thankful for — and the roles they play in nourishing our emotional, mental and physical well-being in the kitchen.


#1 – All Things ​Local

One silver lining of this pandemic is that it’s brought our community closer together, with renewed sense of duty to support our local businesses. I love working directly with Tamarack Farms and 100km Foods, as well as my own family’s farm, to source my produce, but there are many amazing local suppliers that I would recommend shopping at this Thanksgiving, including:

Cumbrae’s: Working exclusively with small, family-run farms in Ontario and Quebec, they ensure all animals are raised in healthy and humane conditions. Their turkeys are Big Whites from Wellington County, while their pigs are Yorkshire Durocs and Heritage Berkshires.

Cheese Boutique: I’ve known Afrim for ages…back when we both still had hair. His shop’s selection of imported cheeses, as well as pantry staples and specialty items, is second-to-none. Plus, they’ll deliver right to your door.

Forbes Wild Foods: Canoe has been working with Jonathan Forbes for years, sourcing everything from spruce tips to juniper berries to chanterelle mushrooms. If you’re looking to incorporate some wild or foraged ingredients into your Thanksgiving feast, Forbes is your best source. 

Blood Brothers Brewing: Located on Geary Avenue, it doesn’t get much cooler than Blood Brothers. Their Shumei IPA is super juicy, with notes of grapefruit, orange zest and fragrant pine. Any of their pale ales would be great for basting your turkey with, just make sure to sneak in a few sips for yourself.

Hinterland Wine Company: Based in Prince Edward County, these guys focus exclusively on sparkling wine and cider. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than with a bottle or two of bubbles?

Despite Thanksgiving traditionally being all about overindulging, I am trying to promote a sense of “quality over quantity” this year. Plus, I always find food and drinks taste so much better when you know where they came from and understand the story behind them.


#2 – Veggies Galore

Even though turkey or ham are the stars of Thanksgiving, I have a big spot in my heart for all of the beautiful seasonal produce that Ontario has to offer. We’re so lucky to have such a bounty of ingredients growing right in our backyard, so let’s not take that for granted! Here are a few tips for stress-free veggie sides that may end up stealing the spotlight:


Roasted Butternut Squash, Cauliflower & Heirloom Carrots: There’s nothing better than an oven full of sweet butternut squash, crispy browned cauliflower, and crunchy yet tender carrots. Top your veg with a smattering of fresh herbs like thyme and shiso, pickled pearl onions (now is a good time to use up all the pickles you’ve been hoarding!), and garlic chips for extra texture and crunch. Top it all off with a drizzle of spicy Hungarian paprika mayo, or Sriracha mayo, for a little kick of heat. 


Super Creamy Mashed Potatoes: Start by dicing your peeled potatoes (I recommend Yukon Golds) into large cubes, and bring them to a boil. Gently heat your milk, cream and unsalted butter in a saucepan. Once boiled and drained, let the potatoes dry (without letting them cool!) before passing them through a ricer into a large bowl. Gradually add your warm butter and milk mixture and stir vigorously until silky smooth. And while you should feel free to goose up your taters with chives or grated cheddar, I prefer serving mashed potatoes on their own, simply garnished with a few sprigs of savory — my favourite fall herb.


Wild Cranberry Sauce: For a super aromatic cranberry sauce, combine red wine (I use Biff’s Juicy Red for its fruit-forward notes) with sugar (or, if you’re like my mom, maple syrup) and fall spices like cinnamon, cloves, star anise and allspice, and reduce to a syrup. Add your wild cranberries and toss thoroughly until heated through and the flavours are well-incorporated. Whether you’re sourcing from a forager or picking your own, wild cranberries are going to pack more of a punch in a smaller bite than farmed cranberries, yielding an extra tart and almost cherry-like flavour.

And let’s not forget about other fall favourites like beets, Brussels sprouts, parsnips or rutabaga. There’s no shortage of opportunities to spruce up your side game and bring your Thanksgiving feast to the next level. Your vegetarian family and friends will thank you!


#3 – Cooking With My Kids

Now that my kids — Kaitlyn, 7, and Mason, 4 — are a bit older, I’ve been trying to involve them more in the kitchen. From simple prep tasks like washing, peeling and chopping vegetables, to setting the table and helping to clear dishes, I think it’s important to get your kids involved in these types of tasks from a young age. They learn responsibility, practical life skills, and, let’s face it, parents will enjoy the down time while the little ones are occupied with the task at hand.

During lockdown this spring, my kids put on their mini sous chef hats and helped me make a ton of soups for our extended family, other families in need, and first responders and front-line workers. I also took the opportunity to start teaching them how to roll out pasta dough, and make different sauces using the fresh herbs from our garden. They loved having the freedom to create their own sauce recipes — they felt like wizards concocting their very own potions!

Since Thanksgiving should be about spending quality time together in the kitchen, this should be a great learning opportunity for your kids, and a way to take some of the stress off of moms and dads. You can start them off slow with fun and easy jobs like washing veggies, and build them up to learning knife skills. I taught both of my kids how to chop with plastic knives, and now they’ve graduated to real knives. That said, I won’t be letting them slice up a butternut squash anytime soon.


John Horne is District Executive Chef of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants. He is well-regarded for incorporating his passion for refined flavours, seasonal ingredients and explosive presentation with his love of Canadian cuisine.


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