Celeb chefs share their plans, tips and recipes for an unconventional Thanksgiving

Curtis Stone, Molly Yeh, Aarón Sánchez, Nina Compton and more celebrity chefs share what they're doing for the holiday this year.
Need a little Thanksgiving inspiration? These chefs have got you covered.
Need a little Thanksgiving inspiration? These chefs have got you covered.TODAY Illustration / Chantell Lauren / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

During a normal year (you know, not one that involves a global pandemic, virtual everything and a presidential election), holidays like Thanksgiving can be stressful.

Folks have to plan and execute the menu, settle on traditions and accommodate immediate, extended and chosen family. It's an incredibly hectic time, albeit one that (once you're at the table) can be filled with love and gratitude. But Thanksgiving 2020 is going to be different — and with the CDC recommending more intimate gatherings and the avoidance of travel, many are still unsure about their plans.

For some much-needed inspiration and help for this year's festivities, TODAY Food enlisted the help of some of our favorite chefs and home cooks. We asked them about their favorite recipes to make, some tips for easy prep work or for celebrating during a pandemic and, of course, their top traditions.

Molly Yeh

Molly Yeh, host of "Girl Meets Farm," is whipping up an outdoor Thanksgiving feast with plenty of blankets for that Minnesota weather.Chantell Lauren

Tips for celebrating this year

The mom, cookbook author and Food Network personality advises bundling up and creating a cozy outdoor dining area outdoors, if you have the space. Yeh got this idea to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the beginning of September and will adjust her plan accordingly for the weather on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, where she lives on a farm with her family.

"Local family comes over, we sit outside distanced and everyone gets a cute tray of food so we don't have to worry about family style cross contamination. And I just really want to use my lunch trays again," Yeh told TODAY. "It will be much colder outside than it was for Rosh Hashanah so I'm going to put out piles of cozy blankets and light a bonfire."

Favorite dish

Yeh loves and cooks all the classics, though she disclosed she always makes extra stuffing. Since leftovers are part of what she loves so much about the holiday, she's partial to a couple casseroles, or as Minnesotans call 'em, hotdishes. Her go-tos are Tater Tot Hotdish and Turkey Wild Rice Hotdish.

Turkey Wild Rice Hotdish

Top traditions

"Sitting in my PJs, watching the parade! And watching my husband, Nick, make pumpkin pie. He lets me take over to crimp the pie crust which is so much fun," Yeh said. "Also second dinner! An A+ Thanksgiving tradition since dinner is always at like 2 p.m (?!)."

Aarón Sánchez

Tips for celebrating this year

The "Chopped" judge and host of Cooking Channel's "Taco Trip" said the best advice he can give is to make as much food as possible the day before, think through timing and make sure there's enough room in the freezer and fridge.

"This year will look a bit different for all of us but I know most of us are still going to celebrate and cook up a storm. So, for my family we generally divide and conquer," Sánchez told TODAY. "My mom always relegates me to sides duty, she does the turkey and other family members do the desserts and extras."

Favorite dish

"For me, one of my favorite sides is a Brussels sprout salad with butternut squash, it’s so warm and festive," Sánchez said.

Top traditions

A Texas native, Sánchez incorporates his Mexican heritage into many of his dishes. When hosting, he always puts out "a little botana" (or appetizer) so that his family and friends can munch while those hard at work in the kitchen can get the feast out. His go-to for this course is a big plate of tostadas.

Curtis Stone

Tips for celebrating this year

The father, chef and restaurateur is following the model of his latest business endeavor, a pop-up restaurant called Picnic Society at a large outdoor mall in Los Angeles.

"It really speaks to how we’re eating now — outside and responsibly, socially distanced. Why not have a picnic for Thanksgiving? It would give you a chance to put that turkey in the smoker or deep fry it like you’ve been wanting to try," Stone told TODAY.

As with any big holiday (in a pandemic or not), Stone's biggest piece of advise to cut down on stress is to do most of the prep work ahead of time. He also urges home cooks to get a digital thermometer to ensure the main dish is cooked to perfection.

Favorite dish

A master of meats, Stone finds it hard to resist the centerpiece of the holiday: turkey. He serves his with a brown-butter gravy.

Roast Turkey with Sage Brown-Butter Gravy

Top traditions

"I was introduced to Thanksgiving when I moved to California from Australia and I just love a holiday that is focused around food," Stone said.

His family whips up the classic dishes like turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, lots of seasonal vegetables and, of course, pies (which are his sons' favorites). They also honor his mother-in-law's Korean heritage by adding kimchi to the spread, which pairs beautifully with mac and cheese.

In addition to the food, Stone enjoys the tradition of sharing what everyone is grateful for during the feast.

"It's been a challenging year to say the least and there are many reasons to speak up about when we go around the table this year," he said.

Andrew Zimmern

Chef Andrew Zimmern is all about the soups when it comes to celebrating holidays with family.Andrew Zimmern

Tips for celebrating this year

For Thanksgiving, Zimmern typically has an open-house policy to close friends and family with a big menu of his favorite dishes with lots of football — both playing and watching! This year, for a virtual Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving to celebrate with a bigger group, Zimmern suggests the following entertaining tips:

  • Circulate recipes early so everyone can create and enjoy similar dishes in their own homes.
  • Create a turkey carving challenge, where people can be timed or carve their turkey the most artfully.
  • Create a contest for the best-looking pie with decorative crusts.
  • Plan on family games: You can still have fun over Zoom with interactive games like charades and Pictionary.

Favorite dish

While Zimmern does a four-course feast for Thanksgiving, including soup, heartier appetizers, turkey with plenty of sides and dessert, his new favorite dish is an endive gratin with Gruyere.

Top traditions

Zimmern told TODAY eight of his all-time favorite Turkey Day traditions (we can really get behind No. 5):

  1. Cooking stuffing
  2. Watching football
  3. Seeing all the people I love
  4. Corn pudding
  5. The smell of turkey stock as I drift to sleep that night
  6. The wishbone drying
  7. Making my gratitude list
  8. The open door to the house from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. so everyone can drop by, even for coffee and pie on the way home from elsewhere

Nina Compton

Tips for celebrating this year

The James Beard Award-winning chef, restaurateur and "Top Chef" contestant recommends keeping the holiday intimate with a group of family and/or friends with whom you typically get together with during this time. A resident of New Orleans, Compton and her husband and business partner, Larry Miller, will keep their dinner simple with a few close friends from the neighborhood.

Favorite dishes

This year, the chef is planning to make spicy pumpkin-coconut soup, roasted turkey with mojo sauce, jerk sweet potatoes and pecan pie with a rum caramel sauce.

Nina Compton's Jerk Sweet Potatoes

Top traditions

“Growing up in St. Lucia, we didn’t have Thanksgiving," Compton told TODAY. "So I first experienced it when I was at culinary school and went home with a classmate. The tradition and family part of the holiday reminded me of our holiday gatherings back home."

When she's not working, Compton loves celebrating the holiday by cooking dishes that combine her Caribbean roots with traditional Thanksgiving foods.

Isaac Toups

Tips for celebrating this year

Similarly to Yeh, Toups will serve up his feast in the backyard. To stay extra safe and adhere to local guidelines for in-person gatherings, the James Beard Award finalist and chef/owner of Toups Meatery in New Orleans is trimming his typical family gathering of 30 to 40 people to about 10 who he knows have "been acting responsibly."

Favorite dishes

Toups enjoys making dishes that appeal to family members of all ages, like Cajun dirty rice, crawfish cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes and classic Southern mac and cheese. He's partial to his maw maw's famous tata bouille (a custard pie made in a skillet) and slow-cooked brisket with warm, savory spices.

Slow-Cooked Brisket

Top traditions

Toups told TODAY his most notable Turkey Day tradition is, well, axing the turkey. Instead, he and his family always prepare a brisket and ham.