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'The point is connecting': Kristen Kish shares tips for a virtual Thanksgiving

Can virtual celebrations help friends and family connect even more?
Kish recommends incorporating friends' and family's traditions into your virtual Thanksgiving.
Kish recommends incorporating friends' and family's traditions into your virtual Thanksgiving.Courtesy S.Pellegrino
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to cooking a feast for her loved ones, "Top Chef" winner and restaurateur Kristen Kish is a pro. And she's not letting long-distance, virtual celebrations stop her on Thanksgiving.

As many scramble to plan a "holiday in place" for this year's fall festivities, Kish has already prepped, planned and hosted a Friendsgiving online — and she's not done yet. On Nov. 26, she'll cook up the works with immediate family from their homes around the country. From recipes to table setting logistics, Kish has plenty of ideas on how to deepen connections through the holidays (as long as there's a WiFi connection).

Kristen Kish whips up her friends' favorite recipes for the ultimate virtual Thanksgiving.
Kristen Kish whips up her friends' favorite recipes for the ultimate virtual Thanksgiving.Courtesy S. Pellegrino

1. Create a virtual guest list.

While this Thanksgiving looks a lot different than past holidays, Kish thinks there are some advantages to hosting a virtual feast.It provides an opportunity for friends or family who may have a harder time getting together in person to enjoy each other. To kick of this year's festivities, Kish had a Friendsgiving with some of her closest friends who she rarely gets to see all at once.

"It was so great just to sit and watch them all interact," Kish told TODAY Food.

2. Choose a time that works for everyone.

On Thanksgiving Day, Kish will prepare a plethora of Midwestern Thanksgiving favorites like green bean casserole and two-bread stuffing with her fiancé, Bianca Dusic, from their apartment in New York City. They'll be joined on Zoom by her parents from their home in Florida and her brother in Michigan.

One of the best parts of having a virtual gathering is that folks from all over can save on travel time but still eat, play games, have conversations and connect with friends or family. Whatever the time difference, whether in California, New Zealand or all in one city, there's probably one time that they can all log on.

So, send out an email or text and settle on a time for the feast before the big day.

3. Incorporate friends' and family's traditions into the celebration.

For Kish's Friendsgiving, which she was paid to host for S.Pellegrino's video series on celebrating the holidays virtually, she didn't craft the menu with her favorite dishes. Instead, she cooked her friends' family recipes.

"I have too many ideas. I'm asking my friends and family what they want. I cook to make other people happy," the chef told TODAY. "I'm honoring their traditions, what's important to them and then I get to enjoy these new traditions."

When Kish recreated her friend Kim Bacari's family's manicotti, she received the original recipe from Bacari's grandmother, handwritten in what Kish lovingly called "chicken scratch." As Kish stirred crepe batter and sautéed the savory tomato sauce, she described feeling closer than ever to Bacari.

"I was cooking literally what her grandmother was cooking," Kish said.

Kim's Family's Manicotti

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Kim's Family's Manicotti

Kim Baccari, recreated by Kristen Kish for S.Pellegrino

Kish also celebrated her dear friend and sous chef, Robeisy Sanchez, by making her Cranberry-Orange Upside-Down Cake, which Sanchez adapted from Cook's Illustrated.

"I felt so proud cooking it. It's a beautiful recipe, very festive. Everything about it. To watch her, watch me make it: It’s a weird warm and fuzzy feeling that’s hard to explain," Kish said of the experience baking for Sanchez and her other friends on Zoom.

Kish's favorite aspect of cooking for friends was that, regardless of distance and zero in-person contact, food could still enhance the connection.

"I could tell who made what. I could've tasted each dish with my eyes closed, and told you who made it," Kish said.

Cranberry-Orange Upside-Down Cake

Get The Recipe

Cranberry-Orange Upside-Down Cake

Robeisy Sanchez, recreated by Kristen Kish for S.Pellegrino

4. Create a place at the table for virtual guests.

Kish advised creating a space for the computer at the table where the person would be sitting if they were there.

"It's all about point of view — making the person, whoever I'm talking to, in that literal seat at the table. It feels real. There's something about it that feels genuine, authentic. It makes the setting that much more intimate and real," Kish said.

For folks who are really committed to virtual entertaining, like Kish, the chef recently bought a tripod to hold her device, which she said makes the process for cooking and hanging at the table with her online guests seamless.

5. Make and toast a special drink together.

Making a drink, alcoholic or not, is a great way to kickoff a virtual gathering. One family member could brew their morning coffee and those in a later time zone could shake up some holiday cocktails. But an initial "cheers," "kanpai" or "prost" universally brings people together — even if there's no actual clinking of glasses.

Sparkling Cranberry-Ginger Cocktail

6. Don't force a meal — just enjoy.

While cooking for her loved ones is central to Kish's joy during the holidays, she realizes not everyone wants to cook. Some may want to prepare the same recipes to enjoy together from their own homes on Thanksgiving while others may just want to order in some takeout — and Kish said that's totally OK.

"It makes it less stressful," she explained. "Everyone does what they want to do. It doesn’t matter that we're cooking the same thing and eating the same, the point is connecting."

For fans who want to connect with Kish for a virtual celebration, they can enter S.Pellegrino's sweepstakes by Nov. 29. Share a favorite holiday tradition, memory or story online and win a one-on-one virtual hang with Kish, a 10-piece All-Clad Cookware Set and a $500 gift card to make this year's festivities a bit easier.