Chef Hillary Sterling on 15 Years of “Mexican Thanksgiving”
November 15, 2023
One of NYC’s most celebrated chefs looks forward to her favorite day of the year.
Thanksgiving, for most Americans, is a day to relax and spend time with family. For restaurant employees, it is crunch time.
Not Thanksgiving itself, however. The day before.
For fifteen years, Chef Sterling has maintained a tradition she calls Mexican Thanksgiving: a sumptuous family meal of primarily Mexican dishes, prepared by Sterling, for all members of the staff. The meal, which takes over the entire restaurant ahead of dinner service the day before Thanksgiving, has become Sterling’s annual celebration for and by her team.
More than just the year’s biggest family meal, Mexican Thanksgiving is Chef Sterling’s way to express gratitude, cut loose, and experiment with cooking that inspires her, all rolled into one. Ci Siamo’s Thanksgiving Day service requires a large effort from her and the staff, but it is Mexican Thanksgiving that captures her imagination weeks ahead of time.
“Now is about the time I start pulling all the Mexican cookbooks off my shelf,” Chef Sterling told BentoBox the first week of November.
“I already wrote the Thanksgiving menu. Now we can focus on the fun stuff.”
Chef Sterling addresses the team at the 2nd annual Ci Siamo festa. Via Instagram
Sterling began the tradition when she was the Chef de Cuisine at A Voce Madison in 2009. It was her first time preparing a staff to serve Thanksgiving dinner. “I wanted to make sure the team felt loved and like we had a moment to sit down together,” she said. Sterling, who counts Mexican food alongside Italian as one of her great culinary loves, cooked a family meal that consisted of “old school, southwestern-style Mexican food: chorizo cornbread and too-tomatoey mole and quesadillas. Rice and beans stuff.” The meal was simple and jovial. And right before dinner.
“I started getting really excited about it year after year,” Sterling said. “But I moved it to the day before Thanksgiving, because feeding your staff turkey mole and doing all that stuff on Thanksgiving is not great for service. Makes the day very long.”
Over the next fifteen years, as Sterling became one of the most in-demand chefs in New York, Mexican Thanksgiving followed her — first to Vic’s in 2014 and then to Ci Siamo in 2021. Even the pandemic couldn’t break the tradition. “We kept the doors open and made individual plates,” she recalled about Thanksgiving 2020. “It was very cute, actually. The least chaotic one we've ever done.”
Chaos is part of the fun, of course. Producing the meal requires many hands and lots of experimentation. This year, Sterling and seven sous chefs will cook the meal. The team, some of whom have worked with her for years, embraces the extracurricular fun.
“I used to do it myself, but now we divide and conquer because everyone’s so excited about it,” Sterling said. Everyone is encouraged to contribute dishes and ideas. Planning starts weeks ahead of time. “Then we have to figure out what we’ll actually have time for. It’ll go from, like fifteen items to eight that we can actually cook.”
Sterling approaches the meal the same way she thinks about her public-facing menu. “What can we do differently? What is inspiring this year? I’m a chef!” she says excitedly. “I always want to top last year!”
Sterling joined Ci Siamo as its founding Executive Chef in 2021 after tenures at Manhattan Italian restaurants Vic’s and A Voce.
Sterling originally chose to build the family meal around Mexican food to celebrate not only a culinary tradition she “really, truly loves,” but one of the most important cultures represented in her kitchen. “My team at A Voce was predominantly Mexican,” she said. “I wanted to have fun and cook food they could critique and help me develop.” Sterling sometimes uses specific regions of Mexico for inspiration, but the focus is always on experimentation. “We’ve done Oaxaca, the Yucatán, Jalisco — really the point is just honoring this food we all love to eat. It’s about going outside your comfort zone, cooking something that has no recipe. It’s about something that you love, the flavors that you’re searching for.”
The star of the show, year in and year out, is the turkey mole. “It doesn’t change; it evolves,” Sterling laughs.
Chef Sterling’s ribs al pastor and mole paste.
The result of all this effort, and planning, and trips to obscure Bushwick bodegas for “the green mole that the woman hides behind the counter,” is that the team at Ci Siamo has a chance to sit with one another, without the stress of working, and enjoy family meal.
Does the chef have anything special planned for Mexican Thanksgiving’s crystal anniversary? This year, like every year, it’s up in the air.
“The food is amazing, but it's almost superfluous,” said Chef Sterling. “It’s really about sitting down together, the day before a holiday in this industry, and taking an hour to be grateful for the team. It’s my way of saying thank you, for the days we have done and the days to come.
“It’s definitely one of those things that’s had a larger impact than I could have imagined. And one that I don’t ever want to stop.”
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