Strong was in Barcelona for two years, learning how to cook with olive oil instead of butter (courtesy of his classical culinary training), and learning how to speak Spanish and a smattering of Catalan.
"If I'd use butter and cream with fish, they'd say, 'What's that French stuff?' " he says. "It taught me how to do different things."
The duck comes out of the oven and rests for a while on the counter before he cuts it with quick precision. "The thing about all birds is that you want the skin crispy," says Strong. He says that in Atlanta he'd sear ducks by rotating them constantly in a hot sauté pan -- a huge fork stuck into the bird -- like a manual rotisserie. They never went into the oven.
Strong (who finishes his duck in the oven) takes a deep breath. "Your house starts to smell like spices -- the cardamom, the nutmeg, the cinnamon -- if you're cooking for the holidays, you want to smell spice."
The gastrique reduced (the amber of the honeyed sauce matches the color of the old copper pan), Strong drops in a nub of butter and the sliced kumquats. "It's basically duck a l'orange," he says, stirring. "I wanted a sauce that didn't have veal stock. We make it once a week at the restaurant, but that's kind of crazy at home. What you want is a combination of things that are a little exotic but that you can get at Vons."
While Strong is seeding pomegranates to garnish a simple kabocha squash soup ("Soup!" yells toddler Robbie, who promptly decides to create his own from water, berries and a small mountain of fresh thyme), Pallo comes back into the kitchen to get some of the fruit for the table. An actress whose mother is from Monterey, Mexico, Pallo watches her fiancé delicately remove the garnet seeds from their intricate housings. "I grew up on a farm in Fresno; we'd just throw them on the ground," she says.
Strong sprinkles a few spiced pecans atop the warm soup and pours the finished gastrique -- the kumquats like disks of bright gold -- into a tiny copper pot for serving. "I'm not going to spend the whole day in the kitchen," says Strong about the short time he has off (the Langham is open throughout the holidays). "When you're entertaining at home, it's about the food -- but it's also about spending time with the people."