Halfway through a bright, breeze-driven November morning, in the open kitchen of a high-ceilinged wooden house in Topanga, about five miles inland and up the Santa Monica Mountains from the Pacific Ocean, chef Christian Shaffer stands at the stove making a holiday dinner for his family. A heritage turkey, brined and trussed, sits in a roasting pan; vegetables are strewn, like those in the foreground of still life paintings, across the wide granite counters; pate sucree for his mother’s molasses tart waits for a quick roll from an olive oil bottle, a stand-in for an absent rolling pin.
The guests -- his extended family -- haven’t arrived yet, only his cousin’s dogs, which gambol happily underfoot in the kitchen, swatting the occasional shallot or garlic clove that drops to the floor.
That Shaffer, co-owner of Auberge at Ojai and Avenue in Manhattan Beach (and the erstwhile Chloe in Playa del Rey), is cooking a turkey dinner for his family is a happy occasion, in keeping with a man who closes both his restaurants on Thanksgiving.
With a large family that loves food and is deeply involved in the business of it -- his wife, Tedde, and brother Jonathan work the front of the house at Avenue and Auberge, respectively -- the holidays are times for coming home to cook, not going to work to do it.
Soon his family is trooping up the wooden stairs to the porch, arms full of toys for the kids, bottles of wine and autumnal arrangements that Tedde has made for the table. Shaffer’s cousin Mitchell Sonners, the owner of the house -- a place where Shaffer spent many long weekends in his bachelor days -- uncorks bottles and herds dogs and children away from the opening and closing door of the oven.
Waves of aromatic heat rise and fall like tides across the kitchen, spilling into the living room and eddying around the legs of the gathered people and furniture.
As Shaffer bastes the turkey, a heritage bird he’s brined for a day before trussing and filling with fragrant herbs and vegetables, his 2-year-old daughter, Piper -- outfitted in a maroon velvet party dress, her strawberry blond hair in a pixie cut -- plays with a menagerie of plastic animals. Tedde and Kristin Shaffer, Shaffer’s sister-in-law, who is pregnant with her second child, pause for an unfamiliar moment of respite while Tedde’s parents mind the babies, Shaffer’s infant son Christian and 17-month-old nephew Dylan.
Outside on the porch, Shaffer’s brother, father and grandfather chat against a backdrop of bougainvillea and the low, transverse coastal mountains.
Family means a lot to Shaffer, who got his culinary training through apprenticeship -- both at home and in restaurants -- rather than in culinary school. As a kid growing up in Culver City, he would come in from playing with his two brothers or mowing the lawn with his father to hang out with his mom or grandmother -- which often meant rolling pie dough or dicing vegetables or even breading veal chops in the kitchen.
“Somebody was always arguing over what we were going to eat,” he recalls as he toasts the hazelnuts for his wild rice “stuffing” (it never sees the inside of a bird) in a cast-iron pan.
During high school, Shaffer worked in restaurants to make pocket money, manning the dish station or doing whichever job needed to be done. “You get stuck in the pantry; when somebody doesn’t show up, you jump in.” After school, he started cooking at Remi in Santa Monica, where chef Josie LeBalch took him under her wing -- and urged him to go to Europe.
A culinary journey
Thus began a 2 1/2 -year culinary odyssey, with Shaffer cooking his way, apprenticed to local chefs, through a swath of Italy, Spain and France. Shaffer says he made the equivalent of $100 in euros during those two years -- for fixing the locks of a restaurant, not for cooking at one.
But he got an education that was invaluable, learning the languages of the countries in which he cooked, as well as the food. The tour of duty left him with an accent, which Shaffer admits is “all jacked up” from the various languages and dialects he has tried on.
Now, as he chats in the kitchen while he cooks, it sounds both charming and odd, a vague pastiche of continental syllables grafted onto broad California vowels -- the slang of a beach kid delivered in the formal cadences of a European adult.
Shaffer’s accent is not unlike his food, an amalgam of rustic French and Italian cuisine that he fashions with a distinctive and deeply personal Californian flair. That he got his training from cooking his way through Europe at an age when many of his contemporaries were reading about European food in cooking school certainly shows: Instead of relying on pyrotechnics or clever conceits, he uses a profound understanding of flavor and its dimensions to build his food.
His restaurant menus -- which change completely every month -- showcase his flair for texture and seasoning, often through techniques that are as surprisingly simple as they are subtle. The amazingly tender rabbit at Avenue, for instance, has been simply pan-roasted, served over soft polenta with roasted maitake mushrooms and a simple jus.
Or consider Shaffer’s savory bread puddings, frequently on the menus of both restaurants. A pungent horseradish bread pudding pairs with the ribeye steak at Auberge. At Avenue, a porcini bread pudding shows up this month as a starter, spilling from long leaves of dressed, peppery arugula like a kind of cornucopia on a plate.
A favorite with his loyal regulars, it’s a variation of the mushroom bread pudding he’s now preparing for his family, whipping up the custard base while the mushrooms roast in the oven. A simple, rustic dish, it’s one with enormous depth -- and it’s a terrific stand-in for the bland, mushy stuffing that often shows up on Thanksgiving tables.
The etiology of the menus in Shaffer’s restaurants may owe a lot to the quadrants of Europe he wandered through, but they’re also informed by the food he grew up with. Today’s salad of marinated beets over horseradish creme fraiche has its roots in his mother’s northern European heritage -- though Shaffer has long jettisoned her secret ingredient, a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.
Still, his is a style of cooking that’s fundamentally accessible. A proficient home cook can easily put together the dishes he’s chosen for the holiday; they’re more about a deep understanding of balance and flavor and texture than showing off difficult technique.
With the bread pudding taking the place of traditional stuffing, Shaffer’s wild rice is free to pair with ingredients that suit its nutty flavor profile: a dice of butternut squash, toasted hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds. “It’s a play on the routine of traditional stuffing,” says Shaffer, “which is one-dimensional for many people.” Also, he points out, unlike traditional baked-in-the-bird stuffing, this one is great for vegetarians.
The pomegranate supplies the tang that balances, and garnet color -- a reminder of the cranberries that nobody misses. A salad of grated raw rutabagas and turnips is a refreshing palate cleanser as well as an inventive take on seasonal root vegetables; the surrounding peppery watercress salad gives some welcome greenery and lovely spice.
And the marinated beet salad he makes today with sweet Chioggia beets (though he says assorted red and golden beets would work as well), plays soothingly off the tangy creaminess of the horseradish creme fraiche -- no cans of soup in sight.
For dessert, in addition to his mother’s molasses tart, Shaffer’s menu offers a creme caramel enriched with kabocha squash.
It’s a brilliant idea, at once reminiscent of a creamy, ethereal pumpkin pie -- yet somehow light years beyond it. Shaffer likes the kabocha for two reasons: It’s something a little different and “it’s got a subtle, rich flavor that pumpkin often doesn’t.”
The custard is dense, more intense than a flan, almost the texture of a pot de creme. Neither cloying nor overly sweet, it needs nothing to accompany it: The caramel, unmolded, yields its own perfect sauce. And best of all, it can be made a day or two ahead of time and unmolded just before serving.
Shaffer’s recipes are also about seasonal adaptability: If a sudden November heat spell throws West Coast farmers a curve, he’ll use whatever wild mushrooms happen to look great; if the Seckel pears he wanted don’t feel right at the market, he’ll switch them out for Forellis. Because the recipes aren’t fussy, that’s, as Shaffer would say, “not a problem, mama.”
Shaffer moves around the kitchen, mincing garlic, whipping Chantilly cream by hand and coring the beautifully speckled Forelli pears. “Cooking has been one of the only constants in my life,” he says, adding the pears to the pan with the roasting turkey.
He attributes this constancy -- rising from mother’s helper to dishwasher to chef and restaurateur -- to his facility in the kitchen, and his happiness there: “I’m just as excited as I was when I was 19,” he says.
Shaffer does look pretty happy. And so does his grandmother, who has arrived and is now watching him cook -- and reminding everyone that she was the one who taught him in the first place.
Shaffer has settled on a heritage bird -- though he had dreams initially, fanciful, purist dreams, of getting his hands on a wild turkey -- but his recipe works as well with a free-range turkey. “Heritage turkeys,” Shaffer says, “have a more subtle, intrinsic flavor than commercial turkeys, an almost wild taste.”
Smaller is better
The flavor, he finds, is further articulated by a 24-hour brine (longer, he says, compromises the texture). And he doesn’t like to cook turkeys much larger than about 15 pounds. “Most of the bigger birds have too much breast meat, proportionally,” he says. “It takes away moisture and flavor.” The smaller size makes for a “more balanced bird.”
Once brined, patted dry, loosely stuffed with some herbs and vegetables and dotted with butter, the turkey is a straightforward affair.
A few hours in the oven, some regular basting, and it’s a fait accompli: a moist, deeply flavorful bird with a burnished skin that neither requires nor wants any heavy gravy -- just a drizzle of the rich pan juices, jus that harbors a hint of sweetness from the slender parsnips and the blistered, whole pears that have been roasting alongside in their skins for the last half an hour.
As the fall morning clicks around noon, daughter Piper singing, Shaffer’s father, Rick, chatting about a recent trip to Mexico while he pours another glass of wine, one of the two Dalmatians keeping stoic watch over the oven door, Shaffer moves around the kitchen -- like many chefs, he’s visibly more comfortable on his feet than in a chair.
Soon the bird rests, bronzed and resplendent, on the countertop while the dishes are finished and plated and, one by one, make their way to the waiting table outside.
Shaffer carves the turkey and reassembles it, with the pears and turnips like adjacent architecture, then pours the jus from the roasting pan over the platter with a slow exactitude. He smiles at the crowd gathering at the laden table beyond the open door.
Shaffer says that sometimes he’ll be cooking at one of his restaurants and he’ll pause, stare out at the dining room, and watch as people eat the meals he’s orchestrated. “It’s great to look outside and see so many people happy. Even though it’s pretty simple: It’s just food.” Maybe.
But a meal of perfectly articulated dishes built to celebrate an occasion -- whether it be a night out at a restaurant for strangers or a Thanksgiving dinner at home for the people you love -- is far from simple.
And it’s a lot more than just food.