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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / How do Chattanooga chefs spend their own Christmas? Do they sit back and take a break from cooking duties? Maybe, but perhaps not.

Chefs are typically at their busiest during the Christmas season, catering office parties or making holiday dinners to provide others with a memorable experience. So how do they spend their own Christmas? Do they sit back and take a break from cooking duties? Maybe, but perhaps not.

Here's a look at three Chattanooga chefs, their Christmas traditions and how they spend Christmas Day.

 

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Rebecca Barron makes a broiled oyster dish at her home in Chattanooga.

Rebecca Barron, Hello Monty

Like many parents of young children, Rebecca Barron, past James Beard semi-finalist and executive chef at one of the hottest new restaurants on Main Street, Hello Monty, says the best part of waking up on Christmas morning is hearing the sweet voice of her 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, say, "Good morning."

After that, it's coffee, coffee and more coffee while she and partner, Chef Micah Adams who works alongside Barron at Hello Monty, revel in the feeling of complete relaxation.

"I don't have to worry about putting in an order for the weekend or cooking 400 meals. I can just relax and enjoy the smell of coffee brewing," she says, adding that she also enjoys putting on a nostalgic movie, such as "A Christmas Story" or "Home Alone," and watching with her family.

The morning gives this family of chefs a day for life to slow down, but not completely. Rather than gifting each other with unneeded presents, Barron and Adams choose to donate money they would spend on gifts or spend a few hours on Christmas Day helping others in the community.

"We prefer to donate time or money to help people or organizations that are committed to helping people without all the red tape," Barron says.

One such organization is The Chattanooga Free Store. The nonprofit store is one that gives food, hygiene products, clothes, supplies, books and more to those in need.

The day isn't entirely devoted to movies and volunteering, though. Barron and Adams are chefs, after all. And a traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and all the trimmings is not typically on their menu.

"We love seafood, so we usually splurge on grilling a whole fish along with some oysters on the half shell," Barron says. "We usually eat the oysters while we prepare the rest of the meal."

Check stores such as Whole Foods and Fresh Market for oysters in the shell. Or, if you have a good relationship with a local chef, Barron suggests asking him or her to order some oysters for you. Some will, she says. Oysters can also be ordered online.

Here's how she prepares them.

Broiled Gulf Oysters With Compound Butter

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

Pinch of salt and ground white pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh herb, such as tarragon, parsley, chives, chervil or dill. (Go light on the dill.)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Couple drops of Tabasco sauce

Oysters on the half shell

Fresh breadcrumbs

Grated cheese, such as Gruyere

To make compound butter: Use a whisk or handheld mixer to combine butter with salt, white pepper, herbs, lemon juice, lemon zest and Tabasco sauce, then set aside.

Shuck as many oysters as will fit in your large cast iron pan. Keep them in the bottom half of the shell but make sure to disconnect them from the shell. Top each oyster with a small spoonful of the compound butter, some breadcrumbs and some grated cheese. Place oysters under the broiler until the cheese is melted, being careful not to burn the breadcrumbs. It takes only about three minutes.

 

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Sanders Parker sears a hanger steak at the Flying Squirrel.

Sanders Parker, The Flying Squirrel

Sanders Parker is a chef at one of the busiest restaurants in the Main Street neighborhood — Flying Squirrel. So when Christmas Day arrives, he takes time to relax.

"Christmas is kind of a treat-yourself day," he says, admitting that some of the food and drink he consumes are not high on the healthy scale. His family lives hundreds of miles away, so if he's not with them, he stays home and keeps his schedule as clear as possible.

"If I'm with them, though, I still feel the same way," he says. "It's my time to unwind, cook something for my loved ones and start the day with a very special cocktail."

That cocktail, he adds, is "the pinnacle of gluttony." It starts with a high proof stout — anything over 8% alcohol by volume will do nicely — and is finished with a generous shot of whiskey, preferably Chattanooga Whiskey, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Following an afternoon nap, made all the better by that cocktail, he finds himself back in the kitchen.

"I don't typically make a special dish, but whatever I decide to make is something I probably wouldn't splurge on normally," Parker says. "Usually that means a really good steak or some other indulgent piece of meat with a fancy sauce. The key is to prepare it with love, show respect to the ingredients, and take your time and enjoy the day. That's the only 'recipe' that's mandatory, in my opinion."

Reverse-sear steak

This is a method that was invented by J. Kenji López-Alt, and makes the best steak that you've ever had. It works by slow cooking it in the oven first, and then searing quickly on each side. Hence, the name: reverse sear.

2 thick-cut steaks

Salt and black pepper

Canola or grapeseed oil

1-2 tablespoons butter

Start by seasoning the steaks all over with salt and pepper the night before, and place uncovered in the fridge overnight. This will draw out some of the moisture and give you a better sear.

When it comes time to cook, preheat the oven to 225 degrees F and place the steak on a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. Place the steaks in the oven until an instant-read thermometer registers your preferred temperature (105 degrees for rare, 115 degrees for medium-rare, 125 degrees for medium, or 135 degrees for medium-well). It takes about 25 minutes for a medium-rare steak, but cooking times can vary depending on many factors, so be sure to frequently check.

Just prior to taking the steaks out of the oven, heat the heaviest saute pan you have (cast iron is perfect) over high heat with 1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil until it starts smoking. Add the steaks and butter, searing on each side until a nice brown crust develops, about 45 seconds or so on each side. Don't forget to sear the sides. Since these steaks cook slowly using the oven method, there's no need to rest the steak. You can serve right away. Serve with black pepper cream sauce.

Black pepper cream sauce

1/2 cup minced shallot

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon minced garlic

4 ounces white wine

1/2 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup chicken stock

1/2 pound butter, cold and cubed

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Sweat down shallots over medium heat in a medium sized saucepan. This will take about five minutes. Add black peppercorn kernels and garlic. Stir to combine. Cook for an additional minute, stirring, until garlic is fragrant and cooked. Do not let the garlic burn.

Deglaze the pan with the white wine. Let it reduce by three-fourths. Add heavy cream. Reduce 25%, stirring occasionally. Add chicken stock. Reduce by 25%. Slowly work in butter, a cube at a time, whisking constantly. Once incorporated, remove from the heat. Add lemon juice. Taste. Blend with an immersion blender until the pepper is broken up but not obliterated. Season with salt as needed. Keep warm and cover if not used right away.

 

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Antonia Poland says one recipe that's always on her breakfast table for Christmas is homemade strawberry preserves.

Antonia Poland, Davis Wayne's

The Christmas season is a busy one for chefs, but that doesn't stop Antonia Poland from fully embracing the spirit of the season — the earlier, the better, she adds.

"I love hearing Christmas music, watching Christmas movies and seeing homes decorated for the season," she says. "Even though it's busy season for us, somehow I always manage to grab a large blanket and cuddle up in front of the fireplace with eggnog to watch my favorite Christmas movies. I love to put up Christmas trees at home and at Davis Wayne's. My favorite part is decorating."

Poland and business partner Cynthia Wood press on through the season, feeding the patrons at their Ooltewah eatery and catering meals for outside events through their catering business, Dipped Fresh. Once the last customer has been fed and the last Dipped Fresh confection is out the door, the partners take the week off. And on Christmas morning?

"We get up early to open presents with the children," Poland says. "They always wait patiently on the sofa until we come into the living room. Then, after all the presents are opened, we have Christmas breakfast."

And this is one recipe that's always on the table.

Strawberry preserves

Delicious over cream cheese as an appetizer or on toasted bread Christmas morning.

1 pound fresh strawberries, halved and capped

1 large bunch of red seedless grapes

1/4 of a fresh pineapple

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 pinch of salt

Pour all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once it comes to a boil, lower temperature to simmer. Work the fruit in the mixture to make sure it breaks down and doesn't stick or burn. Mixture will thicken as it simmers. Once the desired consistency is reached, remove from heat and let cool.

Once cooled it is ready to serve.

 

What's your favorite holiday memory? 

When Sanders Parker was a little boy, his parents lined up all the presents on Christmas morning.

"They weren't wrapped, they were just there," he recalls. "That would totally blow my mind. I fully bought into the Santa bit and waking up with all of the things I'd wished for just sitting there was absolutely magical. Regardless of my age, that's what I think of when I think of Christmas morning."

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Rebecca Barron's best holiday memory is Hanukkah spent with her dad's side of the family.

"I really loved seeing my great-grandma Eleanor and having her matzo ball soup," she says. "She was a gem of a woman — about 4 feet 10 inches tall with four inches of hair. She came over from Hungary with her twin brother. Then she and her cousin Bertha married two brothers, something I always thought was really cool."

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Antonia Poland's best Christmas memories are from her childhood trips to her grandparents' house during the holidays. All the cousins would sleep in front of the fireplace anxiously waiting for Santa to come down the chimney.

"My grandparents had a huge white tree filled with lights and shimmering glass ornaments — my grandmother loved Christmas. She would decorate inside and outside for the holidays," she says. But her favorite part was being in the kitchen cooking with her grandmother. "She had a large walk-in pantry filled with all kinds of spices and would often send me in there to grab ingredients while she cooked. I could never find what she sent me for but, rest assured, she knew exactly where it was. She loved to cook and feed everyone," Poland recalls.

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