Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj is surveying one fiefdom in his growing realm of Washington DC eateries.
In his well-cut suit, he looks every bit the successful entrepreneur running some of the capital’s swankiest dining rooms.
But his serene demeanor and the enticingly-scented air of efficient calm which wafts around the dining room at Restaurant 701 belies the feverish activity in the kitchens out back.
He and his staff are preparing for Thanksgiving.
“We’ve got over 700 reservations for Thanksgiving day across our restaurants,” says Ashok. A short confab with Chef Ed Witt confirms the staff have 28 very plump turkeys to prep and cook – a whopping 700 lbs of meat.
Ashok reckons that most of the line and prep cooks in his kitchen weren’t born in America, but that’s not surprising in Washington DC, where more than 30% of the restaurant staff is foreign-born.
The job at hand may be daunting, but it’s a holiday which Ashok has grown to love in the time that he’s been in this country. He arrived, by way of London, 22 years ago.
“The Thanksgiving meal was one of the first I remember in America. I got invited to somebody’s house where we all sat down at a long table of 20 people. The food was shared and everyone explained what the day meant to them. We’re still friends today.”
Back then the meal was much more likely to be enjoyed at home, says Ashok, but these days it’s become fashionable in Washington to eat out on the penultimate Thursday in November. He claims to have been the first restaurant owner in the city to offer turkey and all the trimmings, inspired of course by that first grand repast with friends.
LISTEN TO THE RESTAURANT 701 STAFF PREPARE FOR THANKSGIVING
“Twenty years ago, the only place you could get a meal out was in a hotel. But this country has changed and people don’t have the time to cook anymore. Everyone’s busy and there are lots of singles who live on their own. Plus, this takes all the pressure off just one person.”
Looking around his kitchen, Ashok remarks with pride on the diversity of the bustling staff.
“It’s like the U.N. – the whole world works here. Each one of them has their own culture and their own values, and a little bit of that comes out in all the different ways we cook a Thanksgiving meal. Of course, if you don’t have the traditional roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sprouts on the menu , then yes, people will be annoyed. But America is the most open society in the world, people accept new things with grace. That’s why we have Tandoori Turkey, cooked at 500 degrees in a clay oven, on the menu in our sister restaurant a couple of blocks up.” [Find the Tandoori Turkey recipe here.]
Thanksgiving, he says, is the sort of occasion in which everybody wants to take part, and there’s room for everyone to bring something of their own to the table.
Line cook Antonio Randon is in charge of preparing fish and pasta dishes. He’s originally from Mexico, and has a secret admission about his favorite part of his adopted country’s holiday meal.
“Turkey’s good, I like it. But I love the mashed potato. Back home we eat ordinary stuff – quesadillas and guacamole. It’s nothing special. But mashed potato with a little garlic in there, some thyme… Those flavors are great.”
Jean Paul Sabatier is another member of 701’s international community. He grew up in Puerto Rico, and came to New York in 2004 to study at the Culinary Institute of America. These days he’s as smartly turned out as his boss, and works the front of the house.
“When I was a kid we sometimes got together on Thanksgiving, but it’s nothing like as big as it is here. We sometimes sat down to eat a meal together, sometimes we didn’t bother at all. And we made our own traditions – we ate pork with rice and beans. But here it’s huge.”
And huge it is. Chef Ed Witt, the odd American in kitchen, looks remarkably cool and collected, but when he starts to reel off the menu for Thursday’s feast, the scale of the endeavor hits home.
“Just now I’m working on some turkey gizzards. We’ll salt them and spice them and cook them in duck fat, confit-style. As well as the turkey, there’s a whole, sausage-stuffed suckling pig: last year we had a couple of people even go for the head. It’s a very VIP kind of affair. And then there’s short ribs, fried oysters, sweet potato soup with homemade marshmallows…”
The list is seemingly endless. And for Ashok Bajaj, the work is just beginning.
“It’s very hard to eat in your own restaurant on Thanksgiving day. It’s so busy and crowded and your mind is working overtime making sure all your guests are happy. So for me, when I get home at about nine or ten o’clock, my Thanksgiving starts then.”
As for whether it’s worth the wait, Ashok smiles the broad grin of anticipation.
“I get to eat all the leftovers,” he says.