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Preparing a Table for 1,000

For Rod ‘N’ Reel’s Chef Rudy, Thanksgiving is a piece of cake

Ready for the big feast: Chef Rudy and kitchen staff Armine Jahukyan, Anthony Moore and Angelica Rocque.

From the first-time turkey roaster to the kitchen master, who among us can anticipate cooking the Thanksgiving dinner without a bit of a flutter?
    Chef Rudy Volpe can.
    The 54-year-old chef looks forward to serving 1,000 to 1,200 hungry eaters at Rod ‘N’ Reel’s Thanksgiving Day Buffet.
    For a chef who’s worked 20-plus years in gaming, most recently at Maryland Live!, Rod ‘N’ Reel’s seven-hour buffet is, well, a piece of cake.
    “It’s a little slower paced than what I’m accustomed to,” says Volpe. “It’s not all done in three minutes. In casinos, a minute and a half is a long time for anybody to wait.”
    The Rod ‘N’ Reel menu is huge: Two meats: carved roast turkey and honey-glazed ham. Two seafood: baked New England cod and fried shrimp. Two soups: New England clam chowder and butternut squash bisque. Two potatoes: mashed — with tons of warm cream and butter — plus sweet potato casserole that someone, he knows, will praise as almost as good as my grandmother’s. Two dressings, three vegetables and five salads. Plus countless pieces of cake from a dessert buffet eight sweets thick.
    “People will share their stories,” says Volpe. “But more important are the memories. The fact that we’ve touched those buttons.”
    His storeroom is overflowing. “Hundreds of pounds of everything we cook,” he says. “Fifty cases of turkeys, six or eight to the case, and 40 cases of ham, four to the case but bigger.”
    He and his staff will be serving for seven hours.
    “Thanksgiving is a chef’s holiday,” he says. “For the hours you’re on the floor,” he tells them, “this is your guests’ Thanksgiving. It’s time for us to be the show and give them that memory of having a great day.”
    Success in so grand an endeavor depends on a plan — making it and carrying it out.
    “The ingredients are all laid out, many on pans ready to go. Everyone in the kitchen has a cooking station with a certain number of products — three or four — to keep making.”
    Turkey roasters and carvers have a head start. Instead of whole birds, Rod ‘N’ Reel orders turkeys that have been boned, then rolled and netted into a skin-on roast that combines white and dark meat.
    “The producers stuff butter and things into them, so it’s very flavorful,” he says. “It’s easier to roast and slice.”
    Hour by hour, the roasters push turkeys into double-stack ovens and pull them out.
    “The turkeys we’ll serve you at 2 or 3pm weren’t cooked early in the morning and sitting in the hot box since 8am,” Volpe says. “Time and tradition have taken hold, and we have an idea of the flow. We don’t have to cook and hold far ahead. Turkeys come from the oven to the board to you.”
    The mashed potato cook must have a heavy hand with cream and butter. “We’re not ashamed. We use a lot of cream and butter. We’re cooking for people who go out to eat what we don’t eat at home. At home, you’d see how much delicious cream and butter you were pouring in.”
    “The place runs just like a song,” says the chef. “Director of food and beverages Carl Taylor and myself, we orchestrate it.”

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    Your role, should you accept Rod ‘N’ Reel’s invitation to its annual Thanksgiving Day Buffet, is simply to eat. Abundantly.
    Chef Rudy is planning for you to indulge in seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths.
    Thanksgiving, he says, “is a day of indulgence. It’s not even just a grand meal. It’s a feast in the true sense of the word. If we portioned correctly, we’d plan on a pound of food per person. Today, we expect you to eat two or three pounds of food. And for every person, we plan two to two and a half desserts.”
    Think pumpkin and pecan pie; cheese cake, carrot cake and Smith Island chocolate peanut butter cake; bread pudding; and, in case you’re worried about consuming too many calories, fresh fruit.
    “This is your living room,” he says, so he expects you to linger. “If you’ve sampled three or four desserts and had your coffee, and then think a slice of turkey on a piece of bread would taste good, we want you to go back and get it.”
    “Eat all you want. Have a good time. This is your Thanksgiving.”

    After Rod ‘N’ Reel’s seven-hour marathon feast, Chef Rudy will go home to Waldorf for a family dinner with his wife, her family and their grown daughter. He’ll have been prepping family Thanksgiving a day or two in advance in hours off from work so it will be all ready for his wife — a “wonderful cook” in her own right — to put in the oven so, he says, “when I get home I can carve.”
    Rather than turkey, their bird will be duck or goose.

Tips for the Home Cook

For the turkey
    “Try this old trick for flavor,” says Chef Rudy Volpe who, you’ll remember, isn’t afraid of butter. “Lift the skin from the breast and pack butter in there, seasoning it with fresh herbs. You can roll it around and pat out a nice layer of butter so when you cut the turkey, the juice will run out.
    “Measure the temperature in the thigh near the bone. The technical answer to when it’s done,” says Volpe, “is 165 degrees. But at 150 to 155 degrees, I advise taking it out of the oven and letting it rest and settle. It will be moist and properly done.”
    Let your turkey (or any large joint of meat) rest 15 minutes before carving to let the muscles relax. “It’s been constricting while cooking to hold its moisture in, and when the constriction stops, it lets the juices back out.”

For the dressing
    In a pan, not in the turkey: “Breads will suck moisture out of the turkey, which is good for the stuffing but not for the bird. Plus, to get the stuffing to a safe temperature you will overcook the bird.”
    Bread and stock: “I learned from an older chef to drench the bread with chicken stock, then after it sat pour it into a clean cloth and squeeze out the extra liquid.
    “You don’t need to use old bread because it will taste like old bread. Otherwise, any bits of bread are suitable: white, wheat, rye, corn bread.”
    Vegetables and herbs: “Add onions, celery anything you want plus fresh herbs. Both thyme and sage speak to me of Thanksgiving and Christmas. With fresh herbs, use a lot, almost three to one compared to dry. But with those two, you should not overdo it.”
    Soufflé effect: “With lighter breads, add beaten eggs (one or two to about a pound of bread) and it will soufflé up with a beautiful crusted top.”