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Tosa restaurateurs Sarah and Zak Baker share their family’s Thanksgiving customs, including two recipes that form the foundation of their holiday celebrations.

Even chefs can’t fight French’s green bean casserole – that insidiously popular mix of canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup and crispy fried onions. It’s a holiday staple in many families, and was an anchor in Sarah Baker’s. But on Thanksgiving 13 years ago, tradition was turned on its head by Sarah’s boyfriend (now husband), Zak Baker. At the time he was a sous chef at Ristorante Bartolotta, where Sarah worked as a server and bartender. Zak decided he was going to impress his girlfriend’s family with a green bean casserole that was “the best one ever,” he recalls, so he took a bespoke approach and brought the creation to Sarah’s family Thanksgiving. The reaction was not what he hoped it would be. “Everyone takes a bite. And I can tell they’re trying to be polite. But they were used to tasting it a certain way,” Zak says.

The couple, whose Italian restaurant and housemade pasta shop – named Ca’Lucchenzo – is slated to open in the former Juniper 61 by the end of this year, have since sharpened their Thanksgiving game. Between the two, Sarah and Zak are experienced at serving lots of people under pressure-cooker circumstances. Zak’s last gig was executive chef/operating partner at the Pizza Man restaurants, to which Sarah went to work (eventually as CEO/operating partner) after leaving her GM/wine director position at the late c.1880. Thanksgiving isn’t a one-day event for them. Both come from blended families and have siblings spread out over the state, and so they celebrate Turkey Day with “several” meals over the week – two or three, even four, in various Wisconsin cities, says Zak. They get their tryptophan coma, and then some. 

Zak Baker’s Gratinato di Cavolfiore (left) chestnut stuffing (right)

A few years after Zak’s green bean casserole gaffe, he bounced back with a dish that has since become a keeper, “endearing” himself to Sarah’s family in the process, his spouse says. Zak’s star-making Gratinato di Cavolfiore is better known in the family as “cheesy cauliflower,” and because of its prominent spot in multiple family festivities, Zak says he “goes into production mode” during holiday week and makes as many as six pans of it. It’s an easy recipe polished with a little Italiano flair – the Parmigiano Reggiano (don’t cave to anything less) is sprinkled over a French béchamel, whose lack of restraint befits the most decadent meal of the year.

Plus: Get Zak Backer’s recipe for Chestnut Stuffing.

Only once have the Bakers prepared the Full Monty themselves. Divvying up the cooking has become the norm. Also the norm is Zak’s bread stuffing, which he makes sure is “sufficiently soaked.” Mixing the ingredients the night before and refrigerating the pre-baked stuffing for several hours or overnight are key: “It has to be like bread pudding. I like it crusty and served sliced.” What isn’t predictable from year to year is Zak’s choice of stuffing additions – chestnuts, cornbread or browned Italian sausage and mushrooms. He moistens them all with a roux enriched with meat stock.

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With many solid cooks in their families and some abiding traditions (e.g., Zak’s mom is the Baker pie-maker, and Sarah’s dad always makes the turkey for her family), Sarah focuses on what she knows best – wine. This year, she plans to serve a bright, fruity Nebbiolo made at Italy’s Col Dei Venti winery, a strong partner for the meat and rich, savory side dishes. For whites, she often pours a Chardonnay, but last year’s Roussanne – a creamy, fruity white from Stolpman Vineyards of Los Olivos, California – made a lasting impression. It returns this year.

Restaurant industry folks notwithstanding the Bakers don’t do fussy Thanksgivings. “We definitely make everything but it’s simple, delicious food. No canned cranberries, but there is something fascinating about that. … It’s pretty chill. I wear my daily uniform of flannel,” Zak says, and means it.

As the opening for their own place – whose ambiance they hope compares to feeling like a welcome guest in someone’s home – draws near, they’ve pondered a year when all of the families come together for one big Thanksgiving at the restaurant, which would close for the holiday. In molding and shaping their own Italian-style eatery, “we’re doing what we so naturally want to be doing,” says Sarah. It seems only natural to share that feeling with family.


“T-Day Traditions” appears in the November 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the October issue on newsstands, starting Oct. 29.

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