In the mountains of Le Marche, in central Italy, where I grew up, it's pretty cold, and we had lots of snowy Christmases. My parents always bought the ingredients for our feast from neighboring farms or friends' stores, and every year my father would buy fresh chestnuts and roast them in a special perforated pan he kept in the oven. When I decided, at age 13, to make chestnut soup, my dad was skeptical, but he quickly fell in love with it. This soup was one of the first dishes I cooked that made me want to be a chef. It's very hearty; if you add a slice of roasted sausage you have a meal. To me, the holiday season wouldn't be the same without chestnut soup.
Recipe: Chestnut soup
Lydia Shire, Locke-Ober Restaurant, Boston
My father was a passionate cook, always clipping recipes out of The New York Times. At Christmas he'd buy little wooden boxes of salt cod from Wulf's Fish Market in Brookline, near Boston, and soak the cod for two days, changing the water twice a day. He'd poach it in milk with a bay leaf and onion, then blend it with potato and garlic to make the brandade. He'd buy two or three jars of the best caviar he could afford. And then he'd steam Red Bliss potatoes, leaving them al dente so when he sliced them, each piece became a sort of crouton that he'd top with the brandade, some sweet butter, and the caviar. It really is perfect food.
Recipe: Whipped Salt Cod with Caviar on Steamed Potatoes
Stephan Pyles, Stephan Pyles, Dallas
I grew up in West Texas, in a town called Big Spring; we used to say that it wasn't the end of the earth but you could see it from there. My dad owned a truck-stop café that served a mix of Southern food, Tex-Mex, and ranch cooking. Every Christmas, Rosalie, one of the dishwashers at the café, made turkey and sweet potato tamales, which she shared with everyone. I loved them; unwrapping the corn husk around the tamale was like unwrapping a little present. And I loved that at Christmas there was never a limit—no one ever said, "You're going to spoil your appetite." You could always just go for it.
Recipe: Smoked Turkey-Sweet Potato Tamales
Alfred Portale, Gotham Bar and Grill, New York City
In Buffalo, New York, we had beautiful white Christmases. We're Sicilian, so we'd have fish on Christmas Eve and a big afternoon meal on Christmas Day. We'd start with fruit cocktail, then homemade ricotta ravioli— we'd always count the number on each other's plates to make sure they were fairly divided—and then prime rib. My mother went to a great Italian butcher, with hanging salamis and hams, and bins of olives on the floor. As a kid I thought the place smelled strange. The butcher would save the front ribs for her; that's the best cut—the meat's more flavorful. She'd make slits in it with the tip of her knife, press in cloves of garlic, then rub the whole roast with rosemary and salt and let it sit overnight. Christmas Day, she'd roast it with vegetables and serve it with compote of quinces and apples. It was fantastic.
Recipes: Roasted Prime Rib, Apple-Quince Compote