How to Win Friendsgiving with Hedley & Bennett
Ellen Marie Bennett shares her holiday traditions growing up in a Mexican and English family (hint: no turkey, lots of ponche), one chef tool tip everyone should know, and how to tap into your "inner line cook."
What did growing up in a Mexican and English kitchen mean during Thanksgiving?
It meant abundance! Color, color, color, flavor, flavor, flavor. Tamales, beans, rice, it was an absurd volume of everything, like we were feeding an army. Honestly it was a lot of Mexican vibes infiltrating the traditional American thanksgiving kitchen. I loved the way we brought tradition to that setting.
If there was a ham it had piles of pineapples and oranges all over it. We had mountains of tamales, and instead of a turkey there was a roast chicken. We drank ponche which is a sort of hot cider drink with sugar cane and apples and cinnamon sticks. There were always a lot of things that I wouldn’t necessarily see in my friends' kitchens, all these unexpected flavors and aromas and sensations.
How does your approach to hosting and cooking change during the holidays?
It’s funny that you ask that, because when I say it out loud I realize I’m actually totally experiencing some pattern recognition. It’s all about abundance! During the holidays, I’m permanently like an 85 year old Jewish grandma making sure that everyone eats. My roots come out, and there’s a lot on the table.
I especially appreciate sharing dishes that people aren’t expecting. I don’t want it to be like, “of course you would have a turkey.” Yes we have all of the classics, but we add in surprises. I like to do a traditional base but with unexpected elements that are typically Mexican. I want it to feel really lush and voluminous, so there’s something absolutely delicious and indulgent that everyone can enjoy.
How do you unwind or recharge?
The first thing is timing—I give myself the ability to make a lot of this stuff ahead of time so I’m not crazy stressed trying to pull everything together at the last minute. But really, for me, unwinding during the holidays is all about the mindset. In a funny way life and the holidays force you to pause, but don’t forget what you’re staring at that day. We get to celebrate that we’re alive, and for me, that is your unwind. Your unwind is the moment, it’s the celebration, it’s the fact that your arms and legs still work and you get to be with your family for a day. Do not let the stress of getting your mashed potatoes right take that away from you!
Do you have any traditions with your friends and family during the holidays?
Definitely. We always have people come to our Thanksgiving, not just our family. It’s a huge time for honoring and celebrating the community that supports us all year long.What I really like doing is making the space for sharing gratitude with the people that are at the table. Last year, my son Nico had just been born, and it was so powerful to celebrate with everyone that was involved with that.
Going around the table and taking a deliberate pause in the day to acknowledge the people around you and say that you love them. To say thank you for showing up to these things, thank you for being a part of this. Not just say cheers, and then everyone eats a lot and falls asleep, You’ve got to say the words out loud, that you value that person, you care about them, and you see them for showing up for you all year. We call it thanksgiving for a reason, and you’ve got to use the words to honor the spirit of the holiday.
How have you built stamina and camaraderie within your team at work to handle busy holiday seasons?
It’s definitely a crazy season, and I think the best way we get through it is by working together. There’s a lot of over communication. I find that when you under-communicate, that's where problems arise. So we always try to over communicate, to land all the three million planes that are happening and flag the problems before they happen. We have the mentality that no task is beneath us.
If you see that someone is over stressed, our priority is always figuring out how we can jump in and take on something that might not be part of your day to day. Maybe that means coming in to pack boxes, or doing a drop off that needs to be done, or helping take a call that they needed to take. Those are the things that especially during a crunchy, crazy time help us stay above water as much as possible.
What is your absolute comfort food to make during the holidays?
Ponche is just a standing thing we always have. It’s definitely my go to thing. People are always like what, there are cinnamon sticks in here, they're choosing on sugar cane, this is so fun! I find making ponche very therapeutic because it’s just all these ingredients tossed into a pot. That’s the beauty of food, you take these ingredients and convert them into something else right before your eyes. That’s magic.
And it’s not food, but I find so much comfort and joy from the process of decorating the table. I pick oranges, pomegranates, rosemary, thyme, oregano, putting everything in little glass cups so it’s different heights, along with candles. You can tuck things like gravy and cranberry sauce into the floral scape so you end up building this beautiful river of food down your table that ends up being very luscious and abundant. And the nice thing about it is that the ingredients are things you’re already using, so there’s a layer of sustainability to it. You’re not just buying a bouquet and throwing it away, you’re actually getting things you’re going to use for different elements of the meal, creating a multi sensory experience.
What’s a tip, tactic, product, or piece of advice you learned in a professional kitchen that all home cooks should know?
Always keep your knives sharp. Knives are the number one thing that give people problems when they’re cutting a turkey. So make sure your knife is sharp, and use a Hedley and Bennett knife while you’re at it! I also say it always helps to look the part, and that includes the whole family. You’re going to be cooking all day, and this is a special event—the super bowl of cooking. Have some pride in what you’re doing, take the effort of what thanksgiving is and make it fun by professionalizing yourself and all your helpers.
Some of my personal favorite aprons are the Midnight Crossback, or the Rifle Herb Garden is so gorgeous. The Cookie Monster apron is so fun if you’re cooking with kids, who should have Kids aprons so they can really feel like they’re part of the team. And of course the Denver apron for dads is such a classic.
The look and the tools are key. Have a great knife, have the right tools, have a really good micro plane zester so you can add lemon zest to things and brighten things up. Have a whole bucket of Maldon flaky salt so you can finish things. Have good pepper on hand, have good olive oil—Graza, hello!—be prepared with the basics so everything you make will be more elevated.
What is a motto or mantra of yours, in life or work?
This is going to sound corny, but my motto is very much the title of my book: Dream First, Details Later. I’m like, say yes, then clear it up! For me, I learn so much more when I’m actually moving down the road rather than just staring at the road and figuring out what’s going to happen. So my mantra is say yes, then figure it out. Dream first, details later!
How did you start the therapeutic fridge sesh, and what’s been your favorite part about the response to it in your IG comments?
I started doing it during COVID because we weren't going out, and we were at home all day every day except when we were in the office. We had no social life of any kind, and I needed to make more room in my fridge because I was cooking so much! In a professional restaurant you need to organize the walk in weekly. It’s a thing, you clean it every day and everything has to be labeled. So I tapped into my inner line cook, and I was like great, well this is my walk in now, so it needs to be organized, labeled, and clean. Let’s go. I just love doing it, and apparently other people do too, because every time I post people are like oh my gosh, please come organize my refrigerator! It’s just giving it the ability to have everything be in the right zone. Knowing everything is all labeled gives me such a zen peace of mind, which is kind of funny.
You are a classic of the food TikTok feed. Who are your favorite food creators or TikToks to follow? Where do you get inspiration?
I love Pasta Queen, I think she’s a genius and she’s a lovely human, too. I love Jessica Woo, who does lots of “let's make lunch for my kids.” I love A Cook Named Matt because he teaches you how to make food so beautifully. I love Sad Papi because he’s always so genuine and he is who he is and he teaches you along the way. I love Alex Traeger because she’s just so funny and silly and does an awesome job. Those are definitely some of my top favorites.
Random question—do you identify with your zodiac sign? Why or why not?
Oh my god, yes 100%. I’m a Leo, and I definitely am loud, and opinionated, and I want to get things done! I love to make magic happen in the room and fill the room up with energy, whether it’s with food, or laughter, or bringing people together. But unlike a lot of Leos, I really enjoy supporting other people so they crush it too. I love to give to others. If I know someone who can help you, I’m gonna connect you with them. You couldn’t have built Hedley & Bennett without our community, so I feel very indebted and forever wanting to make that a living breathing ecosystem where I can reach out to others and we can share resources and help. That’s what a community means, we’re all intertwined with one another.
Last one... if people should all read ONE part of your book, what part would it be?
I’m so glad you asked, because I was actually very intentional about designing the book so you can skip around, and read the infographics depending on what thing you want to do or improve on. It’s a general life pep talk that gives you the tools you need to succeed. Every section is packed chock full with visual evidence that you can go into to learn things like how to build a partnership, or how to sell without selling. You can read it soup to nuts, or jump to chapter six, scan through the graphics and read a few paragraphs and still get a whole lot of the good stuff. And if you’re not a reader, I highly recommend the audio book, which I recorded!