In 2020, chef Jose Chesa was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the public for the first time.
Like most independent restaurants, Ataula, a critically acclaimed 7-year-old tapas bar from Chesa and wife, Cristina Baez, is typically closed for the holiday. Instead of cooking for customers, Chesa and Baez would take turns waking up early, leaving their two children with their partner, and head down to the Northwest Portland restaurant’s quiet kitchen to begin preparing a Thanksgiving feast for family and friends.
Chesa was raised in Barcelona. But after moving to the United States in 2005, he embraced the distinctly American holiday in his own obsessive way. That meant channeling his culinary training at Michelin-starred European restaurants toward creamy mashed potatoes, a roast turkey bone demi-glace Baez calls “magic” and French-style turkeys roasted with butter tucked beneath the skin.
“He always does five or six or seven (turkeys), some for the staff, one for my sister,” said Baez, who usually cooks pavochon, or Puerto Rican-style roast turkey, during her alternating years commandeering Ataula’s kitchen. “One year he even brought two turkeys home, and I had to say, ‘No, this is way too much.’ He just gets really excited.”
This year was always going to be different. Back in February, Chesa, Baez and partner Emily Metivier branched out with Masia, a second restaurant at the new 220-room Hyatt Centric hotel that opened just in time for Valentine’s Day. Like most hotel restaurants, Masia was expected to serve three meals a day, 365 days a year, including holidays, with Barcelona-style xurros baked to order at 180, the hotel’s lobby cafe. In normal times, this November would have brought Chesa’s first chance to serve his Spanish takes on classic Thanksgiving dishes, perhaps to a full house.
COVID-19 had other plans. One month after Masia opened, new coronavirus cases were on the rise and Gov. Kate Brown banned on-premises dining at all Oregon restaurants and bars, a restriction that lasted locally for three months. With help from a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, Ataula was able to bring back some staff and offer takeout service through the summer. But at the end of September, Ataula closed once more, at least for the winter, and Baez began using the space for Aybendito, a new pop-up offering tostones (fried plantains), pastelillos (flaky Puerto Rican empanadas) and flan to-go. Meanwhile, Masia reopened its dining room in August, but with occupancy rates at downtown hotels such as the Hyatt Centric regularly dipping below 15%, business has been slow. Before the second shutdown, the restaurant was open for dinner just three nights a week.
For many downtown Portland restaurants, Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year. At long-running spots such as Huber’s, Higgins and Paley’s Place, as well as a growing roster of boutique hotel restaurants, families book reservations months in advance for a packed dinner service that might start before 11 a.m. and run past 9 p.m. Even before skyrocketing coronavirus case counts led Brown to reinstate her ban on indoor and outdoor dining last week, most of those restaurants were already pivoting to takeout. Some, including Masia, have had to call customers to cancel dine-in reservations.
When Masia first opened, a busy night might mean 16 people working — with seven or eight up front and the same number in the kitchen. Visit on a Tuesday these days and you might find Metivier up front, while Chesa has the back to himself.
“As a brand new hotel with big occupancy, as a new concept restaurant in downtown, we were busy,” Chesa said of Masia’s first few weeks. “And I have a dream kitchen. The restaurant is so beautiful. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stand alone in the kitchen, my goodness me.”
On the days leading up to Thanksgiving, instead of preparing for an all-day bash, what remains of Masia’s skeleton crew will prepare heat-and-serve meal kits reflective of Chesa’s Barcelona upbringing. That includes Spanish-style turkey croquettes and cranberry aioli, French mashed potatoes, herb-roasted turkey breast and a confit leg, chard with jamon Iberico, Barcelona-style glass bread, that “magic” fortified demi-glace and small bottles of sherry and vermouth, the latter packaged with soda water and orange-olive garnishes. And at Ataula, Baez will be prepping pernil al horno, a traditional Puerto Rican pork shoulder dish served with enough tostones, mojito sauce and yellow rice and pigeon peas for six people.
Chesa and Baez say offering their signature Thanksgiving meals for customers is a way of “keeping one thing normal” in these difficult times.
“Basically our favorite meal of the year is now available to everyone at home,” Baez said.
For Baez, growing up in Puerto Rico meant a complex, if mostly happy relationship with Thanksgiving.
“Keep in mind that it’s a colony, where for hundreds of years of people have celebrated something that is somewhat detached from their history,” Baez said. “I remember arguing one year when I was 9 or 10, ‘Hey, we’re Taínos, we’re Native Americans, why are we celebrating this? And the adults would laugh and brush it off.”
Stil, before she left the island over a decade ago, the holiday usually included lots of music, roasting turkeys, playing dominoes with cousins, yellow rice, hot sauces, flan and a simple bar somewhere in the house filled with rum and fresh juices.
Beyond COVID-19′s economic impacts, the past year has brought personal struggles for the couple. Chesa’s grandfather, who helped raise him in Barcelona, died in August due to heart complications. Chesa was able to Facetime with him before he died. But even if he had wanted to fly back across the Atlantic to visit him, he wouldn’t have been allowed into the hospital, which kept strict limits on visitors.
“What a coincidence that in 90 years of living, this is the time I can’t go to Spain,” Chesa said. “And so I had to suffer on the other side of the ocean.”
At the same time, Baez’ oldest sister, a mother of four who moved to Portland not long after Ataula opened, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, a variation on the same disease that previously took their father’s life. On Thanksgiving, Baez plans to take her some extra food and flan.
After Thanksgiving, months after their federal Paycheck Protection Program loan dried up, the couple will head toward the new year and the typically slow months of January and February with the prospect of no on-premises dining at Masia and no new financial assistance from the government.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support this year,” Baez said. “They throw you a life jacket, but you’re still stranded in the middle of the ocean, trying to wait out hypothermia. That’s how we feel sometimes. Just hold onto the life jacket and keep floating.”
At Masia, Chesa’s Spanish-accented Thanksgiving meal kit to-go is available for $125. Pickup at 601 S.W. 11th Ave. Visit masiapdx.com for more information.
At Aybendito, Baez’s Thanksgiving bandeja tray costs $125 and serves at least six people. Available for pickup Wednesday, Nov. 25, at Ataula, 1818 N.W. 23rd Place. Visit aybenditopdx.com for more information.