How the Owner of New York’s La Esquina Celebrates Thanksgiving

Beth Stebner
la esquina thanksgiving traditions

Derek Sanders is the owner of popular Mexican spot La Esquina in lower Manhattan.

Thanksgiving is one of those rare times when we slow down, crack open a bottle of wine (or three) with family and friends, and really appreciate what goes into making the quintessential American meal. It’s not just about the bird (though it kind of is) or how intricate your tablescape is (though it certainly adds to the festivity of the day). More than anything, Thanksgiving is an extension of who you are, what you love, or the story behind a beloved family recipe.

MORE: 25 Ridiculously Easy Thanksgiving Desserts

The holiday is doubly exciting for foodies and chefs, many of whom take Thanksgiving to be a personal challenge to come up with the best Instagram-worthy spread of all time, making sure every detail down to the last cranberry garnish is meticulously planed and executed. That said, we’ve always been curious about the story behind the meal. How do chefs make their own Thanksgiving celebrations feel special?

For Derek Sanders, the owner of wildly popular Mexican restaurant La Esquina in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, Thanksgiving is not a culinary one-up, but instead, an opportunity to do traditional Thanksgiving fare really, really well. We caught up with the architect-turned-restaurateur to find out his favorite Thanksgiving traditions, how he gets help from his wife (Calvin Klein Collection president Michelle Kessler-Sanders), and why pumpkin pie isn’t on his radar.

The one thing I can’t live without at Thanksgiving:
Besides the organic bird? It sounds so obscure, but it’s the only time I get it: It’s a raw cranberry relish with orange juice.

My guilty pleasure is:
Buttermilk Pie. It’s basically butter and sugar and the poor man’s version of crème brûlée.

My signature cocktail is:
I’m really basic and classic, and I love a good dirty martini before dinner, like Tito’s. And then, with dinner, my love and I love a Grüner Veltliner. After dinner, a nice Scotch Whisky like Highland Park is great or an iced tequila like a Casanova, which I buy by the barrel. But you’re not supposed to throw tequila back like in college days!

The one thing I’d never serve my guests:
Fried food. At La Esquina, we don’t do it. If you can’t cook it on a fire or stew it, you shouldn’t serve it. It’s kind of like a shortcut to something being good.

My Thanksgiving meal is: 
Traditional, definitely. There’s a reason things have been around so long. I love the whole sense of history and ritual. There’s just some certainty when you’re cooking and making dishes that have been around for generations. It’s not the time to take a risk and do some fashionable new-fangled thing that may or may not work.

I’d rather be the guest because:
I grew up a very shy kid, and the social aspect of the restaurant business is something I’ve grown into. And I love it now. It’s not about me—it’s about the experience.

MORE: The Everything Guide to Hosting Your First Thanksgiving

la equina restaurant soho

The Mexican restaurant is in lower Manhattan. (Photo: Courtesy of La Esquina)

My biggest tip to the host is:
Creating an environment and an atmosphere. Lots of candles changes the mood; it feels festive and warm. It’s really about helping the guest connect and having hors d’oeuvres like cheeses and figs and wine set out, close to the kitchen so guests feel like they’re invested in the dinner. It’s not like you need them for the dinner, but people really enjoy a dinner when they feel like they contributed, and it breaks down. I wouldn’t impose potato peeling on anybody.

My family helps by:
My wife helps set the mood for the day with candles, flowers, food, and transforming the space. We cut grass from the country and [bring] it to our house. It’s really about creating a warmth of colors or doing a high/low, like a brown craft paper covering the table but with modern dishes. And flowers from outside in a modern, sleek vase.

The worst thing that can happen at Thanksgiving dinner is:
Overcooking the turkey. A bad turkey’s a bad turkey. Or if one guest just gets too drunk.

The best thing that can happen at Thanksgiving dinner is:
Coming together, the quiet slow process of being with friends and family, bottle of wine, music, the lingering experience, great conversation—it just becomes memorable. It takes multiple steps for busy New Yorkers to get to that place; the light takes you down and creates a warm feeling. It all builds on itself. Dinner is its best midway to finishing it. Everyone is connected; you’re feeling satisfied. We don’t allow ourselves that time often.

la esquina restaurant

Photo: Courtesy of La Esquina

I like to ______ after the meal:
Keep drinking! Just kidding. We’ll linger for a long time at the table after the dinner. Maybe the kids can come and go, but traditionally we can sit for hours at the table. People try to be too helpful and helping with the dishes, but I kill that. People should stay at the table for as long as they want.

My favorite thing about Thanksgiving is:
The ritual. It makes you stop and think and be thankful. It’s unscheduled time.

The one thing that’s weird about Thanksgiving is:
The commercial aspect of Thanksgiving. We don’t really turn the TV on—we don’t do the Thanksgiving Day parade. We watch football because my 11-year-old loves it, but not so it breaks the spell. We’re all on the go so much that it’s a cherished moment when it’s, “Oh, no one’s working, and there’s very little to do.”

My favorite recipe is: 
Buttermilk Pie
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup of buttermilk
1/2 cup of melted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
Unbaked pie crust (can be store-bought)

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 375˚F. In a food processor, combine the eggs, sugar, flour, salt, buttermilk, and butter until thoroughly mixed. Add the vanilla extract. Pour the mixture into the unbaked pie shell.

Bake at 375˚F for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 300˚F, and bake for another 50 minutes until set and brown.