It’s 9:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning and Levy’s Vice President and Chef de Cuisine Robin Rosenberg has just arrived at the Salvation Army’s Freedom Center. With him is a truck packed to the brim with all of the Thanksgiving staples, from mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce to gravy, green beans, dressing, and the star of the show – 1,600 pounds of juicy turkey. The feast prepared by Rosenberg and his team of chefs and volunteers will be served to 3,000 Chicagoans who could use the lift of a homemade, restaurant-quality meal, a feat that requires months of planning and multiple days of diligent preparation.
Since Levy began the tradition of cooking Thanksgiving meals for those in need years ago, Chef Rosenberg has helmed the operation with help from master culinarians like Regional Chef Mike Arcomone and Ron Krivosik, Vice President of Culinary and Regional Chef for Levy’s Central Division.
When asked how a small team of chefs and volunteers are able to pull off a restaurant-quality feast for thousands in just a few days, Chef Krivosik points to the knowledge the culinary team has gleaned in venues across the country:
“3,000 people sounds like a huge number,” he explained. “But keep in mind we prepare food for large sports and entertainment events, there’s a synergy that’s perfect for this. We know that it’s all about planning because that’s what we do for every event. We set out a roadmap and follow it to the letter to achieve our end result.”
That roadmap includes submitting a food order for the highest-quality ingredients 3 months in advance. Once all the product is in hand, the process kicks off in November with Chef Rosenberg traveling to the kitchen where the meals will be prepared, in this case, the kitchens at Guaranteed Rate Field, to perform a quality control check. From there, it’s time to put the chef’s hat on.
Keep reading for a behind-the-scenes look at each day of preparation for the annual Thanksgiving meal!
Monday – Let’s Get Started
Chefs Rosenberg (left), Arcomone (middle), and Krivosik (right)
The first full day at Guaranteed Rate Field is known as “rough prep,” with the chefs laying the groundwork for what the Levy volunteers will put into action on days two and three. The main part of the operation is preparing and roasting nearly 120 turkeys, a process that Rosenberg has taken years to perfect.
“With a turkey, it’s all about time and temperature,” he explained. “We start off by rubbing the birds with salt, pepper, and butter, before pouring 2 cups of water into the roasting pan. That water is crucial because it creates steam while the turkey is roasting, which keeps the meat nice and moist.”
By the end of the day, stations are fully stocked with cooking equipment, ingredients, and detailed instructions to ensure volunteers are ready to go when they arrive Tuesday morning. With the tall task ahead, it’s crucial that everything is in place for the volunteers to efficiently complete their assigned tasks.
“We check everything and make sure that they’re set up for success,” Chef Rosenberg said. “The equipment has to work perfectly, everything needs to be in the right place – for people who aren’t chefs, they need to be comfortable or it can be really easy to get lost.”
Tuesday and Wednesday – Volunteers Get to Work
Chef Rosenberg leading a pre-shift meeting with the Thanksgiving volunteers
With just two days until Thanksgiving, volunteers from Levy’s Chicago home office, including the executive board, arrive at the ballpark ready to dive in. Over these two days, the team works tirelessly to make the meal a reality. Volunteers are given crucial tasks, like making the dressing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, carving the turkeys, and preparing the green beans and sweet potatoes for roasting. All in all, it’s a huge undertaking for people who normally don’t spend their days in a kitchen. But none of them would trade it for the world.
“The only thing better than helping others is getting to do it with people you love,” said Senior Vice President of CORE Solutions and expert sweet potato chopper Jeff Zoeller. “This is not only a great cause, but it’s a great chance to spend some time outside the office and enjoy each other’s company while we’re doing a great service to the community.”
To keep morale high, Executive Chef Ryan Craig and Levy’s team at Guaranteed Rate Field dish up a delicious breakfast to start the day, as well as lunch after that draws inspiration from around Levy. According to Chef Arcomone, who makes his signature Philly Cheesesteaks each year for the Wednesday lunch, this is part of a concerted effort to make the volunteers feel appreciated and valued.
“After a few years of doing this, we felt like doing something for the people that came to help was the right thing to do. And now these meals have become like a family tradition, where we’re enjoying each other’s company and breaking bread together.”
Thursday – Time to Hit the Road
By the time volunteers finish up Wednesday afternoon, the entire meal is packaged up and oven-ready. With the prep work complete, now it’s all about execution.
Chefs arrive at Guaranteed Rate Field at 4:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, where they follow a meticulous schedule that accounts for everything from the order food is heated to the way it’s packed for travel, and the time it takes to transport it from the kitchens to the truck to the Freedom Center.
“It’s all about the planning,” noted Chef Krivosik. “You have to work backward, going all the way down the list, making calculations, thinking ‘how long is this all going to take?’ At the end of the day, we know that if it’s not planned right, it’s not going to work, plain and simple.”
Fortunately, Chefs like Rosenberg, Krivosik, and Arcomone know exactly how to design the schedule to ensure its success. Before the sun rises, the process is moving along like a locomotive, all the way up until the food is loaded and set off for its final destination.
Friday – Reflecting on What it All Means
Once all the work is done and the food is delivered, our chefs and volunteers reflect on another year spent helping people in need. When asked what the work on Thanksgiving means to them, the chefs behind the operation told it straight from their hearts.
“For me, it’s all about just being a human being and showing some basic kindness,” said Chef Krivosik. “We’re in such a unique position to be able to give back, so to have that kind of impact on 3,000 people with our food, that’s incredible.”
“When it all comes together, we get to see the smiles on people’s faces from getting a hot, delicious Thanksgiving meal,” Chef Arcomone reflected. “It’s good for the soul, it really makes you appreciate what you have.”
“What we do on Thanksgiving defines who we are 365 days a year at Levy,” according to Chef Rosenberg. “We’re a family, we’re a team, and we all know how lucky we are for what we have. People that are less fortunate deserve the same things, so every year it’s our mission to show them how much we care with a home-cooked meal, filled with love from our family.”