Food for Thought

Chef conjures joy and community with blowtorch turkeys

by April Lisante
Posted 11/16/23

If you think you have a giant crew to cook for this Thanksgiving, you haven’t met chef Altenor Vaval.

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Food for Thought

Chef conjures joy and community with blowtorch turkeys


If you think you have a giant crew to cook for this Thanksgiving, you haven’t met chef Altenor Vaval.

Vaval is going to brine his turkey for his family on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Easy enough, it would seem. But he won’t be home on that day.

Early that morning, he will be heading over to Face to Face in Germantown, where he will be preparing and cooking dozens more turkeys – you know, the kind of prep that requires blow torches, as well as spices and sauces. It’s just what he does each year. He has a job to do before he can sit down to dinner that night with his family.

For the past decade, Vaval has been the chef at Face to Face in Germantown, a go-to place for those who need a warm meal and a place to go when times are difficult. He came to the job with no traditional cooking experience – which is perhaps that’s what makes him so special. Because he is amazingly adept at reimagining how a traditional soup kitchen is not a soup kitchen at all. It is a place for Thanksgiving. A place for community.

“It gives me a sense of joy, to do what we do at Face to Face,” said Vaval, who creates his recipes on the fly.

One can see why. The magic he does every day in the Price Street kitchen in Germantown keeps people off the streets, and offers everyone a sense of belonging and community.

Vaval’s normal schedule at Face to Face runs from Thursday through Monday each week, when he conjures up his Haitian heritage and opens his gigantic heart in its industrial kitchen to serve more than 100 lunchtime meals a day, with counts sometimes approaching 175. Locals come in for lunch between 12:30 and 2:45 each day, and he’s ready.

But Thanksgiving is different. He cooks for hundreds of people all day on Thanksgiving Day, then he goes home to his family and cooks again. Yes, really.  And he does the same for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

For this meal, he delivers the true spirit of Thanksgiving. He’s not about food trays and frozen dinners. He’s about making everything as gourmet as possible. Each meal has homemade sauces, breads, vegetables, and meats.

This Thanksgiving, he’ll be blow-torching dozens of turkeys and making pounds upon pounds of mashed sweet potatoes with roasted garlic bulbs. He’s throwing in a mushroom gravy for the turkey, something he’s excited about. He’s also jazzed up about his bulgar wheat and ground beef stuffing, the stuff of his imagination. But that’s not all. He’s thought about this all year.

“We are going to have baked green beans, honey cranberry sauce and mac and cheese,” he said of his Thanksgiving menu.  He is a chef making sure all of his guests, as he refers to them, have a dignified meal. “We try to have a homemade meal every day,” says Vaval. “A starch, protein, and a salad plate.”

Speaking to Vaval, it’s obvious he cares about how and what locals eat. He cares about their health and their well-being.

“I try to have healthy food for the guests,” he says. “Most of our guests have high blood, pressure, cholesterol.” He takes that into account when cooking. “Me being able to help them out, that keeps me going every day.”

And he does consider them to be his guests. Locals come to Face to Face hoping for a warm meal, perhaps their only meal for that particular day. The organization also offers legal aid, children’s activities and health care for clients.

And on Thanksgiving, in particular, they come for community. 

“They feel joyful and special that day,” said Vaval. “To be able to talk and spend time, the sense of community is powerful. Seeing the joy in their faces, seeing that sense of joy – it transforms our lives.”

 Here are some of Chef Vaval’s Thanksgiving recipes to try at home:

Roasted Mushroom Sweet Pea Turkey (16-20 servings)

20-25 pound turkey (brine turkey for 24 hours)

½ stick of butter to soften turkey at the end

½ pound shitake mushroom, sliced

½ pound sweet peas

1 bunch of parsley, minced

1 whole head of garlic, minced

2 onions, minced

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon of ground cloves

1 lime or lemon or ½ cup red wine


  1.   Preheat oven to 325.  
  2.   Take the turkey out of the brine after 24 hours and pat it dry.
  3.   Caramelize onions in skillet.
  4.   Add garlic to onions.
  5.   Add mushrooms.
  6.   Add sweet peas.
  7.   Add spices, parsley and acid (lime, lemon or red wine).
  8.   Simmer all the above and stuff inside the turkey.
  9.   Tie turkey legs together.
  10. Place turkey in a roasting pan.
  11. Cover Turkey with aluminum foil.
  12. Cook turkey according to directions (approximately 10-12 minutes per pound) or until the internal temperature is 165 degrees.
  13. Uncover and rub the turkey with butter. 
  14. Put back in the oven at 350 degrees until golden and the internal temperature is 170 degrees (approximately 30 minutes).

 Mashed Sweet Potato

5 pounds sweet potatoes

1/2 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/3 cup butter

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg


  1.   Peel and cube the sweet potatoes.
  2.   In a large bowl mix salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Toss with cubed potatoes.
  3.   Place on a baking sheet.
  4.   Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.
  5.   Remove from oven and mash the potatoes.
  6.   Butter oven-safe dish.
  7.   Place mashed potatoes into the dish and bake 30 minutes or until golden on top.
  8.   Top with honey.