By Jose Herrera
Signal Staff Writer
The holidays are upon us, and whether it’s a special meal with your family for Christmas or gatherings with friends for an unforgettable New Year’s party, food is an essential part of the experience, according to chefs in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Cherie McGraham, owner of Smokehouse on Main, located at 24255 Main St., worked as a Realtor before becoming the owner of the restaurant in 2018. She’s lived in the Agua Dulce community for more than 17 years.
She said she occasionally assists in the kitchen, and her signature dish for the holidays is a Mexican chicken corn chowder.
“I’m one of those people that doesn’t like traditional turkey for Christmas,” McGraham said. “Everybody does it for Thanksgiving, and I don’t understand why everybody does it again for Christmas.”
Every year, she makes her chowder for a family-and-friends open house Christmas party at the Smokehouse. She has a section of the restaurant open for customers while another section is solely for her invited guests.
“People can come all day and all night,” McGraham said. “They can just stop by for an hour while they’re shopping or do something else, and have food and drinks.”
The chowder is like a soup, or almost like a stew, and she finishes it up with a garnish, she added.
“It’s just a big pot of chicken. If you can picture, a corn chowder that’s a little spicy and then after they serve it, we garnish it on top with chips, cilantro, onion and cheese. And there’s a lot of cheese in it, in the soup. It’s just really good,” McGraham said.
Aside from the chowder, McGraham includes a variety of dishes for her Christmas party, such as teriyaki chicken, and different types of soups, stews and meats.
“It’s different dishes that are appetizers, just so that (my guests) can have a little bit of a lot,” McGraham said. “People look forward to it and that makes my day.”
The Christmas party works great for McGraham because people trickle in throughout the day, and that gives her time to sit and talk with them.
“It makes it really nice for me not to have a roomful of people that all came at 1 p.m. and then I don’t have time to talk to them,” McGraham said.
Estella Garcias, a four-year chef at El Pueblo Restaurant, located at 24400 Walnut St., said she’s ready for the holiday parties.
Garcias cooks for the restaurant, which specializes in Mexican food. There she helps make a little bit of everything including tamales, different types of moles, huevos a la Mexicana, champurrado, gelatinas, panes (Mexican sweet bread), tortias hecho de mano, and enchiladas.
“When we first got this place, it was slow, but little by little we are getting clients,” Garcias said. “Thank God, it’s getting better. With the food we are making, people are coming in.”
For the holidays, she and her family make homemade tamales, champurrado (a chocolate-based atole, a warm and thick Mexican beverage), atole de maiz (a traditional hot corn- and masa-based beverage) and other recipes.
“I feel happy and content (when I’m cooking with my family) because everyone’s there. My kids, my family is there,” Garcias said. “We are so ready for the holidays. We are more than prepared because it’s less than a week away.”
Juan Alonzo, owner of Le Chene French Cuisine, located at 12625 Sierra Highway, purchased the restaurant in 1987. Since then, the already prominent restaurant has been a go-to special occasion restaurant for SCV residents and beyond.
“When I cook here, I have to follow certain guidelines, but when I cook at home I can go to the market and pick up anything. I can try new things,” Alonzo said.
For the holidays, he cooks on a whim. He could go the market and pick up anything including chicken, rabbit, beef, pork and whatever his family wants to eat, he’ll make it.
“We try to eat something new every time,” Alonzo said. “My goal is to make everybody happy.”
At home, there are no constraints, and “I’m free to experiment,” Alonzo added.
This holiday season, chefs encourage others to cook with their families and try making their favorite, traditional meals or experiment, and enjoy the experience of it.