Of The Patriot-News

If your dinner yesterday didn’t include house-smoked duck breast with cranberry walnut gremolada, you probably didn’t make a reservation for the feast at the Hilton Harrisburg & Towers.

Not everyone goes to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving.

Some people enjoy the easy sophistication of a holiday dinner at a plush hotel.

Others avoid the traditional family thing because their families have changed — there’s been a divorce, or someone died.

The latter brought Peggy Wohlfarth of Colonial Park and her family downtown.

“After my husband died, my children didn’t want to have Thanksgiving at home,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for about three years. And this year for the first time, I invited Tommy, and it’s all right with the kids.”

Tommy is her friend Tom Burns of Mechanicsburg, who joined her three children and four grandchildren at the hotel buffet.

“Now it’s going to be a tradition,” she said.

For the Hilton’s executive chef, John Reis, “It is a traditional Thanksgiving. We have the chestnut stuffing, the regular sage stuffing, the oyster stuffing.”

Well, and the Cajun and garlic sausages, the pate en croute, all of that.

Reis designed the menu with executive sous chef Joseph Holmes and chef de cuisine Joe Wiles.

Reis looked over his kitchen staff and said, “These guys, they all like to have fun. They like to create things. Everybody has the ability to create.

“If we want to run a special in the restaurant, we say to them, ‘What do you want to do? Ask some questions, do some research, learn, and it’s your baby.'”

Live from the kitchen

It’s 10 a.m., and Wiles is putting a little heat on the guys who will run the carving station for turkey, ham and tenderloin of beef.

“We want to be set up and ready to go at 10:45, with name tags and smiling faces,” he says.

Then he turns to Chris DeLine, normally the Raspberries buffet manager, and Wiles goes through his mental menu list:

“Turkey’s all done, gravy’s all done, we’re going to candy, orange or glaze our hams now, salmon’s on the fire.

“Nattie’s got the beurre blanc, chickens are resting, all we’ve got to do is slice those up, I’ve got an apple-chicken veloute for them. The duck breast we’re just going to flash, slice, drizzle a little demi and then the gremolada on top of that.”

There’s more, but all the chef talk is translatable with a single word: “Tasty.”

Wiles is a Culinary Institute of America grad who grew up in Harrisburg and lives in Perry County.

“I have a lot of Mennonite in my family,” he said. “Autumn and Thanksgiving, that’s food I like to do.”

On the holiday menu, he wants half the customers to be happy with the traditional dishes.

He figures 20 percent will come specifically for the special entrees, and the other 30 percent will get a bit of culinary education.

At the 10:15 service staff meeting, same theme: Put on your smiles. Serving starts at 11.

Russell Klineyoung, food service manager, is talking to the servers and serving assistants. It’s a holiday, he reminds them. Make the guests happy.

“If a guest asks for something, in most cases the answer is ‘Yes,'” Klineyoung said.

“Then we’ll figure out how to do it.”

Out at the front desk, restaurant manager Jean Battle is setting up to greet the customers. “We see some of the same people every year,” she says, and many of the people who were waiting in the lobby know her.

Reis is checking breads and spreads and serving pieces out front, in the dining room.

In the back of the house, the kitchen, Wiles is preserving the dark, glistening juice left when the ham was transferred to the carving plate. For what? He didn’t know just yet.

“It’s just too sexy to throw away,” he said.

The kitchen is calm.

“The days leading up to today are the stressful ones,” Wiles said. “Today is my resting day. There’s going to be a million and half things go wrong today, and I want to make sure I have time for them.”

One of them pops up at 10:43, two minutes before his deadline.

As the hot pans are coming out, Wiles realizes the chafing dishes on the buffet tables are new. The pans don’t fit in the chafers.

He swings the 5-foot-high aluminum cart around and heads for the kitchen, explaining to cooks as he hurtles through the swinging door with a trail of serving staff behind him, “What is out there for hot food, it all needs to come back.”

The eggplant rollatini with herbed soft cheese and fresh tomato, the pan-seared salmon fillet with red onion and rosemary butter — it all goes back, gets transferred to new pans and tweaked a little and returned to the dining room, pan by pan.

Everyone is helping. The service staff, the managers, the guys at the carving stations are lifting up lids to see what goes where.

Sometimes it’s not that easy to tell. They know the menu, but may not recognize the dish itself,

One server has to ask Holmes, “Is this the oyster stuffing?” No, it’s chestnut stuffing, and it goes back in the chafer next to the Chestnut Stuffing sign.


At 11:04, Chef Holmes asks Chef Reis if he can open the doors.

“Yes,” he said.

About 40 people who were waiting in the lobby arrive, among them Verna Shuster and Barbara Spotts, of Camp Hill.

“My husband and I used to come here every Thanksgiving,” Spotts said. “He passed away and now I’m coming here with my friend Verna. I just love it.

“Excellent food.”


1 Response to “Thanks, Hilton”

  1. March 25, 2013 at 7:04 am

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In culinary school and getting ready to trade the writing life for the cooking life. Or not. Might do both. At the moment I'm a feature writer for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. My name is Pat Carroll.

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