Beirut-born Boston chef Jay Hajj is America’s master of turkey — and every day grateful for his incredible immigrant achievement.
The owner of beloved Mike’s City Diner in Boston’s South End has served freshly roasted turkey and a Thanksgiving dinner to loyal locals, political brokers and legions of tourists every day for 27 years.
A frequent Food Network guest, Hajj has learned over the years every trip imaginable to cook the perfect turkey. He offers his three most important tips (below) to make your holiday bird crispier and more delicious than ever this year.
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Among his advice: cook your turkey upright on its legs, not flat on its back — if you have room in your oven.
“Turkey tastes great, it makes a great meal, it makes a great sandwich, it makes everything better when it cooks,” Hajj told Fox News Digital.
“It’s America’s signature dish, and it makes a lot of sense to all of us.”
Turkey has made Mike’s City Diner a benchmark for American casual dining.
The Boston Herald proclaimed “Bird Man!” of Hajj Boston! in a front-page headline ahead of a recent Thanksgiving. Boston Magazine called the Mike’s Famous Pilgrim sandwich “a restaurant heirloom” – and the Food Network named Mike’s Famous Pilgrim one of the five best Thanksgiving meals in America.
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Mike’s City Diner serves turkey mince, turkey soup, turkey clubs, turkey meatloaf, and complete turkey dinners.
The restaurant’s signature Mikes Famous Pilgrim sandwich is a complete Thanksgiving dinner in one portable package.
It contains turkey, cranberries, stuffing and the restaurant’s “fantastic” sauce, Hajj boasts.
Its sauce is made by mixing the cooking juices with a broth made from a roast turkey carcass.
Hajj devotes an entire chapter to turkey in his 2017 cookbook, “Beiruit to Boston: Comfort Food Inspired by a Rags-to-Restaurants Story.”
“Turkey is America’s signature dish, and that makes a lot of sense to all of us.” — Chief Jay Hajj
The chapter includes the amazing secrets of Hajj to cook the perfect turkey.
Turkey Tip #1: Brine the bird for 12-24 hours to make it as moist as possible
A basic brine is nothing more than salt and water, plus spices as desired.
Hajj brine includes slices of orange and lemon, as well as rosemary, sage, cinnamon and other aromatics.
Turkey Tip #2: Dry the turkey uncovered in the fridge for extra crispy skin
The refrigerator is a very dry environment. Exposing the skin to dry, cold air will make the skin crispier and darker while cooking.
Simply put the poultry in the refrigerator the day before cooking.
Turkey Tip #3: Cook Your Poultry Standing On Its Legs For An Extra-Tender Turkey
Yes, it’s true. Hajj cooks his birds standing on their feet, held upright by a poultry roaster, rather than flat on their backs like mere mortal Thanksgiving chefs.
Of course, he recognizes that not everyone has a home oven big enough to cook turkey standing up.
But if you do, Hajj swears by the method.
Cook your bird standing on its feet for an extra-tender turkey.
“The fat melts in a way that makes the meat more tender,” Hajj writes in his book.
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He also cooks Thanksgiving dinner at home every year for 50 guests from his large Lebanese-Irish-American family.
“We cook thousands of turkeys at Mike’s every year, and this technique is one of our secrets,” he says.
Hajj said he has many reasons to be grateful each year, including the opportunity to call himself an American.
Hajj was born in Beirut in 1970 and was a small boy when the Lebanese civil war erupted outside his family home in the heart of the city in 1975. His family often hid in the elevator shaft of their building for protection as the missiles were raining down.
They fled for the safety of the United States and arrived in Massachusetts, the state that gave birth to Thanksgiving, in 1978.
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Hajj was a young chef in 1995 when he took over the struggling Mike’s City Diner in what was then a rundown Boston neighborhood.
He helped transform the restaurant into a landmark that is now celebrated across the country for America’s signature holiday dish, while his investment in an underdog neighborhood helped make the South End one of the Boston’s hottest zip codes today.
Boston’s late Mayor Tom Menino rewarded Hajj for his investment in the neighborhood by showing up with a very special guest: President Bill Clinton.
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The visit of the then-incumbent President of the United States helped put Mike’s City Diner and its signature turkey dishes on the national food map.
“How cool is that?” Hajj writes in his cookbook “From Beirut to Boston”.
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“This young immigrant from Lebanon has made a name for himself in America by mastering the most iconic American meal: Thanksgiving dinner. That makes me very proud.”