A Popular Holiday Song is a Menu Muse

Everyone knows the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is a holiday song meant for singing. But, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, it was transformed into a holiday song for eating during the three consecutive evenings of the fourth annual Twelve Days of Christmas event.

The twelve-course dinner was more like dinner and a show, with Chef Jamie Simpson’s whimsical culinary creations taking center stage. If the food was the star, then the single dining table spanning the entire length of the room was the red carpet, and the frequent flashes of cell phones the paparazzi.

As one guest exclaimed, “This is an evening of entertainment!”

Magical Holiday Evening

Chef Jamie said the original idea for a Twelve Days of Christmas Dinner came to him a few years ago during a late night in the kitchen. “We’re singing through it. I’ve got interns. We’re wrapping things up for the evening and I’m thinking, ‘There’s a dish here. Actually, there’s a meal here. There’s an event here.’”


Lit purely by candlelight and the glow of a fire, the atmosphere inside the Culinary Vegetable Institute was simultaneously intimate and fantastical as each gathering of guests was transported to a magical place serving edible imagination with an ages-old song as its muse. “The CVI is one of those places that can change,” Chef Jamie said. “It can transform into any kind of experience we want to create, and I think this is a great opportunity to express that.”

Christmas Dinner by the Numbers

Each individual course was a small event unto itself. To begin, guests enjoyed a “partridge in a pear tree” amuse bouche featuring egg-shaped partridge and pear terrines perched in delicate nests of grape vines and twigs. Two origami “turtle doves” of folded, parchment-thin Feuille de Brick “flying” above an apple cider butter candle made up the bread and butter course.

Turtle Dove

The three “French hens” incorporated three preparations of poussin, or young chicken, including a braised wing, butter poached breast and, using a distinctly French method, a thigh ballotine. To further the French theme, each plate was cloaked in a tall paper chef’s toque until the very last moment.

Calling BIRDS

“Four calling birds” made for a hands-on participatory experience. Guests served themselves family style from glass-sided bird feeders filled with sprouted grain “risotto,” which they drenched in ginger white pomegranate dashi poured from small clay tweetable bird whistles.

Chef Jamie rendered the “five golden rings” from stacks of gold beet, potato, pumpkin, sweet potato and crisp onion cut into, of course, rings. “Six geese a laying” was composed of soft-boiled eggs nestled into crisp potato nests. And tiny white petals of white frilled dianthus floating on a pond of consommé bordered by chive “grass” and lily pads of nasturtium leaves convincingly resembled “seven swans a swimming.”

Breakfast was served as an early morning on the farm homage to “eight maids a milking” with bowls of cereal puffs, hay-smoked custard, whey caramel, bone marrow and a pour of warm milk. As one guest enthused, “This dish took me back to my childhood. Nostalgia with every bite!”

“Nine ladies dancing” was a rich course of lobster and tomato nage, concealed by raffia dolls wearing kale “skirts” of fuchsia and green. The “dance” occurred as servers pirouetted the skirted ladies from each plate to reveal the decadent contents hidden beneath.

The “ten lords a leaping” was a feast fit for a king, featuring a regal, roasted-suckling pig, hearty carrot pot pies and a royal array of root vegetables.

For a decidedly musical finish to the night, chocolate flutes that looked convincingly playable were served as a dessert tribute to “eleven pipers piping.” Each flute was presented on cranberry puree, then filled tableside with hot eggnog to melt the instrument into a warm, velvety sweet note. The “twelve drummers drumming” finale was a take-home candy box filled with twelve confectionary “drums” represented by a selection of truffles, candies and cookies.

Culinary Vegetable Institute Wine Steward Liz Studer paired each course with a selection of French, Spanish and Portuguese wines. Her signature cocktail for the evening was a mix of Hendrick’s Gin, pear brandy, spiced white wine, carrot, spruce tips and cinnamon smoke which she dubbed “S.S. Glögg.”