Al Roker Dishes on Thanksgiving, the Perfect Leftover Sandwich, and His New Podcast

Listen to ‘Cooking Up a Storm’ to get into the holiday spirit.

Al Roker and Sohla El-Waylly
Al Roker cooks with Chef Sohla El-Waylly. | Courtesy of NBCUniversal
Al Roker cooks with Chef Sohla El-Waylly. | Courtesy of NBCUniversal

There was never a lot of consistency in my house for Thanksgiving. The menu and the guests changed every year. But one thing was guaranteed: My siblings and I would plop down in front of the television every fourth Thursday of November, eagerly watching every giant balloon and glittery performer march down Central Park West, then 6th Avenue. And always, Al Roker would be there, jubilant and bursting with festive facts and holiday glee. I considered him, and still so now, the king of Thanksgiving.

Further earning him the crown, Roker is the host of the new podcast Cooking Up a Storm With Al Roker. Each episode features a different guest and a new recipe, giving the listener a diverse mix of menu options for their holiday table, and a deep dive into the history of some of the day’s most iconic dishes. Roker got on the phone with Thrillist to talk about all things Thanksgiving, including his very chill approach to how he celebrates the day himself.

Thrillist: To get started, if you had to curate an entire Thanksgiving meal, from appetizers to dessert, what are some dishes that have to be on the menu?
Al Roker: My mother always made this sweet potato dish called a sweet potato pone. It was a crustless kind of sweet potato pie. Topped with the marshmallows. Broiled marshmallows. I think mac and cheese is one of those that you have to do. The green bean casserole is always hit. You know the green beans with the cream of mushroom soup and the French fried onions on top. That’s always a bit of a hit. I think those three you notice they’re all fairly carb-heavy.

What do you think is the biggest mistake when it comes to preparing the Thanksgiving meal?
AR: Getting overly ambitious. Suddenly you’re running out of time and or oven real estate and stove real estate to get everything prepped and then it's hard to get everything out at the same time. So I think that is why the turkey recipe from Sohla El-Waylly is such a game changer because it only takes 90 minutes in a 425 oven but because you’ve spatchcocked it, which means you get rid of the backbone, and now this turkey is flat on a cookie sheet. You still have rack space in that same moment, especially if what you're cooking is around 400 degrees.

What inspired you to start this podcast?
AR: Well, I’ll be perfectly honest, nothing inspired me in that, in that the NBC News digital team came to me and said, hey, we’d like to do this cooking podcast, we'd love to do a Thanksgiving podcast, we’d love for you to host it. And to be perfectly honest, my first reaction was, ‘Are people gonna listen to somebody cook?’ They said, ‘Oh, we think so.’ And, I mean, that’s the beauty of a podcast, it’s not like you built a set and did all this other stuff. We have a terrific food team, and a great technical staff. So they knew what they were doing. And then we just asked some chefs that I like, and they said yes. So we gave it a shot.

“My mother always made this sweet potato dish called sweet potato pone. It was a crustless kind of sweet potato pie.”

It is like that ASMR kind of experience.
Yes, yes. Chopping, the slicing, and the stirring. And it’s very audio intensive, which, again, you don’t think about if you’re doing TV, cooking, or even cooking in person, because you see everything and you say you hear it, but it’s all part of your senses. You smell it, you see it, you taste it. But you take all those things away where you can only hear it. And it’s pretty intense.

Your podcast guests expand on what might be considered to be traditional Thanksgiving dishes and also goes deep into the history. Is there a fact you learned that was particularly intriguing?
AR: Well, Sean Sherman, our Indigenous chef from Minneapolis, I had no idea. We talk about Native indigenous foods, and how much food was imported into this country. But you can really have a rich, full meal off of just what's part of our native foods. That’s kind of cool.

What does a typical Thanksgiving look like for you?
AR: When my family was a little younger, I’ve got two daughters and a son, and my parents were still with us, we’d have a big dinner. And our daughters, friends, families would come over, we sometimes had 18 to 20 people. And I would cook, prep everything the night before. And Deborah, my wife would start putting stuff in the oven on a schedule. And then we get home and then everybody comes over and then you gotta clean up. And you were just wrecked by Friday. Now we actually go out to dinner, after the parade, and have a nice leisurely dinner and come home. And I make a small Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday.

As the reigning king of Thanksgiving, have you felt a shift in how people value the holiday?
AR: We have learned not to take anything for granted, to be thankful for what we do have because we realized how easily it can be altered and changed, and in some cases taken away. So this year, people are more appreciative of what we have been blessed with. We have been fortunate enough to have, for those of us who do, and because there are still so many of us who don’t. But that realization has now been imprinted on us—the idea that we are a country of greatness, but we also have a lot of people who don’t get to take part in that greatness and share in that.

What is the composition of your leftover sandwich?
AR: You’ve got a good bread to start off with and a layer, a thin veneer of mayonnaise, and then some turkey, probably a little dressing, stuffing, maybe a little cranberry sauce. And then, you know, a little more mayonnaise and slice it up.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.