How to cook a masterful holiday meal in a vacation rental

With Chef Gabriel Rucker

Published November 2020


As many people forgo trips to see family and celebrations with friends this holiday season, there’s a desire to forge new traditions. And for many, that includes finding a vacation rental within driving distance where the festivities can continue—just in a safer way. A recent survey by Vacasa found that 2 in 5 people plan to travel to a vacation destination for the holidays this year. But the idea of cooking a full holiday spread in a vacation rental? It can be intimidating, overwhelming, exciting, or a combination of all three, so we went straight to the expert for tips: Chef Gabriel Rucker.

As chef and owner of two award-winning Portland, Oregon, restaurants—Le Pigeon and Canard—who regularly hosts roving dinners with his Pigeon at Home series, Chef Gabriel is no stranger to cooking in new spaces. Plus, he’s an avid road tripper with his family of five and loves to take the lead cooking for his wife, kids, and close friends while on vacation. A chef is never off duty, it turns out. Lucky for us, the Rucker family recently stayed in a Vacasa vacation rental in the Columbia River Gorge and documented their experience cooking a holiday-style meal just in time to teach us a thing or two.

In the spirit of the season, Chef Gabriel dished up five tips to make sure cooking in a vacation rental goes just as smoothly as cooking in your home kitchen, along with recipes to create a restaurant-inspired meal from the chef himself. These dishes will be the gifts that keep on giving—and filling—this year.

chef gabriel chopping vegetables with his son

1. Pack your favorite kitchen tools

Kitchens of professionally managed vacation rentals like Vacasa’s are usually well-stocked with essentials, so no need to haul a can opener or spatula along. However, it’s likely you have a favorite kitchen gadget or two, maybe because you like the grip on a particular vegetable peeler or the versatility of a microplane. The two things I never leave home without? A sharp knife and a trusty 12" cast iron skillet from Portland-based Finex—because I use both pretty much start to finish for holiday meals.

chef gabriel and his daughter take stock of the fridge of their vacation rental

2. Take stock of the kitchen

With comprehensive photo galleries and 3D tours, you can get a good sense of a Vacasa kitchen before you arrive. Take note of the appliances you’ll have available, how many burners the stove has, etc., to help map out your cooking game plan. If there are items you have questions about, like whether or not there's a roasting pan, reach out in advance and the property managers should be able to confirm what’s on hand. But when you arrive, always conduct an audit of the kitchen to learn where everything is as you’re unpacking, tally the pots and pans, and finalize your prep list for the big day.

chef gabriel places his salmon fillet in the oven

3. Cook a test meal

Avoid the temptation to order takeout the night before, even with a full day of cooking ahead. Before I’m going to cook a holiday meal at a vacation rental, I cook a smaller test dinner to familiarize myself with the kitchen. Every oven is a little different! You don’t need a full dry-run of the holiday menu, but you shouldn’t have the first meal you prepare in a new-to-you kitchen be the big one. Trust me, it will make for a less stressful holiday.

chef gabriel cooks brussels in a cast iron pot on the stove with mount hood in the distance

4. Pack specialty ingredients

Another tip before you hit the road: add a few of your favorite speciality ingredients to the packing list. I’m always bringing Jacobsen Salt Co.'s fleur de sel and a nice sherry vinegar with me, because acid and salt are non-negotiables when it comes to seasoning—a few dashes of a high-quality product will make the whole meal more dynamic. Even with a packing list in hand, map out where the closest grocery store is, because (if you’re like me) you'll need to make a last-minute shopping run for a forgotten item. It happens.

chef gabriel grates cheese over his radicchio salad

5. Always prep ahead

Do as much of the prep list as you can on your home turf, depending on what will keep. For example, when I’m making my radicchio salad as part of the holiday menu, I’ll make the dressing ahead and seed the pomegranates, tossing both in a cooler for the ride. It's the same principle that I follow when I cook dinners at people's homes. The more you prep ahead, the better you’re set up for success. Even for professional chefs, time always seems to be in short supply when cooking a holiday menu with lots of components.

Chef Gabriel’s holiday recipes

All photos courtesy of
Carly Diaz