Easy to add to the menu, comfort foods are the trend that won’t die.
If plant-based offerings are all the rage, then comfort foods are an ongoing trend that has stood the test of time. And because comfort foods are inherently familiar to guests, they can help drive sales with all types of diners, especially when reimagined with trendy flair—for example, a mashed potato dish with buttermilk and pork belly.
What makes something a comfort food is a matter of debate, and some insist it’s American tradition. ]Brian West, a chef, consultant, and caterer in the San Antonio area disagrees, saying he believes all types of cuisine can be considered comfort food if they generate nostalgia.
“I think the number one thing a comfort food must do is to make a connection to childhood,” West says. “They really nailed in [the 2007 Pixar movie] ‘Ratatouille,’ where the food critic remembers his mother’s cooking and it transforms the whole experience.”
Comfort foods are a boon to operators in the midst of high turnover as they look for ways to add easy menu items that are still a great dining experience.
“I could show you how to make my buttermilk biscuits to perfection in 20 minutes and you would be able to reproduce it time and time again,” West says. “Whereas a hollandaise sauce is something that takes a lot of training and experimentation to master.”
How to achieve that emotional connection is the tricky part for chefs, but West believes it begins in the kitchen. High quality ingredients and making items from scratch can help give the love and care comfort food requires.
He advises chefs to try and make components from scratch. For example, rather than buy gravy premade, make it in-house; rather than buy breaded meat, hand-bread it in house. He also recommends finding the most quality, cost-efficient meat partner possible.
“Comfort foods have always come from a place of love, and so there needs to be some nurturing in the process of creating them,” West says. “For example, when I partner with Smithfield Culinary, every time I get pork belly, I know they have the stats and the specs I need to deliver something great. The diet of the animal, and all of these little things are part of micromanaging what you’re putting into a recipe for your guests.”
As West considers comfort food, he thinks of a tradition he has started with his six-year-old son. They make pancakes together on the weekend, complete with pure maple syrup.
“Someday my son will smell maple syrup in a restaurant, and he’ll think of our family culture, and the traditions we built,” West says. “Food is the centerpiece of that. People are storytellers at heart, and I think food really helps tell that story, and imprints into our sense of family, and nostalgia. That’s something worth offering.”