Revisionist comfort foods

What exactly do we mean by “comfort” foods? They’re filling, easy to digest and hit all the right flavor notes. Comfort foods also greatly uplift our moods and thereby heighten our meal satisfaction. In this way, it’s no longer just a meal for sustenance’s sake, but an emotional elevator carrying us to the top.

There’s also a salient slice of nostalgia at play; in addition to making us comfortably numb, these are foods that take us back to the good ol’ days in momma’s kitchen. Using real estate as a cross-example, it’s not uncommon for realtors to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen before an open house or private viewing so the wafting smell of cocoa and dough will subconsciously remind prospective buyers of when they were kids and their mothers would do the same.

The smell makes the house feel like home — a “comfort smell.” In this way, when considering comfort foods, you must remember that foods also encompass smell and visual presentation as well as the cacophony of noises emanating from the kitchen, the nearby tables and the roving servers.

If comfort foods are so, well, comforting, why aren’t we doing more with our menu designs to elicit such powerful emotions? For one, comfort foods are subjective by age, gender and culture. As such, you must try to appease everyone and please no one. You have to work within your restaurant’s current oeuvre, augmenting where you can and adding new items only if they fit the theme.

That said, comfort foods lean towards the hearty, savory and sugary, and so there are a few mainstays that pop up throughout the Western world. Think chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, apple pie, macaroni and cheese, fish and chips, meatloaf and fried chicken. As an exercise, I suggest you select a classic and give it a gourmet twist. Add one signature or extraordinary ingredient to complement the overall taste and elicit that nostalgia feeling while also delivering one standout flavor note for customers to remember your restaurant specifically. Anybody can do tomato soup, but can they top a homemade roasted heirloom tomato soup with fresh basil? And how about mac ’n’ cheese elevated to celebrity status via the less-than-subtle additions of lobster tail and truffle oil?

Next, consider regional specialties that happen to be so delicious they deserve national and international praise. Here are three lingering in the back of my mind from my travels: banana pudding, cauliflower cheese and jambalaya. These might also work as “comfort side dishes” instead of mains. In addition to provincial goodies and appetizer portions, you might also want to consider expanding on seasonal delicacies that are worth the full-time debut. For instance, why limit pumpkin pie to Thanksgiving? Is a romantic fondue of strawberries and molten chocolate only meant for Valentine’s Day?

Another prime aspect of comfort food worth brainstorming is your comfort lexicon. You want to cue readers with the proper vocabulary so they’ll be subtly prompted to think along the comfort food lines and to expect the hearty, savory or sugary dish their hearts desire.

As long as you keep in mind the crux of comfort foods — emotional eating with a pinch of indulgence — you’ll be sure to satisfy your patrons.