Restaurant Critics Tell Us Their Ultimate Comfort Food
Everyone’s definition of comfort food is different. To some, there’s nothing better on a day when you’re feeling blue than the roadside purchase of a plastic bag filled to the brim with starchy, spicy waakye. For others, it’s demolishing a bowl of penne buried under a Snowdonia of cheddar cheese. The one persistent factor I have, however, encountered when discussing comfort food with the people I know is that the dishes they find the most comforting are more often than not those that they’ve grown up with.
It’s no coincidence that the dishes which hold the strongest places in our hearts tend to be those we enjoyed the most as a child. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve got a fondness for chicken dippers and instant mash that I simply cannot switch off, no matter how objectively I want to view them as a foodstuff. And if there’s anything I learned from Pixar’s Ratatouille (one of the greatest food films ever made), it’s that even restaurant critics are prone to bouts of childhood nostalgia and even they have their own favourite comfort foods they simply cannot be impartial towards. They are, after all, only human. Well, for the most part.
Seeing as we’ve got our very own book dedicated to comfort food coming out soon – it’s called Comfort MOB and you can pre-order a copy right here – I thought I’d reach out to some of those über talented critics to find out what comfort food means to them and discover what they turn to in their times of need. Here’s what they had to say:
"The best comfort foods, the real ones, are those you don't want to be watched eating. They are very much private pleasures. They are 'dinner in front of the telly' foods. What that happens to be, is exceptionally personal. For me it's cheese on toast. With sliced bacon. And a splash of Tabasco and a thick dusting of Caribbean Everyday Seasoning. And if you're judging me, then my point is made. Leave me to my sofa and my cheese on toast and close the door behind you on your way out."
Jay Rayner is the Observer's restaurant critic. Jay will be in conversation with Jo Brand to launch his new book Chewing The Fat at The Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London on September 6. You can buy your tickets here.
“Jacket potato heaped in tuna mayo and cheese, pounded yam with egusi soup, wobbling scoops of soft-boiled egg precariously balanced on toast; comfort food, to me, signifies those intensely personal dishes that – in a life necessarily governed by compromise – are about nothing but undiluted pleasure."
Jimi Famurewa is the Evening Standard's chief restaurant critic.
"The clue's in the name. It's what reminds us of our youth when nothing was ever so bad that Mum couldn't fix it with buttered egg in a cup, or Heinz Tomato Soup, or her own pasta sauce. It's food that soothes and cossets and blots out whatever is ailing us, whether it's feeling peaky or spending too long on Twitter's doom-laden timeline. It's toast dripping with melted butter, it's chicken Milanese spritzed with lemon and piled into soft white bread, it's (weirdly, for me) fiery larb with sticky rice. It's home on a plate, wherever we find ourselves."
Marina O’Loughlin is The Sunday Times restaurant critic.
"So I consider comfort food to be the food that helps you feel grounded and connected to a moment or feeling at any given time. Usually, there is a feeling of love and care associated with that food and always a sprinkling of joy as well."
Eileen Twum is Olive Magazine's restaurant critic.
"This is very mushy, and not in the pea sense, but comfort eating isn’t so much about the food as the person who makes it, or made it for you, I think. A molten fish pie or day-old lasagne with baked beans (yes, beans) would both feature on my list. Not because they’re sloppy delights best served in a trough - though that is a delicious coincidence - but because they’re the food of the greatest comforts of all: my nan and my mum."
Jake Missing is a senior writer at The Infatuation.
"If we're really talking about comfort — not creamy truffled opulence, and not an occasional surrender to junk food, but the sort of elemental comfort that seeps into the very marrow of your being — well, for me that's all about chicken and rice. It has something to do with the way the rice soaks up all of the juices and spices and melted chicken fat. My palate reads that as the definition of bliss, and I am far from alone in this — just look at all the permutations of chicken and rice around the world. You've got West African versions, North African versions, New Orleans versions, Middle Eastern versions (like the shawarma platter I shall probably get for lunch today from a corner shop in my Hudson River village), Latin American versions (arroz con pollo forever!), Southeast Asian versions like Hainanese chicken rice (whenever I visit the city of Portland, Oregon, I drive directly from the airport to Nong's Khao Man Gai). Human beings are wired to find comfort in chicken and rice."
Jeff Gordinier is the former food & drinks editor of Esquire U.S. and author of Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World.
Tom Parker Bowles
"You always know where you stand with comfort food, an eternally reliable salve that both soothes and satisfies. Nothing fussy, or complicated, or requiring too much thought. But one man’s toast is another man’s tripe, for this is a deeply subjective affair. For me, it’s Cottage pie and peas, lavished with Worcestershire sauce, and eaten with a spoon."
Tom Parker Bowles is the restaurant critic for The Mail on Sunday.