Comfort foods have long been cherished for their ability to nourish and sustain us. Their magical properties are not lost on professional chefs, who find ever more inventive ways to offer comfort along with elegance and flair. Three highly-acclaimed local restaurateurs share memories of comfort food as well as thoughts on what they believe makes for a comforting meal.
Briana Kim, Café My House
Chef Briana says that her comfort food typically consists of dishes characterized by umami, a rich and savory element often described as the fifth taste (after salty, sour, bitter and sweet). “My mom was really big on cooking from scratch so the most comforting foods I remember enjoying as a child are whole roasted fish and roasted vegetables, usually with delicious glazes and rich broths.”
She explains that comfort food does not necessarily have to be traditional; it can be more refined and offer both an intensity of flavour and a rich mouth feel. “The idea of comfort has a lot to do with the people with whom you are enjoying a meal; however, the deliciousness of the food also plays a key role in bringing people together and enhancing the experience.”
The success of Briana’s vegan restaurant in Hintonburg proves that it is possible to serve hearty, comforting dishes without meat. “We sometimes draw inspiration from favourite childhood flavours as we prepare exquisite vegetable dishes. By adding spices or smoke, a vegan dish can be truly evocative of meaty dishes that people may have grown up with.”
A good example is her top-prize winning dish for Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates competition that you will find on Café My House’s winter tasting menu. Composed of a bevy of flavourful elements, just a few of which include smoked mushrooms in a kombu and charred onion broth, the dish comes with a delicate, flavourful fennel and coriander-spiced brown rice cracker perched on top. It is truly a delight for all the senses.
Jason Sawision, Stofa
Chef Jason says that when he was growing up, his Chinese mom did most of the cooking, so it is her dishes he usually associates with comfort. Her meals were robust, drawing from a mix of cuisines, including shepherd’s pie, chili and scented roast chicken, which remains a favourite to this day.
Meanwhile, his dad is Ukrainian/Russian so at his grandmother’s house he enjoyed lots of meat dishes, pierogis and Borscht. “I think comfort food is something that brings back fond memories of people or places and hits multiple levels of your soul. We gravitate to comfort food, especially in the winter, because it warms us up, it’s satisfying and feels like you are enjoying something that was prepared with care.”
Stofa’s winter menu is packed with hearty elements. “Our goal is to ensure people leave here both comforted and well-nourished. Jason feels that sweet spices especially evoke fond food memories while star anise, fennel, and garam masala add a deep flavour intensity to dishes.
Currently on offer is a whole-roasted quail stuffed with chicken farce, served with walnut cocoa nib crumble, vanilla parsnip puree, pomegranate and more. With its rich flavours and contrasting textures, it’s as delicious as it is comforting.
Chef Walid El-Tawel, Fairouz
Chef Walid believes that comfort food is universal, evoking togetherness and sharing. He has fond memories of his childhood in Ottawa, gathering around the table with many others. “It was the atmosphere that I found comforting, perhaps even more so than the food,” he recalls.
At the heritage Centretown mansion that is home to Fairouz, Walid and his team serve up food that is as beautiful as it is delicious. At Fairouz, the family-style plates on their Sofra menu encourage the sharing of good food and conversation. Walid also likes to marry Canadian ingredients with those of Middle Eastern countries to makes his food approachable for diners who may not be familiar with the more exotic flavours.
“Cinnamon is a very evocative spice in so many cultures. I also enjoy layering flavours and incorporating preserved ingredients like eggplants, peppers and lemons, all of which add to a dish’s comfort factor.” One of Walid’s favourite comfort foods is koosa mahshi, a stuffed zucchini dish. At Fairouz, it features dried mint, rice, ground lamb, minced tomato, onion and more, in an upscale version of a popular Middle Eastern dish that is both satisfying and flavourful.