Find out how a new generation of chefs are changing the face of comfort food
Across the UK, a new generation of chefs are giving a thrilling new twist to the classics we grew up with words CHLOE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF
‘Chefs are finally realising you’ve got to give people what they want to eat, not what you want to cook’ Tommy Banks, head chef and one of this year’s BBC Great British Menu winners
Comfort food will always be synonymous with bangers and mash, nursery food and gastropubs, but a new movement is emerging in Britain. The dishes are often still loaded with nostalgia, but what’s different is that these meals thrill as much as they sate. Partially responsible for this quiet revolution is the next generation of classically trained chefs, who are rebuffing fussy food and stuffy service for unpretentious cooking. ‘Chefs are finally realising you’ve got to give people what they want to eat, not what you want to cook,’ explains Tommy Banks, head chef at The Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire, and one of this year’s BBC Great British Menu winners. His menu includes comfort foods such as beetroot cooked in beef fat for four hours, until caramelised – ‘it tastes like a steak but it’s beetroot, so it’s familiar, but like nothing you’ve tried before.’
It’s just the ethos Jackson Boxer takes at Chess Club and Brunswick House, in London. ‘With foods like cauliflower cheese, often swaddled and overcooked, your first mouthful is exciting but then it trails off, you get ennui,’ says Jackson, who can be found making dishes like herb gnocchi with artichoke, girolles and melt-in-the-mouth Grace burn cheese. ‘To reinvigorate them, they’re being cast in a new light.’ Vegetables were underrated in the old format, but now they’re likely to play a pivotal role, thanks to vegan and vegetarian-specific menus. ‘The most comforting food can be salad leaves, freshly picked – we’ve become healthier, and more appreciative of veg,’ he says.
Another part of the trend is its embrace of the childhood staples of other cultures, like ramen, pho and bao. With their easy, silken textures, we’re finding they can be as reassuring as shepherd’s pie and spag bol. Remi Williams and Aaron Webster at Smoke & Salt in Pop, in Brixton, tinker with this approach. These culinary magpies make cross-cultural references, from Scandinavian to Korean, on their menu, nourishing with delicate textures, while paradoxically exhilarating palates. There, diners swoon over soft merguez tartare with warm flatbread. ‘There’s a shift to informality but also a lot of chefs are moving from convention, they’re being bolder,’ Remi says, from his kitchen. ‘Nowadays, comfort meals can challenge and have big flavours, as well as satisfy.’ Comfort food, it seems, has grown up.