An Open Letter To Chefs Who Update Comfort Food

Dear chefs who keep reinventing comfort food:

Twenty years ago, the idea that a restaurant would cook things you could make at home was novel; we were fresh out of the horror show known as nouvelle cuisine, where tiny bites of food were presented on table-sized white plates, and the other horror show known as fusion, where chefs suddenly discovered Asian flavors. “Comfort food” was a return to things Americans could pronounce, with the deft hand of a professional chef making up for Mom's kitchen shortcuts like bouillon cubes and saltine crackers. Lines were out the door at places like Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills.

Flash forward to 2014, and now “updated comfort food”, which is still all over fully half the menus in the country apparently means adding bacon and braised short ribs to everything. Braised short ribs used to be a meal all their own, and they overwhelm absolutely everything they touch. Bacon ends up everywhere, including on dessert and in places where it has no business. I kind of blame Animal, the meat-centric restaurant in Los Angeles, for this obsession with the enmeatening of restaurant food. Every chef in the country is copying their menu, except most of you can't cook like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo can.

The rule for updating classic comfort foods ought to be simple: if you can't make an absolutely flawless version of the classic, don't claim to “update” it. An ounce of braised short ribs covers a myriad of you-can't-actually-cook sins.


Mac 'n Cheese

I'd rather eat Kraft Dinner with its alarmingly orange “cheese” than some of the floury, separated, greasy crap I've been served in fancy restaurants in the name of macaroni and cheese. It's enough to make me want to travel with a militant middle school home ec teacher armed with a meter stick.

You want to put extra protein in your mac 'n cheese? Fine. Find a way to make tuna casserole that doesn't suck. Leave the short ribs, the bacon, and the lobster out of it. Your staff's prowess in prying out huge, whole chunks of lobster is all for naught if your line cook has boiled it to jerky, and putting oily, greasy food like bacon into a dish that's greasy anyway is just ridiculous.

Grilled Cheese

I learned to make a grilled cheese when I was six years old. (I also drank from the garden hose and rode un-buckled in the back of station wagons, so don't give me crap about safety.) You butter one piece of bread, you put cheese between two slices of bread, you butter the griddle, and you put the sandwich on butter-up. This is really not complicated, and it does not require expensive equipment like professional panini makers.

The cheese we used was stuff designed to melt. Stop putting non-melty cheese in your damn sandwiches! Fresh goat cheese doesn't melt on the flat top. Neither does Parmigiano or feta or queso fresco. The whole point of a grilled cheese sandwich is to encase the filling so it bonds together as it cools slightly.

Then there's all the additions. Fancy luxe loncheras notwithstanding, if you want a short-rib sandwich, eat a short-rib sandwich. Canned chipotle peppers have no place at all in a grilled cheese sandwich; neither do figs. Last time I was in New York, I had a grilled cheese sandwich with crappy French fries in the middle of it, as though I were a vegetarian at Primanti Bros., except not as well executed.

Oh, and it's tomato soup, and it comes in a regular cup or a bowl. There's something about people who can't just make a great grilled cheese sandwich and their crackpot need to call it “tomato bisque” and serve it in cups just slightly larger than thimbles.

Deviled Eggs

Here's the prime example of having to know how to make the food before you go playing with it. If you're going to boil the hell out of the eggs in the first place, ending up with chalky yolks and rubbery whites, don't sell them to the public. No amount of bacon fat, caviar, or fancy pickles is going to make up for the fact that you don't know how to hard-boil an egg, a task which is a lot harder than it seems.

These are also usually the worst value on a bar menu; I've seen prices as high as $8 for four measly egg halves. It's mayonnaise, mustard, salt, pepper, and eggs, folks, maybe a sprinkle of paprika. It's not exactly high-maintenance work.
Mashed Potatoes

Remember when everyone obsessed over getting the perfect mashed potato texture? Ricers, stick blenders, graters, you name it, people tried to get fluffy mashed potatoes. Then they all gave up en masse and decided to serve chunky mashed potatoes. “Homemade style, like Mom made.” No, my mother knows how to mash a freaking potato.

Then they started adding things: garlic, hazelnuts, cheese, and the race was on. I had “truffled smashed potatoes” recently that tasted like the kitchen staff blew hot farts at supermarket potato salad. While we're at it, stop pretending mashed sweet potatoes are a valid substitute for mashed potatoes. We are on to you.

Chocolate Desserts

If there were one food that you'd think would be immune to tampering and would be allowed to let stand on its own, it's chocolate. It's bizarre that people think they need to update chocolate, but try to find a good piece of chocolate layer cake these days. No one can make a chocolate layer cake anymore; it has to be red velvet, or it's got to have all kinds of crap mixed into it. Chocolate mousse? Forget it. Even just plain chocolate can't be plain anymore.

Go away and invent your own desserts, you Nutella freaks, you would-be Aztecs with the chile powder in their chocolate (no, damn it, you have NOT made “mole cake”), you bacon weirdoes (again), and you geniuses who decided to put speculoos (a.k.a. cookie butter or Biscoff spread) in everything.

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