Fried chicken, mac and cheese, name-brand junk-food remakes and bacon on everything have featured prominently in the contemporary comfort-food trend. However, some Ottawa chefs say true comfort food isn’t about pigging out, but rather sharing something that soothes the soul.
Marysol Foucault is chef-owner of Chez Edgar and Odile, two tiny Gatineau eateries serving home-style food.
In December, she and Michael Lasalle, a chef who works with Foucault at both restaurants, prepared some traditional Québécois Christmas foods, like ragoût de pattes de cochon, a meatball and pigs’ feet stew.
“One lady came in and she said that she ate [the stew] and she cried because it made her think of her father. Her father made that every single year. When he died they didn’t do it anymore. And it tasted exactly the same,” Foucault says.
But many of their Québécois customers had no idea what the traditional foods they had on offer were, Lasalle says. “I think a lot of people — and people who are super busy — don’t know the classics and so don’t know what comfort food is,” he says, noting that comfort foods are inherently classics.
“Our cooking — it’s not rethinking the wheel. We may change the proteins, but we stick to the flavour profile,” he says. “If they are classics, there’s a reason for that,” Foucault adds.
Foucault says she has some big plates of heavy food on her brunch menus, but in general she believes comfort food shouldn’t make diners bloated and uncomfortable; it should bring smiles to their faces. And comfort food is oftentimes light — it’s not all about bacon.
“We put a lot of emphasis on nice vegetable sides and, especially at Odile in the summer, fish,” Foucault says.
When she opened Chez Edgar in 2010, Foucault says, the idea was to cook hearty, healthful and fresh foods like those she would eat at home. “Not pretending to be anything else but what I am — and I think what I am is a nurturer,” she says. Dishes like ragoût de pattes de cochon need to reflect a nurturing spirit, she says. “You need to put love in it because if you don’t, it just looks like a big mess.”
Chef René Rodriguez owns Navarra, a small upscale Mexican restaurant in the Byward Market.
When he opened five years ago, his food was distinctly Spanish and influenced by molecular gastronomy — there were lots of foams and fluid gels, paprika and tartars. The restaurant is even named after the Chartered Community of Navarre, an autonomous region in northern Spain. “I was very satisfied with the results, but it didn’t really fill my soul,” he says. “The only way to get this feeling, for me, really, was to reconnect with my childhood.” So, in January 2012, Rodriguez changed the concept of Navarra to reflect his Mexican heritage. “You make it evolve a bit in terms of presentation, give it a bit of finesse, but still capturing the flavours from childhood.”
The change was not just for his pleasure. “As a chef, you need to relate to your cuisine,” he says. “The more you connect with your cuisine, the better it is.” He says one of the most comforting menu items for him is a mole sauce made from a 1920s family recipe. A traditional sauce with many variations, mole is made all over Mexico. Outside of Mexico, the word mole refers specifically to mole poblano, a rich, dark, brown sauce famously finished with a grating of bitter Mexican chocolate.
Mexican families compete to make the best mole, adding secret ingredients like dried fruits, white and black sesame seeds, chilies and nuts, Rodriguez says. His family uses dried, blackened poblano pepper skins to give a slightly bitter smokiness to the sauce.
Family recipes are refined and perfected, he says. “I think tradition should always be present because, at the end of the day, those are the flavours that we all like to eat best.”