There’s a time and place for a fancy multi-course meal, and it’s wonderful to visit a new restaurant or try a new cuisine, but sometimes all we want is something warm, comforting and familiar. It turns out that world-class chefs with Michelin stars and James Beard Awards aren’t too different from us in that regard. We asked them to share their favorite comfort foods and the stories behind them. Here’s what they had to say:
At Milktooth, the celebrated “fine diner” in Indianapolis, Brooks incorporates local ingredients into creative twists on familiar breakfast and lunch plates (like a sourdough pearl sugar waffle with coffee-poached pear, wild rice horchata syrup, candied almond, and whipped vanilla and sea salt butter). His go-to comfort food is endearingly basic: boxed macaroni and cheese.
“It’s one of the only things my fiancée has ever cooked for me and we love to eat it straight from the pan together on the couch in our pajamas while Netflix bingeing,” Brooks said. “We argue over what hot sauce is preferable, though!”
Dominique Ansel, chef and owner of Dominique Ansel Bakery
Cronut creator Dominique Ansel is constantly surrounded by and dreaming up sweet creations for his bakeries around the world, so it’s only logical that his comfort food is savory. It’s a bowl of rice topped with a fried egg and a dark, aged soy sauce he discovered while visiting Hong Kong a few years back, plus seared Japanese pork sausage if he has some on hand.
“It was the only thing in my pantry and cupboard at home back when I was getting in really late at 1 or 2 a.m. in the morning, and my girlfriend made it for me for dinner,” Ansel told HuffPost. “It’s pretty much the only dish I make sure we’re always stocked for these days.”
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy
Cohen’s pioneering vegetarian restaurant proves that vegetables are anything but boring, and her creative approach to elevating staple ingredients reaches even her comfort food ― grits. “Nothing beats a bowl of grits on a cold morning or after a late night, and if you don’t think so, then you haven’t been making grits right,” Cohen said. She admitted that she too used to be a skeptic until she tried the real thing.
“The thing about grits is that they’re victims of an identity crisis. Add some Chinese mushrooms, scallions and kimchi and they’re Asian. Add an egg, cheese, some butter and hot sauce and you’ve got a Southern breakfast. Drop in goat cheese and chives and you’re in France. No matter what you do, they are the best hangover food ever invented, and even better they reheat great as long as you stir in stock or corn cream when you heat them up the second, third or ― God help us ― fourth time.”
One of the OGs of the gourmet food truck trend, Choi is known for making comfort food extraordinary, and that includes milkshakes. His personal recipe features a pinch of Maldon sea salt and is garnished with crushed Frosted Flakes and caramel sauce.
“If there’s anything I’m particular about, it’s milkshakes,” Choi told HuffPost. “I’ve been making milkshakes since I was a kid in my family’s apartment kitchen, using our green Oster blender with the color-coded, Chiclet-shaped buttons. Back then, I went to every burger stand from Inglewood to Anaheim searching for the perfect banana milkshake full of chunks of banana and the sweet, creamy magic of life.”
The celebrated Israeli chef, restaurateur and cookbook co-author’s comfort food of choice is a Chinese takeout staple.
“I love cashew chicken and ate it entirely too much when I was growing up in Pittsburgh,” Solomonov said. “It’s basic Chinese-American food, but I remember being like, ‘Oh my God, cashews and chicken together? Genius.’”
Nominated for several James Beard Awards and a husband and father of three, Fleer enjoys his comfort food, oatmeal, with a moment of peace before going about his busy day.
“My go-to comfort food is a warm bowl of stone-cut oatmeal topped with whatever types of dried fruit I have in the pantry and a drizzle of sorghum or maple syrup,” Fleer said. “It’s a Saturday morning tradition ― I eat it while watching soccer in the few free, quiet hours I have before heading to the restaurants.”
Daniel DiStefano, executive chef at Made Nice
The Eleven Madison Park alum, who’s crafting sophisticated dishes at an accessible price, goes classic with his comfort food pick: spaghetti and meatballs.
“I grew up making tomato sauce and meatballs on Sundays for as long as I can remember,” DiStefano said. “I make it the same way every time ― no experimenting. In a world where things are constantly changing for better or worse, there is something extremely satisfying about a pot of sauce, simmered slowly for hours ― the way it looks, smells and tastes always comforts me. My family always joked that there is nothing a pot of sauce couldn’t fix but it’s true. When life is good, I make sauce; when life is crazy, I make sauce; when someone is in need, I make sauce. Whatever the reason, a pot of sauce is usually my answer.”
Jessica Craig, head pastry chef at L’Artusi
Her job focuses on elevated Italian desserts, but Craig’s comfort food (and inspiration for pursuing a culinary career) is tied to her Jamaican roots.
“My favorite comfort food is ackee and saltfish with boiled dumplings, green bananas, green plantains and ripe plantains,” Craig said. “It’s a very simple, rustic, ‘peasant’ Jamaican dish my mom would cook. Whenever I have the chance to eat this dish, it reminds me of my childhood. I love it for its simplicity.”
Ouita Michel, owner of Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants
The chef behind some of Lexington, Kentucky’s most notable eateries and a champion of locally grown ingredients fondly recalls a simple meal she ate with her grandmother.
“Growing up, I used to spend summers with my grandmother,” Michel said. “She was a tremendous cook and often made me beautiful little sourdough pancakes for breakfast. For lunch though, virtually every afternoon, we would split a can of Campbell’s bean-with-bacon soup. The soup would be accompanied by five toasted cheese crackers: saltines laid carefully out on her toaster oven tray with a square of Cracker Barrel sharp cheddar cheese laid on top, then toasted until bubbly. To this day, bean-with-bacon soup with toasted cheese crackers is one of my go-to lunches at home. Every time I eat it, at least once a week, I think of her.”
The Madison, Wisconsin, native grew up helping his mom in the kitchen and his comfort food is tied to those memories.
“For me, soup is the ultimate comfort food,” LeFevre said. “My mom would make big batches that we could heat up when we got home. It was warm and comforting for a Wisconsin kid. Later I learned to appreciate all of the techniques involved in making a good soup and it has been a great way to share new cooking skills with my fiancée over the years. Lately we’ve been making a soup with chicken thighs, turmeric and leeks.”
The Atlanta-based restaurateur’s favorite comfort food goes back to his culinary school days.
“My ultimate comfort food is duck and andouille gumbo with crusty sourdough bread for sopping!” Fry said. “For me, the obsession with gumbo started in culinary school in Vermont, where we’d get back home from a late night spent in downtown Burlington after realizing that the girls had no interest in us whatsoever. So we’d drown our pitiful sorrows in a big bowl of gumbo, rice and a big chunk of crusty bread.”
Brooke Williamson, chef and co-owner of Company for Dinner Hospitality Group
For the “Top Chef” Season 14 winner, ramen and Bolognese sauce are both home cooking staples.
“My two go-to comfort dishes are both things my son Hudson will eat with zero complaints, dishes that I can throw extra veggies into and are relatively healthy, but comforting at the same time,” Williamson told HuffPost. “Both are light and hearty enough to eat when it’s warm or cold outside, easy enough to make in an hour or less and, best of all, won’t create a sink full of dishes.”
To make her Bolognese sauce (which she does almost every week), she combines ground dark meat turkey, mushrooms, carrots (for sweetness), tomatoes and a touch of fish sauce. When making ramen, she picks up fresh noodles and fish cake (Hudson’s favorite) from a local Asian market, braises chicken thighs and adds soy-pickled soft-boiled eggs.
Mario Carbone, chef and managing partner of Major Food Group
As the chef behind Italian-American concepts from casual Parm to fine dining Carbone and with experience working in other people’s Italian restaurants, it’s not surprising that Carbone’s go-to comfort fare is Italian.
“For me, there’s few things more comforting than a bowl of pasta,” Carbone said. “My go-to when cooking at home is always a simple mix of three or four ingredients and a very high quality dry pasta. This time of year when it’s really cold out, those ingredients are a little heavier. I’d say you’d be hard pressed to beat a beautiful bowl of spaghetti carbonara and a glass of full-bodied red wine on a wintery night.”
Julia Sullivan, chef and co-owner of Henrietta Red
Henrietta Red was named in honor of Sullivan’s grandparents. The importance of family is very much apparent in her favorite comfort food as well.
“I loved a pot pie growing up ― the filling, the flakey crust, the familiar taste of frozen vegetables,” Sullivan said. “When I started cooking, I learned how to make each component from scratch and loved that it utilizes so many different skills in one single serving dish. Now, I tweak the vegetables, depending on what’s in season, and even vary the main component. My mom is a vegetarian, so I make a version with roasted mushrooms and mushroom stock. It’s rich enough that you never miss the meat.”
Christopher Gross, executive chef at Wrigley Mansion
While he serves up French-American fare at work, the James Beard Award-winning chef’s comfort food takes him back to his Midwestern roots.
“I call them Mom’s Christmas Noodles, although they are really my grandmother’s recipe, and they were one of the only things I would eat as a kid growing up (I was super picky),” Gross said. “They are a cross between dumplings and noodles, really a quintessential Midwestern dish (I’m from Missouri). They are just flour, lots of eggs and salt, kneaded and rolled out thick in lots of flour. After she rolled them, she would cut them into long strips and let them dry for one hour. Once they were ready, she cooked them in some chicken stock, which thickens up a bit from the flour on the noodles and creates a sauce. To finish, she seasons the noodles with lots of black pepper. I make them sometimes, just for the nostalgia. It just feels like home.”
This fine dining chef, who heads up a Michelin-starred restaurant, keeps his comfort food ― Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream and sorbets ― in his freezer at all times.
“I love how [ice cream and sorbet] are rich in flavor, especially when it’s made in small batches with real fruit and real ingredients,” Schlegel told HuffPost. “When I was growing up, everything was very seasonal. We only had soft-serve that was cocoa or vanilla bean throughout the year, but in the spring it was strawberry season. The only place that had it was in a town eight miles away, and every Tuesday when my father would go into town to shop for his restaurant, he would bring me and my sister with him to help load the car, and we were paid in strawberry soft-serve.”
Becky Quan, pastry chef at NoMad Las Vegas
At work, she makes delicate and precisely executed pastries for the newly opened hotel on the Las Vegas strip. But Quan’s go-to food is pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that’s a favorite for all occasions.
“Pho is my cure-all,” Quan said. “I eat it when it’s hot out, when it’s cold out, when I don’t feel well, even when I feel fantastic. It warms me from the inside out and I’m always happier when I’m done with my meal.”
Dumplings, another favorite, are tied to childhood memories. “I grew up eating and making dumplings all the time at home, so this one is very nostalgic,” Quan said. “I’ve tried to replicate my grandparents’ dumplings but have never quite figured it out. I always try to keep some dumplings in my freezer so I can pull them out for a quick meal.”