Tastes of home
Sacramento chefs share what dishes conjure feelings of comfort from their past
After a long shift on the line and once the last order is sent, chefs go home and still need to feed themselves and their families. If it's a Tuesday night, chances are they're not basting expensive fillets in herbs and butter, or plating freshly made pappardelle with cream and shaved black truffles. At home, chefs often eat very simply.
What might also surprise diners is that the chefs who cook some of the most indulgent meals in Sacramento also grew up eating all the basic pantry staples that most of us did. Simple meals such as spaghetti and garlic bread, bowls of steamy white rice with clear broth soups and leafy vegetables, mounds of buttery mashed potatoes—and the occasional takeout. But no matter what culture, upbringing or style of cuisine a chef specializes in at their restaurant, they each have their own concept of comfort food—and what dish, as simple as it may be, draws a direct line to a memory that wraps them up like a warm blanket.
Warmth on a cold day
Matt Brown recalls visiting Apple Hill with his father when he was 8 years old, picking dozens of crisp apples from its rolling orchards. The father and son then went home to make fresh batches of cinnamon-spiced applesauce from the day's pick. His mother, a seasoned cook, baked soft rosemary focaccia laced with thinly sliced potatoes. Taking note from the original Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, on cold fall evenings, a large pot of potato leek soup simmered on the stove, ready to warm her three sons before they headed back outside to play.
“That all built a ground layer of what I'm into,” says Brown, who's the head chef at Golden Bear in Midtown.
“That soup for me is some nostalgia food right there. That's one of the best comfort foods,” he says. “It's one of those meals where I'll have my third bowl and I'll be like, ‘Yeah, I'm full.' Then I'll get up and have a fourth bowl and be comatose.”
Besides his mother's recipes, Brown's 20 years of kitchen experience inspires some of the creative specials featured on Golden Bear's lunch and dinner menus, including pork belly carnitas served on yucca root or savory rabbit agnolotti.
But as much as he enjoys creating his own dishes, he also sticks to what he knows and shares his mother's potato leek soup and rosemary focaccia with customers seeking a little warmth on a cold day.
“It's warming, it's good, it's salty and you can say you're eating vegetables. But, I also like the idea of making a really rich chicken broth,” he says. “It's a process throughout the day. It's nothing that's going to happen really quick. And since it's cold outside when you usually make these dishes it warms the house.”
Rosemary potato focaccia
1 tablespoon baker’s yeast
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 ounces warm water
Whisk all ingredients together and let sit for 5 minutes.
36 ounces flour
20 grams sugar
28 grams salt
5 ounces olive oil
2 cups cold water
1 pound potatoes, sliced very thin
1/4 cup fresh rosemary, chopped
This dough can be done by hand, but having a mixer is nice. In a mixing bowl, add cold water and olive oil. Then add flour, sugar, salt and yeast starter and mix at medium speed for 7 minutes. Remove from bowl and roll dough into a ball, add back to a greased bowl covered and let proof for 1 hour. Once dough is proofed, lay dough out on greased half sheet tray or a 12-by-16-inch cookie sheet, cover and let proof for 1 hour. Make sure dough is spread evenly on tray. Combine thinly sliced potatoes with rosemary and lay potatoes on top of focaccia. Salt top of potatoes and bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 400 F.
Potato leek soup
4 leeks trimmed, cleaned and diced
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, small dice
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 quarts good chicken broth
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Turn 6-quart soup pot on medium-high heat. Add olive oil and garlic. Once a little brown on garlic, add leeks and sauté for 5 more minutes. Add potatoes and stock and bring to high heat, allowing soup to come to a boil. Once soup has boiled and potatoes are fork-tender, remove approximately 1 quart of soup and purée in blender. It’s important to start blender on slow and remove cap from blender lid and replace with towel when blending hot liquids. Add blended ingredients back to soup and reduce heat to low. Salt and pepper to taste (I recommend more pepper than usual). Ladle soup in a bowl and garnish with crumbled goat cheese.
Simple, yet satisfying
Across cultures, many parents create meals made from minimal ingredients, often what's left in the fridge or pantry. For Takumi Abe, executive chef and co-owner of Kodaiko Ramen & Bar, a typical breakfast growing up was made with the same flavors as dinner the night before. Simple, but for him satisfying.
“Whenever we had salmon for dinner, there was always ochazuke, usually for breakfast, with leftover salmon and these little flavor packets which had dried green tea in them and green onions,” he says. “It walks the line between a Japanese kind of rice porridge or soup. Traditionally, it's pretty simple.”
He says his mom would take leftover white rice, some vegetables and pour hot water over the top, letting all the components soak up the earthy green tea bitterness.
“The most essential are these little toasted rice crisps in the packs. It's making a meal around a piece of a meal, but it's definitely comfort food for me,” Abe says.
Now with a 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, ochazuke is often a quick, light meal he prepares at home, topped with a fried egg.
“We all need to eat, but at least for me, there's nothing that really satiates or fills the void like food does,” Abe says. “When you use the word comfort, what's more comforting than being a kid at home, maybe when it's raining outside or when you're sick and you really need something to comfort you. There are many things that can do that: your parents or your grandmother, but food is on a different level.”
Commit this to memory
In East Sac and Tahoe Park, Bacon & Butter serves up breakfast staples such as buttermilk pancakes with warm syrup, or bacon gravy-ladled biscuits with fried sage. It's California farm food with highlights from using fresh herbs and locally sourced ingredients.
But once the kitchen is closed, executive chef and co-owner Billy Zoellin says he goes home and figures out what's for dinner for he and his 15-year-old son.
When Zoellin was a kid, a bowl of spaghetti and side of garlic bread was a regular meal after school. He remembers his mother tossing quarter-sized shell noodles in butter before letting them sit on the stove as the sauce finished. Hungry, Zoellin would sneak into the kitchen and snag a few starchy noodles—bonus if they stuck together.
“Those are some of my big memories that I have with food and what brought me comfort. But I also have some things with my son and I,” he says. “We love our mashed potatoes. We love 'em. I make really light, whipped potatoes and it goes with anything from chicken to a pork chop to a steak.”
For him, there are no rules on what makes a particular dish comforting. But there are certain elements he says that many nostalgic meals have in common: they're often served hot, they're affordable and, most importantly, they're tied to a memory.
“Typically, it's peasant food. It's not some elaborate lobster tail that's comfort food. Garlic bread is on mine. That's a huge part of my comfort foods because we would love to eat our spaghetti out of bowls with garlic bread on the side,” he says. “We tie into our memory with our smell, our sights, our sounds, our tastes and that, to me, being able to touch a memory, is what creates comfort food whatever culture you're from.”
Conjuring flavors of the past
If you were to eat at the dinner table of chef Mai Pham's mother, or of her grandmother, she says there would always be a main dish in the middle with big bowl of broth and lots of little bowls of rice. Everything was to share.
“It kind of conjures the idea of a family meal. Really, an Asian family meal, a Southeast Asian family meal, a Chinese family meal, would never happen without soup,” said Pham who's the owner of Lemon Grass, a beacon for Vietnamese and Thai cuisine for more than 25 years. “That's the iconic and the quintessential comfort food.”
Pham's journey with food began when she moved to the U.S. with her parents after the Vietnam War. She was 16 when her mother and her younger brother boarded a plane leaving everything they knew behind, even her father who was a high-ranking official and stayed in Vietnam until he believed it was appropriate to leave.
In a new world, Pham says she lost her sense of identity. Cooking became a way she reconnected to her culture.
“In the beginning—I didn't know what this would all mean later—but cooking began to feel really comforting and it gave me hope that our lives in this country would be OK,” she said. “Cooking was the healing part. It was therapeutic. It helped me think about what I was doing with my life in this country.”
Pham's storied career is accented by many shining moments. She's nationally recognized as an expert in Asian cuisine. In 2001, she hosted the series My Country, My Kitchen on the Food Network, where in one episode, she took viewers on a culinary tour of her native country. The author of three award-winning cookbooks, Pham also wrote a food column on Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine with the San Francisco Chronicle for a decade.
And she's also the founder of Star Ginger, a fast-casual dining concept with 25 locations nationally that offers healthy and authentic Asian flavors found at venues such as the University of Notre Dame to the lounges of Delta Airlines.
“I think for me food is very special. The evolution of my career was very closely intertwined with my own personal life, my family's life and my family coming over here. It was all very, very connected,” she said.
One dish that reminds Pham of the days she loved to remember and wished lasted longer in Vietnam is her mother's catfish in clay pot.
“Ours is a smoky, caramelized fish sauce flavoring and you just put it in the pot and you cook it and it bubbles and it caramelizes and it gets really sticky. You eat that with rice and soup.” she said. “It also smells good and the clay pot stays hot for a long time. I think heat has a lot to do with emanating fragrances and so you remember that. You're in that moment with a smoky clay pot dish on the table.”
Mom’s catfish in clay pot, cá kho to
If there’s one dish that best represents Vietnamese home cooking, it’s cá kho to. Made with catfish (or any white fish) and caramelized fish sauce, it’s simmered in a clay pot until the sauce becomes bubbly sweet, salty and gooey. If you don’t have an Asian clay pot (also called sand pot), which is available at many Asian grocery stores, a regular pan will also work. Serve this with steamed rice, broth soup and a vegetable side.
3 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup boiling water
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
2/3 pound fresh catfish fillet or any white fish, cut into 4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup chopped scallions/cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Freshly sliced Thai chiles or jalapeños (optional)
Place the sugar in clay pot and heat on medium high. Cook undisturbed until sugar dissolves and begins to smoke and brown. When it turns almost dark brown, carefully add boiling water. Using a long-handled spoon, stir a few times. The liquid will look like dark coffee. Add oil to sauce, along with fish pieces, and stir to evenly coat. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until fish is done and sauce is thickened. Garnish with scallions, pepper and chiles if using. Serve this dish bubbly hot.