Fun Dining: Meet the Nostalgia-Driven Comfort Food Innovators
Egg Soldiers explores the ongoing evolution of UK comfort food trends, from Michelin star-inspired fried chicken and soft serve to elevated late night takeaway fare
With the UK enduring times of change and uncertainty amid the worsening cost of living crisis, consumers are increasingly seeking affordable, comforting and nostalgic food experiences that soothe the soul.
In foodservice, a new wave of comfort-centric restaurants and pop-ups is gathering momentum across the UK as demand for creatively ‘grown-up’ spins on comforting classics grows, with innovators boldly elevating time-honoured dishes, from fried chicken to potato smileys, with subtle nods to generation-specific childhoods.
So what can we learn from the methods of these nostalgic comfort food trend trailblazers? Why do their respective menus appeal to the comfort-craving consumer of today? And what action can you take in this space in 2023 (and beyond)?
The old-school comfort food concept is enjoying revived interest across the country. Local eateries that were once considered old-fashioned are now bang on trend; their fixed seating, nostalgic signs and antique fittings making them a safe space for new and older generations looking to experience a sense of community comfort.
The shift in community perspective towards the everyday UK eatery can be explained in part by a need for the familiar, but it has undoubtedly been accelerated by digital marketing. One example of this in action is Norman’s Cafe which opened in Archway in 2020 to offer diners a modern interpretation of the old-school English ‘caff’.
With its checkerboard floor and formica tables; from the outside, Norman’s Cafe looks to be a well-aged greasy spoon, but take a peek at its well-followed Instagram account, and you’ll see a highly curated feed filled with comfort food classics like cheese on toast and the bacon roll, each presented perfectly on a white china plate, with a paper napkin and set against a minimalist 70s backdrop.
Norman’s Cafe has become legendary in North London, with One Hundred Shoreditch hotel inviting the team to stage an eight-week pop-up in its Seed Library basement bar in September. During their run, the team delivered classically nostalgic fare with upmarket elements, such as tempura fried chicken nuggets with homemade chilli sauce, and whipped cod’s roe with Frazzles for dipping.
Childhood classics with ‘grown-up’ elements directly appeal to nostalgia-seeking diners, with innovators taking old-school originals far beyond in terms of overall techniques and ingredients, yet still delivering the same comforting tastes and textures.
Old-school meets new-school (via lockdown)
The POPL cheeseburger, by René Redzepi and the Noma team (Image: @poplburger)
When the world was plunged into an unprecedented state of lockdown in 2020, chefs and operators across the board were forced to think differently to keep their restaurants alive amid widespread, crippling restrictions.
Among the most innovative of pivots made during these dark times was the embracing of classic takeaway concepts by higher-end eateries to open up new, essential revenue streams.
For example, the now-two-Michelin-starred Ynyshir in Wales started to do takeaway-style kebabs; London’s Lyle’s, a regular in the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, launched a pizza takeaway, ASAP Pizza; the world-famous Danish restaurant Noma unleashed cheeseburgers; and US chef Daniel Humm fired up a fried chicken operation at Claridge’s hotel in the UK capital.
‘Fun Dining’, to pinch Ynyshir chef Gareth Ward’s slogan, was hot on the menu, with among the best in the business supplying hearty helpings of elevated, everyday nostalgic fare to spark joy and deliver classic comfort.
And while many of the high-end institutions have since returned to their previous menu offerings post-lockdown, this period of comfort food creativity highlighted the UK diner’s craving for indulgent, approachable offerings, rooted in nostalgia and comfort, translated by modern innovators.
And it’s served as inspiration for the new wave of nostalgia-driven chefs seeking to take UK comfortfood trends to the next level.
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In Nottingham, Alex Bond – chef/owner of the Michelin-starred, fine dining restaurant Alchemilla – recently announced the launch of Mollis, a fried chicken and soft serve joint, after a hugely successful crowdfund.
Serving to “elevate the casual dining scene in Nottingham”, Bond’s menu is centred around six creative fried chicken options, including gochujang buffalo, blue cheese and pineapple; chimichurri and ‘fresh herbs’; and charcoal buttered chicken and quince chutney.
Mollis, which is found directly next door to Alchemilla, also offers an array of sauces and sides, from dill pickle gravy and house-seasoned fries to hash brown fingers with miso BBQ sauce and roast chicken skin mayo.
Its creative soft serve list includes kombu, honey cake and koji vinegar; banana, Pedro Ximenez raisin and honeycomb; and chocolate, miso, banana and lime.
Launched as a popup during lockdown by former Cub head chef, Matthew Scott, and ex-St John and Silo chef Eddy Tejada; Hot 4 U is an example of a playfully-nostalgic food operation gone big, with the team to launch their first bricks-and-mortar restaurant, Papi, in 2023.
Earning rave reviews while at the Prince Arthur in London Fields and The Haggerston in Dalston (and highlighted in our Food Innovation Safari last month); Hot 4 U’s ever-changing menu has previously featured the likes of devilled eggs with Monster Munch; cheeseburger tartare and fries; garum ‘Pom Bears’; and chicken liver mousse and soldiers.
Like Alex Bond at Mollis, Scott and Tejada are heavily influenced by Asian flavours and techniques, with fermentation playing a key role in their menu development – BBQ peas and salted duck egg; koji hot sauce oysters; and sea bream hand rolls with umeboshi and aweside shiso just some of the previous dish examples.
Rum-soaked shortbread cookies, homemade dulce de leche, caramelised bananas, whipped cream, sprinkles and a glacé cherry (Image: @whyte_rushen)
Simultaneously a champion of the beige, oven-cooked midweek dinner and gooey, oozing smash burgers with duck fat fries; ex-Brat chefWhyte Rushenhas become something of a social media celebrity over the past few years, regularly hosting sell-out residences in bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants across London to deliver his nostalgia-dripping brand of comfort food eats.
For example, in February, he arrived at The Farrier pub in Camden Market with a classic Chinese takeaway-focused menu inspired by his youth. The menu featured vegetable chow mein croquettes with MSG mayo; pickle-brined chicken balls with roasted pineapple sweet n’ sour sauce and crispy ‘seaweed’; and hoisin rib fried rice – all served in old-school foil trays.
Other recent events saw him take on Sunday roast dinner with lamb chops and confit rabbit legs, and also the late night takeaway, offering battered lamb sausages with chip shop curry sauce, and lamb doner focaccia sarnies with garlic mayo, date ketchup and ‘slutty egg’.
Comfort Food Action Points for 2023:
Asian-inspired fermented flavours and techniques are playing starring roles for many of the new breed of comfort food innovators in elevating comfort food classics.
Explore the likes of miso, koji and amazaketo add rich, deep flavours when developing innovative riffs on nostalgic options, from fried chicken to ice cream.
Create from your Childhood
Think back to your childhood, consider dishes and ingredients that give you comfort. Chances are there’s a huge audience of diners who feel the same way. If it’s potato smileys, why not make your own? If it’s Solero ice cream lollies, why not take the concept apart and build a dessert with familiar flavours?
There’s always personality in nostalgia, and with the shadow of the cost of living crisis looming over 2023, creative yet approachable comfort eats that connect on a personal level will increasingly resonate with diners.
Incorporate Wider Consumer Trends
While the evolving world of comfort food is driven by disruptive chefs hell-bent on elevating nostalgic flavours and textures, sustainability trends are not to be forgotten.
Indeed, the Hot 4 U team’s upcoming Papi restaurant will have a zero-waste mantra, with regeneratively farmed meat and sustainable seafood to feature across its snacks, small plates and larger sharing dishes.