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Reviving classic comfort foods

Retro comfort foods are making a comeback.

“This is the best meatloaf I’ve ever had,” a diner at Alcatel-Lucent telecommunications in Naperville, Ill., once told chef Iraj Fernando. The dish was rooted in a tried-and-true source—the “Betty Crocker Cookbook.”

meatloaf slices plate

“I just seasoned the breadcrumbs differently, used fresh parsley and beat the eggs to make them frothier,” says Fernando, executive chef and manager for Southern Foodservice Management.

Consumer interest is up for classic and comforting meat dishes like meatballs (16%), beef pot pie (26%) and meatloaf (12%) for dinner now compared to two years ago, shows Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report.

While older consumers may embrace the nostalgia of these particular dishes, diners between the ages of 18 and 34 are driving the demand for meatballs, up 29% since 2015. At the University of Texas at Austin, Campus Executive Chef Robert Mayberry offered lamb korma meatballs at two dining halls in February. He said he offsets the flavorful korma curry with a cooling cucumber-yogurt raita sauce.

Fernando says about 20% to 30% of the menu at Southern Foodservice’s two corporate dining halls is comfort food. “A lot of our diners are from foreign countries, and they read a lot about the food here before they come to the U.S. They’re interested in trying these classic dishes,” he says.

Consider the plating

At Robert Bosch LLC in Broadview, Ill., Fernando serves up retro food dishes at Showplace, an exhibition-style cooking station. “Presentation-wise, these comfort dishes aren’t really nice; that’s why I’ve incorporated some of these items into my exhibition cooking,” he says. “Now I can plate them, so they’re not sitting out in a buffet-style setting looking bad or soggy.”

To modernize or not?

“If you add a few more interesting ingredient descriptions, [diners’] eyes open,” says Fernando. A traditional Irish shepherd’s pie is topped with ginger and sweet potatoes for a Southern twist, while his macaroni and cheese gets Italian with carbonara or Alfredo sauce.

But chefs should take caution when adding their own spin. “Once you get to know your audience, you can twist classic dishes a bit; their age is an important factor,” Fernando says. 

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