Comforting Food

Comforting Food

Padma Lakshmi reveals her favorite comort food, why she loved the TGIFriday's challenge, and why cooking with kids in mind is key.

Is there anything more scrumptious than a heaping bowl of your favorite ice cream? I was very curious to see how everyone would fair in this week's Quickfire Challenge. Ice cream is such a universal food, one that gives great pleasure to so many of us. I love making homemade ice cream and was surprised to learn that not many of the chefs had actually made it before. But ice cream isn't hard to make, and I thought they did well ... for the most part. I couldn't believe it when Marcel told me he made avocado and bacon ice cream. I appreciate his wanting to create new flavor profiles and be innovative, but part of being a great chef is knowing your audience. In this case, I told them they would be going to Redondo Beach where it was a hot summer Sunday, and that there would be a lot of kids.

I was amazed by how good Carlos' avocado and marshmallow ice cream was. It tasted sweet, smooth and delicate, and the soft pillows of marshmallow melted in the heat of my mouth becoming a swirl of creamy, sugary goodness. I thought Michael's Elvis ice cream was interesting and I was glad to see him put some thought into his dish and be a bit more creative. And I must admit, the bacon in Elan's breakfast ice cream with waffles and maple syrup was intriguingly delicious ... but if I had to order one flavor again, it would be Josie's peach cobbler ice cream. Peaches were at the peak of their season, ripest of all the fruits when we filmed and I could smell them from two feet away on the table of items they chose from. In the end, the textures and taste of Cliff's ice cream beat all else out, getting the most votes from the crowd.

The last time I was in a TGIFriday's must have been when I was in high school, so I don't know what their menu is like now, but I can guess. I loved this Elimination Challenge because it had to do with childhood favorites. No matter how sophisticated we all think we are, it's often the things we grew up with that give us the most comfort and pleasure. And sometimes that's what we want most, unfussy, simple food. Betty said that a good chef has to have versatility and she's absolutely right. You should be able to cater to a wide variety of palates and preferences. And the biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate or look down on your patrons.

I loved being there at the fire house, too. Something about the easy comaraderie of those fire fighters made the station a very welcome place, and we actually had a couple of calls that the guys had to go out and deal with -- luckily it was nothing serious. I talked with the fire fighters about everything from food (many pride themselves on being serious cooks), boxing, how to put out a kitchen fire (always smother it, don't splash water over it, ever), and how their families deal with their work. It was a fun and enlightening episode and I think the challenges gave the contestants a chance to catch their breath, after feeding 1,000 food fair patrons, a fire house seemed to be a piece of cake.

And yet, Frank's choice of that Alice and Wonderland mushroom meditation was ill conceived to say the least. No one will ever order that dish. It wasn't comforting, or satisfying -- just strange and a bit too clever for the venue. But that is not to say feeding patrons in casual dining establishments is an easy task, especially since a chain of restuarants like TGIFriday's has hundreds of outlets and all those menus have to, for the most part, be standarized; not easy when you think of the regional tastes of this country and how they may differ. Betty's roasted pepper-tomato soup and grilled cheese was my absolute favorite because it aced the challenge in every respect. Mia's meatloaf was something else I would order again, especially with the ketcherella ... it showed creativity, while using familiar ingredients.

Cliff's mac and cheese and fish sticks were great but unlike the other judges, I felt that one less cheese -- like leaving out the strong gorgonzola -- would have improved it. The best dish I tasted that day was actually Sam's fruit salad. It was so much more than just a fruit salad, it was savory and sweet, and tart and light and had a great balance of flavors bursting in my mouth all at once. But it wasn't substantial enough to offer as a dish on a casual dining menu, especially as an entree, as was the case with Elan's smoked corn with bacon which was lip-smackingly good. That corn would have been a great side dish, but not enough to win this week's challenge.

All in all, this week was about appealing to the child in all of us. Something a chef should always think about.

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