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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Dining

Chicken noodle soup is a top cold-weather dish. (PHOTO:

Eating in the name of comfort: Chefs dish on fond foods

Chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, pot roast, mashed potatoes, fried chicken ... for many, these foods not only sooth hunger pangs, but they conjure good memories and offer a sense of safety and enjoyment.

Comfort food is a complex concept that embodies the interplay between memory, history and brain chemistry. The foods we eat are tied to our memories of the people with which we've shared them, the circumstances through which we discover them and the situations we associate with them.

And while preferences for comfort foods tend to be as diverse as the people who consume them, they ultimately come down to three factors: security, reward and connectedness.

Physiologists at the University of California have reported that nervous tension causes the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, which in turn trigger comfort-seeking responses in humans and animals alike. Lab rats respond by seeking pleasure, including eating high-energy food like sugars and fats. Humans seem to respond similarly, often looking to indulgent foods as a form of comfort and relaxation.

As the weather grows chilly and the holiday season approaches, our desire for comfort food increases. So, I invited a few Milwaukee chefs to share some of their own favorites, and give me a sense of which dishes they're making in their restaurant kitchens that carry those same comforting qualities.

For Justin Carlisle, executive chef at Umami Moto, comfort has everything to do with his memories of his grandmother and foods she used to make.

"Riced potatoes, green bean or Tater Tot casserole ..." he muses. "It's warm and comforting. It's food with memories and good thoughts that puts you in a good place."

It's no surprise he recommends the pho on the Umami Moto menu to anyone seeking a moment or two of respite from their fast-paced lifestyle.

"It's warm and rich, the smell is relaxing, and it makes me smile," he says.

Soup is a big comfort-food trigger for Suzzette Metcalfe of The Pasta Tree as well, whether it is chicken with matzo balls, split pea with smoked ham or navy bean with sage pesto. But, it's her mom's cooking that really strikes a chord.

"My mom's tomato and caraway-braised country pork ribs with homemade potato dumplings and sauerkraut is very personal comfort food," she tells me. "I have great memories of making it with her!"

When it comes to dishes she loves at the restaurant, Metcalfe falls hard for the lasagna, which is made with three cheeses and three different kinds of meat. But, her favorite item on the menu is the scallops with artichoke cream – sushi-grade scallops sauteed with artichoke hearts and served with Pernod cream sauce. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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brewcitypaul | Nov. 12, 2012 at 4:12 p.m. (report)

Meatloaf at Comet Cafe is awesome. Love the mac & cheese too.

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kmervyn | Nov. 12, 2012 at 12:26 p.m. (report)

Comfort food is best in comfortable surroundings. I have yet to find Meatloaf, Mashed potatoes and cream-style corn on any fine restaurant menu. Which is OK, because no one makes it better than I do!

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