Comfort food seen in vogue as credit crunch bites

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - As the world’s economy heads for its deepest slide in decades, cheap, comfort food is back in vogue while fanciful, culinary experiments are falling out of favor, according to culinary experts.

A plate of tortelli di zucca (tortelli pasta with courgettes) is seen at a restaurant in the northern Italian town of Canneto Sull'Oglio May 4, 2006. REUTERS/Daniele La Monaca

People are expected to opt for familiar fare with beans, pasta and chicken -- and eat at home more, making 2009 the year of the home cook.

“Wacky, weird-science cuisine that requires fancy-schmancy equipment doesn’t necessarily make food taste better, and more often than not it adds needless complexity,” said food Web site in its predictions for 2009.

“Expect to see comfort food stage a comeback again.”

While no one expects lauded molecular gastronomic restaurants like Alinea in Chicago or elBulli in Spain to suffer, families are clearly reaching into their pantries more now instead of reaching for their phones to make reservations.

“People are looking at the family table in a new way, and trying to save as much as possible,” said Susan Stockton, senior vice president of culinary production at the Food Network in New York. “This will be the year of the home-cook.”

The move to economize has benefited food makers like Campbell Soup Co.and General Mills. They have seen sales gains as consumers eat more cereal and canned soups.

But the eat-at-home trend has put the heat on U.S. restaurants whose sales have nearly flat-lined since the summer.

Sales growth slowed to a slim 0.8 percent in November on a year-over-year basis, according to data from SpendingPulse, a retail research subsidiary of MasterCard Inc. (MA.N), although some eateries have seen sales drop as much as 20 percent.


Consumers are expected to look for better value when they do choose to eat out, heading to neighborhood bistros, wine bars and noodle bars. Serious food lovers may still splurge on higher cost, local organic ingredients but will be more selective.

“Instead of caviar and foie gras you’ll have people seeking out a new kind of eating indulgently,” said Howard Greenstone, chief operating officer at high-end U.S. Mexican restaurant chain Rosa Mexicano.

He sees more offerings of small plates so diners can share and keep their bills down.

As families spend more time in the kitchen, there will be more thirst for learning about cooking, said Food Network’s Stockton. There has been a jump in online inquiries on topics such like meal planning and preserving food.

So what do viewers want to learn more about making at home?

“Chicken, chicken, chicken. Chicken is always number one,” Stockton said with a laugh.

Reporting by Richard Leong, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith