When a football player is caught cheating on his wife with a stripper, or when he finds himself the victim of a tabloid kiss-and-tell exposé from an aspiring glamour model, the betrayed and wounded Wag invariably sticks up for her man. "It was a honey trap," she will say. "That tart was targeting him because of his fame and money." (Well, d'uh.) "He came back to me, I've forgiven him, and our love is stronger than ever." And in that period of reconciliation, when the naughty centre-forward's tail is firmly between his legs and his missus wants to show the world that he's changed his ways, she will invariably utter the single greatest cliché of Premier League unfaithfulness: "Why would he go out for a burger when he can have steak at home?" Why, indeed?
Except, we all know the answer. Because it's a burger. Because burgers are dirty. Because they are illicit. Because they are unhealthy. Because they are deeply satisfying but they leave you feeling guilty. In the wider culinary world, there's a similar phenomenon. Do you think great chefs finish a tough shift in the kitchen, take off their aprons, kick back and settle down to a fancy-pants meal of smears, foams, froths and reductions? Of course they don't. They want comfort food. They want nursery cooking. They want big, salty flavours. And health be damned.
I asked a dozen of the UK's top chefs to let me in on the secrets of their favourite comfort foods. My plan was to determine the ultimate foodie guilty pleasure. The results? A lot of carbohydrates and a ton of melted cheese.
Their choices were reassuring, confirming that it is not just us mortals who are tempted by the comfort of Big Macs and crisp sandwiches — Michelin-starred chefs and restaurateurs succumb to the same cravings, too.
The science of comfort food is well researched and extensively documented, but it boils down to one simple truth, which is that "unhealthy" fats, salts, starches and sugars get us high. They send signals to our brain to release endorphins and opioid neuropeptides. And, boy, do they make us feel good. Cheese on toast is basically kitchen crack.
Before I get into trouble for suggesting that our culinary superstars are nothing more than drug addicts, I should mention another significant factor: virtually all the choices of these top chefs are abundant in umami — that mysterious fifth flavour, present in foods such as strong cheese, cured meats, shellfish and Marmite. It's hard to define but distinctive when tasted. It induces salivation and delivers a glutinous sensation that coats the tongue and the back of the throat and enhances flavour. What's not to love?
For your comfort dish recipe this month, I have a treat. It is the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich, adapted from Bill Oglethorpe's mighty Kappacasein shop in Borough Market, London. It's a favourite of mine, a real guilty pleasure, usually enjoyed without a stripper in sight.
The ultimate grilled cheese toasted sandwich
• 70g mature Cheddar, grated
• 30g Comté or Gruyère, grated
• 2 slices of sourdough bread
• Half a small red onion, chopped
• Knob of butter
1 | Grease the griddle pan with the butter and place on a medium-to-high heat. Assemble the sandwich with the cheeses and chopped onion between the sourdough slices.
2 | Place the sandwich on the griddle and then press down hard on it with the base of a smaller frying pan on top. Cook like this for three minutes or so, turning it over occasionally.
3 | You want the sandwich to turn nicely crisp and brown and the cheese to melt slightly out of the edges of the bread. Don't over-cook it or you will mask the unctuous flavours of the melted cheeses.