The dining room was in a happy state of controlled chaos on the day before Comfort Kitchen opened to the public last week. Chef Kwasi Kwaa tasted a gingery non-alcoholic cocktail engineered by bar director Kyisha Davenport. Branding partner Rita Ferreira stuck letters onto a board spelling out Comfort Kitchen’s daytime cafe menu. A stack of opening menus — printed like a four-page zine, with glossy photos and paragraphs describing ingredients — stood ready for assembly.
The opening has been a long time coming for the team. Managing partner Biplaw Rai has been dreaming up Comfort Kitchen with Kwaa since 2015, when Kwaa ran pop-ups inside Rai’s Roxbury restaurant Dudley Cafe. The team originally planned to open Comfort Kitchen in 2020 but that, of course, didn’t go as planned. Comfort Kitchen pop-ups followed, drawing plenty of fans and acclaim from press including Eater and Boston Magazine. Now, the restaurant, located inside the historic Comfort Station in Dorchester’s Upham’s Corner, is finally ready for primetime.
The menu — a mix of hits from the pop-ups alongside all-new dishes — tracks the international spice trade, using that as the lens by which to tell stories of immigration and showcase comfort foods from around the globe, Kwaa says. For example, Comfort Kitchen’s yassa chicken, a Senegalese stew that is found throughout West Africa, uses common South Asian spices like turmeric and coriander, and Kwaa serves the chicken with pillowy cassava dumplings.
There’s a little more creative license in dishes like Comfort Kitchen’s jerk roasted duck, where Kwaa bathes confited duck in a jerk marinade commonly applied to chicken. Still, he is careful to explain on the menu the origins of jerk in Jamaica, how jerk is traditionally used, and why they are deviating from tradition. “We never want to bastardize any particular dish,” Kwaa says.
The idea to chart the spice trade and highlight global comfort foods stems from Rai and Kwaa’s own backgrounds. Both are immigrants — Kwaa emigrated from Ghana at age 11; Rai emigrated from Nepal as a young adult — and both built their careers in Boston-area restaurants.
“This food is a celebration of immigrants,” Rai says. “For Kwasi and myself, we both come from two different continents. We both had two very different, distinct journeys to the United States. But we intersect right here in the restaurant.”
The immigrant celebration doesn’t only apply to the food. The pair also recognizes that it has been historically difficult for immigrant restaurant workers to advocate for themselves in the workplace. Kwaa recalls working in restaurants without knowing what state-mandated paid sick time was, or how to use it. At Comfort Kitchen, development partner Nyacko Pearl Perry is helping the team to be clear with their staff about employee benefits, including available sick time, starting at the point of hire.
But there is a limit to how much the restaurant can offer. Rai and Kwaa will be the first to say that tipping, for example, is an exploitative practice rooted in slavery. And yet, they weren’t confident that their business would survive if they didn’t at least start off by including tipping in their labor model. Otherwise, Comfort Kitchen would have had to raise menu prices in order to make enough money to pay staff commensurate with a tipped wage. Rai worried that customers might not have been willing to pay that price — especially in Dorchester, where people may have a different idea about what food should cost versus in, say, Back Bay — and they couldn’t afford to lose customers right out of the gate.
“I’ve had arguments with my own brother about the cost of goods and cost of food,” Kwaa says. “Some of the same people who will go downtown and spend $200 for a meal out refuse to go to certain places, say, in Dorchester, in Roxbury, in Mattapan. Some people want to shortchange certain communities in terms of food. And that forces folks to take shortcuts because they know the battle they have to go through to get what their product is worth.”
That conversation has started changing, though, especially during the pandemic. Kwaa and Rai say that, across the city, the industry voices protesting the status quo — including Brassica in Jamaica Plain and Exodus Bagels in Roslindale, both of whom recently added customer service fees to support staff wages instead of leaving it up to tips — are louder than they have ever been before. Chef Ellie Tiglao, of pioneering, now-closed Filipinx American restaurant Tanám, challenged customers to spend money with restaurants that are speaking more openly about sustainable labor models and bringing something new to Boston’s dining scene. Kwaa and Rai say that the city of Boston, too, should make public transportation free and available past 1 a.m., and help defray costs like health insurance for businesses with less than 50 employees. “At the very least, we’re getting the conversation started,” Kwaa says.
But first, there was jerk roasted duck to prep and last-minute store runs to do before the restaurant opened to the public on January 25. “There are so many layers to the conversation that we could literally sit here all day,” Kwaa says. “But actually, let’s not do that. Opening day is tomorrow.”
Comfort Kitchen is located at 611 Columbia Road, in Dorchester. The daytime cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are required for dinner service, which runs Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.