The dining room was in happily controlled chaos the day before Comfort Kitchen opened last week. Chef Kwasi Kwaa sampled a non-alcoholic ginger cocktail created by bar director Kyisha Davenport. Branding partner Rita Ferreira pasted letters onto a plaque that spelled out Comfort Kitchen’s cafe’s menu of the day. A stack of opening menus—printed like a four-page zine, with glossy photos and paragraphs describing ingredients—were ready to be assembled.
The opening has been a long time coming for the team. Managing Partner Biplaw Rai has been dreaming of Comfort Kitchen with Kwaa since 2015, when Kwaa introduced pop-ups at Rai’s restaurant Dudley Cafe in Roxbury. The team originally planned to open Comfort Kitchen in 2020, but of course that didn’t go as planned. Comfort Kitchen pop-ups followed, drawing many fans and acclaim from press including Eater and Boston Magazine. Now the restaurant, housed in the historic Comfort Station at Dorchester’s Upham’s Corner, is finally ready for prime time.
The menu — a mix of hits from the pop-ups alongside brand-new dishes — traces the international spice trade and uses that as a lens to tell stories of immigration and showcase home cooking from around the world, says Kwaa. For example, Comfort Kitchen’s Yassa Chicken, a Senegalese stew found throughout West Africa, uses common South Asian spices like turmeric and coriander, and Kwaa serves the chicken with cassava dumplings.
There’s a little more creative freedom with dishes like Comfort Kitchen’s Roast Duck, where Kwaa bathes confiscated duck in a jerk marinade commonly used with chicken. Nonetheless, on the menu he carefully explains the origins of jerk in Jamaica, how jerk is traditionally used and why they deviate from tradition. “We never want to bastardize any particular dish,” says Kwaa.
The idea of mapping the spice trade and highlighting global comfort foods came from Rai and Kwaa’s own backgrounds. Both are immigrants – Kwaa emigrated from Ghana at the age of 11; Rai emigrated from Nepal as a young adult – and both built their careers in restaurants in the Boston area.
“This meal is a celebration of immigrants,” says Rai. “For Kwasi and myself, we both come from two different continents. We both had two very different, distinct trips to the United States. But we cross paths right here in the restaurant.”
The bathroom is covered in Bollywood movie poster prints from Rai’s personal collection, which he scanned and installed in collaboration with local artist Franklin Marval. The couple hand-painted flowers over the arms.
The Immigrant Festival isn’t just about the food. The couple also acknowledges that it has historically been difficult for immigrant restaurant workers to advocate for themselves in the workplace. Kwaa recalls working in restaurants without knowing what government-mandated paid sick leave is or how to use it. At Comfort Kitchen, development partner Nyacko Pearl Perry helps the team be clear with their employees about employee benefits, including available sick days, from the moment 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 that has its roots in slavery. And yet, they weren’t sure their business would survive unless they at least started incorporating tips into their work model. Otherwise, Comfort Kitchen would have had to increase menu prices to make enough money to tip employees. Rai worried that customers might not be willing to pay that price – particularly in Dorchester, where people might have a different idea of what groceries should cost than, say, Back Bay – and they couldn’t afford to pay customers directly to lose the goal.
Head bartender Danameche Terron lights No Smoke in the Jungle, a mezcal-based cocktail made with a homemade Coco Tola blend containing coconut milk and a blend of West African spices.
“I got into arguments with my own brother about the cost of goods and groceries,” says Kwaa. “Some of the same people who go downtown and pay $200 for a meal refuse to go to certain places, say, in Dorchester, in Roxbury, in Mattapan. Some people want to neglect certain communities when it comes to food. And that forces people to take shortcuts because they know the struggle they have to go through to get what their product is worth.”
In the dining room of Comfort Kitchen.
According to Ferreira, the soft, light-flooded room should feel like a warm hug. It was designed by Supernormal, the same company that built Tanám’s communal dining room at Bow Market.
Rai draws a curtain around one of the tables in the dining room, creating a more private dining area for two.
However, that conversation has changed, especially during the pandemic. Kwaa and Rai say across the city, industry voices are protesting the status quo — including Brassica in Jamaica Plain and Exodus Bagels in Roslindale, both of which recently imposed customer service fees to prop up staff wages rather than leave it up to tips louder than ever. Chef Ellie Tiglao of pioneering, now-defunct Filipino-American restaurant Tanám urged customers to spend money on restaurants that are more open about sustainable working models and bringing something new to the Boston dining scene. Kwaa and Rai say the city of Boston should also make public transportation free and available after 1 a.m. and help defray costs like health insurance for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. “At least we’re getting the conversation going,” says Kwaa.
But first there was roast duck to prepare and last-minute shopping to be done 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,” says Kwaa. “But we really shouldn’t do that. Opening day is tomorrow.”
Comfort Kitchen is located at 611 Columbia Road in Dorchester. The daytime café is open Monday to Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Reservations are required for dinner, which takes place from Tuesday to Saturday from 17:00 to 22:00. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.
From L to R: Comfort Kitchen staff includes Chef Iberio, Executive Chef Shelley Nason, Bar Manager Kyisha Davenport and Head Bartender Danameche Terron.
Branding partner Rita Ferreira puts together Comfort Kitchen’s breakfast menu.
Comfort Kitchen is located in a historic former public restroom originally built in 1912. The restaurant is the first commercial tenant in the premises.