In this installment of “When I Was Poor,” Chef Jason Alley of Comfort restaurant in Richmond, VA, discusses growing up broke, dressing up ramen, and the finer points of good old-fashioned hangover food. Alley, who first tried cooking when he was just 4 years old, has manned the stoves at restaurants in Chicago and Atlanta, but he returned to his home state of Virginia and opened Comfort in 2002, and he’s been dishing out comfort food favorites to hungry crowds ever since. Which, fortunately for him, means he can make recycled ramen dishes when he feels like it, not because he’s broke.
What was your food awakening — like when did you decide food could be a career?
This sounds shitty, or whatever, but I grew up really poor in a really rural area so food was always insanely important to me. Partly because it wasn’t super readily available. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I really thought — I worked in fast food in high school, ’cause there just weren’t other jobs around — but it wasn’t until I got to college that I figured out, “Hey, there are people that cook actual food for a living and do this.” So I got a job washing dishes at a country club, and it was the first time that I’d ever had cilantro. I was 18 years old and I’d never had cilantro, much less, like, veal stock and all this stuff. Initially it was really foreign to me and I really hated it. Like, “Holy shit, how do people eat this stuff?” Then very quickly it became something that was just really eye-opening, like, this stuff is really good; this is what something other than pinto beans and fried potatoes tastes like.
So you just worked your way up to cooking?
I started washing dishes after I’d immediately failed out of college due to too much fun and drinking and playing in punk rock bands and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, I would just knock out the dishes as fast as humanely possible and then I would knock out as much prep as I could, and I had a deal with the chef that I could, if I knocked out everything, he’d let me just hang out and watch service. And I loved it. I fell in love. So that was culinary school for me.
What was (or still is) your go-to money-saving food tip or practice?
I’m a huge fan of the dress up your instant ramen kind of action. Especially, like, leftover barbecue or leftover ribs, anything like that that’s not enough for a meal, I’ll just do, literally whatever shitty instant ramen there is, throw a little barbecue in, dice up a scallion, you can poach an egg in the instant crappy ramen broth, and all of a sudden you’ve got, like, a totally gut-busting meal for zero.
That sounds easy enough.
It’s awesome. And whatever else you’ve got lying around. If you’ve got three snap peas that your roommate or your child didn’t eat, dice those things up and throw ’em in. If you’ve got two bones of ribs leftover from cooking out or something…I mean, what the fuck are you gonna do with that? But if you take it off the bone and throw it in a bowl of ramen, now you’ve got smoky, delicious ramen.
Did Gourmet magazine make you feel like a loser, or was that just me?
[laughs] Well, yeah, kinda. Now that they’re not in print and I don’t have to worry about ever getting press from them, then I can say yes. Although, you know, in high school my dad got remarried to a woman who was a librarian and she collected Gourmet. God knows she’s a wonderful woman and all, but she did not cook out of these magazines. So they were aspirational. But I would sit there at 13 or 14 years old and just pour over that magazine. Like, I don’t know, to me it was completely an unreal thing, like I couldn’t imagine that anyone lives that way. It might as well have been a Ray Bradbury novel to me it was so fucking foreign. So yeah, at many times in my life, Gourmet has made me feel like an asshole.
So what about one can’t miss, super cheap recipe tip?
Well, my favorite — and I still do this maybe once a year — is homemade Hamburger Helper. Brown some ground beef with onions and garlic, drain that and pour it into a pre-made box of macaroni and cheese. And then add a can of Rotel tomatoes to it. And that shit is like Jesus himself made it. Fucking so good.
This interview is changing my life, I think.
[laughing] Jesus Christ, I don’t know what that says. Thank you, I guess.
I don’t know, either. Probably nothing good for me. But wow, that’s amazing.
It’s so easy and so good: 1 1b. of ground beef. One box of macaroni and cheese. One can of Rotel. And that’s an easy 2 meals. If you like gut-busting pasta and fake cheese-type meals, you know. It’s spicy. It’s like great weed-smoking food, not that anybody we know would ever smoke weed or drink beer…
It’s really good drunk food, too, so you can make it one day for lunch, then the next day after work. Microwave it up after you’ve had about six beers. Life changing.