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Comfort Station Potluck Series A Catalyst For Community And Creative Home Cooking

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Sep 10, 2013 4:00PM

Hugh Amano wants to feed you, but you have to do the cooking. Only skip Epicurious and leave poor Nigella be, because none of the dishes at his Comfort Station potlucks arrive at random or courtesy of celebrity chefs. They derive from sweet, sweet memory, where no one besides you and maybe your mama knows the recipe. Out of ingredients? That’s no reason to skirt past this friendly fold-up table. Just bring an honest appetite, for real food and real people, primed to nourish you in ways you may have long forgotten.

“One guy came in and played piano for about an hour—and I'm not talking about that annoying guy at parties who saw The Sting once so he just ends up embarrassing everyone," Amano said of August’s potluck, where tamale pie, peach cobbler, a bucket of Romesco and meatballs, and Gibanica—otherwise known as Serbian crack—were all for the offing. "This guy rocked the walls of Comfort Station with something along the lines of Chopin for nearly an hour. When he was done, we asked him to eat. When he said, ‘I ain't got no money to donate and I didn't bring nothin' to serve,’ we forced some Colorado green chile down his throat.”

Everyone, as they say in the churches, is welcome here. If you can bring a homemade dish echoing life at its most comfortable, when the worst thing you had to do was swallow your spinach and wash the dog with powdered soap, so much the better. That or play a mean piano.

“It's tough to show up with something you made, something special to you, usually from childhood and that you have a deep connection to, and put it out for strangers to eat. The reality of self-consciousness is tough to escape,” Amano acknowledges of his social-cum-culinary experiment. “Somewhere in there, though, the act of sharing something that's a part of you is what brings people together, me nurturing you by feeding you. It's an innately human act.”

Amano, who writes the blog Food on the Dole, has long worked to divorce food’s elitist culture from its function—to keep us alive but also living well—while meeting his own hunger for spontaneity. He recently outfitted a 1954 Chevy in Montana with a wood-burning oven to launch a mobile pizza operation. In between rogue restaurant consultations, he takes time to travel, most recently to Japan, where he ate what he deems “some of the purest food the world has to offer," and heads due north to camp while indulging his new passion for the Wisconsin Supper Clubs.

But wherever he finds himself, the simple pleasures of home cooking continue to dwarf those of the most Byzantine tasting menu. Revisiting the foods that made our earliest hours taste as good as they did, he would argue, also elicits our better culinary instincts.

“Anyone who has cleaned out their fridge or who only had potatoes to eat has had to be creative in one way or another. A lot of what's available in restaurants these days is so similar to other restaurants, and so many new places are opening every day. I no longer want to be impressed or dazzled—I want solid, real food,” he avers.

Giving the toques some time off, in other words, puts those Michelin stars in perspective.

“It's easy in the restaurant industry to think that the whole world is interested in what you are cooking. Many are, but hey, take a look at something like the Chicago Reader. Out of 100 pages, maybe five are devoted to food. Even the New York Times food section only comes out once a week. Food is one of the most important things in my life. Restaurants are not.”

If this sounds like a prelude to an act of culinary disobedience, as if Amano’s leading a populist crusade to depose the empire of master chefs with lucrative media contracts, then you’re getting close. But he insists he’s not contesting anyone’s ├ęclat. He does want to ensure, however, that authentic home cooking, nourishing us in ways Gordon Ramsay never could, doesn’t languish as a result of industry glamor.

“I recently told a friend that I love food too much to remain in the food industry,” he reflects. “Even in the highest level restaurants, there is still a certain amount of mass production being done. Even Ferraris come off of an assembly line, if you get my drift. It really bummed me out earlier in my career that people wouldn't invite me to their homes for dinner—they get all squirrely at the prospect of cooking for a chef. That's a big reason I started Food on the Dole and the F.o.t.D. Salon, which were born out of potlucks I held in my apartment early on, to get at the root of what some of the people not in the industry were cooking.”

But relinquishing control in the kitchen for a genuine communal exchange poses its own set of challenges.

“With the deification of chefs and fetishization of food these days, it's tough to present an experience that puts the onus back on the attendees to make it great. It's easy to show up to something you've bought a ticket to and declare it great or terrible. It's not so easy if your own food and mojo are what drives the event's success.”

Nothing is the worst thing, he muses, that anyone can bring to a potluck, but that’s not the equivalent of an empty sauce pan. It's refusal to offer anything of yourself, not even some casual conversation, which is what you might call the potlucks' bread and butter.

“People have noticed the potluck and stopped in, and we always, always encourage them to eat. Don't have a dish? No problem. Throw a couple bucks in the donation jar. No dish and flat broke? Make a plate and sit down with us and hang out for a bit. But it's the people—and this has happened at each potluck—who walk in, pick up a plate, and leave without giving anything of themselves to the event who kind of don't get it. Otherwise, all the dishes are great, because they were thoughtfully made by people who cared enough to do so.”

Comfort Station’s Logan Square locale attracts a diverse demographic with a growing and dedicated core of home cooks. Program Director Jordan Martins contacted Amano in the spring to develop the comfort food segment of the arts venue’s community programming.

“It's great to be a part of something with such an altruistic mission to be a crossroads of community and different art disciplines,” Amano says. “I think to a degree its logistical limitations—no kitchen, tight space, limited resources—help us stay focused on keeping the Comfort Food mission of bringing people together around food nice and simple without the temptation to do big fancy dinners in there.”

Lavish dinners, he concedes, are fine, but they’re not what ultimately sustain you. That comes from knowing who your neighbors are and lingering late into the evening on their back porch swing.

“Again, it's easy to go to a great restaurant, plop down, and be amazed, but that doesn't really build a strong relationship between the eater and the feeder. The thing that amazes me, time and time again, is that the food always, always takes a back seat to the connections and conversations that arises at the potluck. Our aim is for the food to be the catalyst to create community.”

The next potluck takes place Sunday, Sept. 15 from 4-6 pm.

Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee.