Food

9 Dishes Chefs Eat When They're Sick

You might be better off enjoying a bowl of brothy soup than taking flu medications.

Chef David Rotter created a soup recipe that combines natural anti-inflammatories with other healthy ingredients.
Photo Credit: Ryan Gleason

When your nose won’t stop leaking, you can barely hear Netflix over your incessant coughing, and a trip outside the house seems like a death sentence, there’s only one way to cure the plague: Food. A plethora of ingredients are proven to help you feel better—perhaps better than any over-the-counter cold reliever—and soup is indeed medically proven to make you feel better when winter sickness makes everything feel bleak.

Having certain ingredients on hand for when illness hits can also help during cold and flu season.

Elizabeth Trattner is a certified gourmet chef from the Natural Gourmet Institute and a doctor of Chinese and integrative medicine. She recommends stocking up on ginger, an antioxidant that’s also an antimicrobial, which kills bacteria and can also combat chills and fever; fresh garlic, an antioxidant that increases antibody production and stimulates white blood cell multiplication; and marrow-based soups, which can be purchased by the box and contain alkylglycerols, a type of fat found in our organs that boosts the body’s production of white blood cells, which “protect the body against infections and immune cells that digest bacteria.”

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And while home cook cures may come from a box, leave it to the professionals to whip up something curative and delicious when they’re too contagious to go to work in a restaurant kitchen. Here’s what chefs eat when they’re sick (spoiler: lots of broth).

1. Noodle soup

Brian Shin, chef at San Francisco's bar The Snug, is "a big soup guy in general,” but his love for warm savory liquids grows stronger when he’s feeling sick. Pho and ramen are both sick-day go-tos, and when he can get it, a big, hearty bowl of Korean oxtail soup, called seolleongtang, is the ideal cure.

2. Pho or matzo ball soup

“Whenever I am sick, like most people, I want soup,” says Nini Nguyen, culinary director of Cook Space in Brooklyn. “Pho is always my go-to when I am not feeling 100%. It is my comfort food because I am Vietnamese and I like to believe that the ingredients do help my symptoms.” Nguyen says the ginger and licorice help with nausea and upset stomachs, and the salty broth helps with a sore throat and hydration. “Also, I think there’s something about the hot broth that heats up your body from the inside that makes you feel so much better.”

When she can’t get a good bowl of pho, the runner-up is matzo ball soup. “It is just so comforting,” she says.

3. Sopa de fideo

“When I was a kid I was fed sopa de fideo, a Mexican soup made with garlicky tomato and vermicelli,” says Rob Valencia, executive chef of catering production at New York’s Great Performances. This brothy soup is still his go-to sick-day dish, “because it makes me sweat everything out and kills anything bad in me,” he says. “I feel like a new person the next day.” Try this Food52 recipe.

4. (Easy) homemade broth

“My go-to when I'm weak with a cold, or even when I'm feeling one coming on, is broth—homemade,” Minnesota-based chef Kristin Hamaker of meal-planning service Goosefoot says. Depending on what ingredients she has on hand, she’ll make chicken or vegetable broth in her Instant Pot. “That way, I can go back to bed while the pressure cooker does the labor for me,” she says. When the broth is ready, she’ll sip it from a warm bowl, unadorned.

5. Congee

"Congee is the Asian person’s chicken noodle soup for days when you’re under the weather,” Maiko Kyogoku, owner of New York’s Bessou, says. “I grew up with one that has a dashi stock as the base with daikon and carrots.” At Bessou, a brunch congee with crispy prawns and spiced peanuts on top can help New Yorkers feel better after a long night out.

6. Pasta inbrodo

“When I have a cold or the flu, the only thing I crave is food that warms my body and soul,” Salvatore Marcello, executive chef of MAMO Restaurant in New York, says. “For me, that is my grandmother’s pasta in brodo. In my mind’s eye, I can watch my grandmother preparing it for me when I was a child.”

To replicate Nonna’s recipe, set a small pot of water over medium-high heat, and add a stalk of celery, a carrot, three cherry tomatoes, a bay leaf, a clove and salt, and boil for 30 minutes. Add a handful of broken angel hair pasta and cook for 2-3 minutes. When it’s cooked through, serve the pasta and broth in a bowl, and add 1/4 of a squeezed lemon, extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano.

“Sometimes I steer away from Nonna’s tradition and add a piece of ginger to the boiling liquid,” Marcello says. “This is what I like to eat when I’m sick, but to be honest, I like it so much I do not wait to be sick to eat it. This is also a perfect easy dinner for the cold winter nights. I can’t imagine anything more comforting.”

7. Spicy pho and molasses cookies

"I always crave a bowl of spicy pho—the aromatics and heat go straight to my head and make me feel slightly human again,” says Angela Garbacz, owner and head pastry chef at Lincoln, Nebraska’s Goldenrod Pastries. “After the nutrients, I grab a chewy molasses cookie, because cookies help everything."

8. Kimchi stew

“Whenever I'm under the weather, I have Jjigae kimchi stew,” Justin Neubeck, executive chef at New York’s Empire Diner says, noting he just got over the flu with help from this Korean soup. “It's a Korean soup that helps everything. The spices clear the sinuses, the warmth is comforting and soothing, and the silken tofu is easy to swallow on a scratchy throat. It's perfect!"  

9. Mom-inspired detox soup: The 'medicine cabinet'

(photo credit: Ryan Gleason)

When his mom was sick two years ago, chef David Rotter of New York’s Boulton & Watt created a medicine cabinet-inspired (drug-free) soup recipe that combines natural anti-inflammatories with other healthy ingredients into a potion to ward off the nastiest of sniffly noses. Though the soup hasn’t made it onto Rotter’s restaurant menu, he shares the recipe and notes that, “With this style of soup, it will be even better the next day when all the flavors have had a chance to meld.”

Medicine Cabinet

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup small diced onion
  • 1 cup small diced carrot
  • 1 cup small diced celery
  • 3 cloves of garlic (sliced)
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped ginger
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped turmeric
  • 2 medium sweet potato (small diced)
  • 1 bunch of kale
  • 1 lemon zested (microplane)
  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups of sliced wild mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, oyster)
  • 4 quarts vegetable stock*
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium-size pot, add a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, ginger and turmeric. Cook vegetables slowly over medium-low flame. (You don't want to get color on the vegetables.) Once the vegetables are tender, add mushrooms, kale and sweet potato and turn up the heat to medium-high. Stir until the kale begins to wilt. Add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and lower to an easy simmer. Allow to cook for 45 minutes to an hour until it is reduced down to 3 quarts. Add lemon zest and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

*Vegetable stock recipe

Use all scraps from ginger, onion, celery, turmeric, carrots, mushroom stems, and kale stalks. Chop two stalks of lemongrass and add to the mix. Cover with 6 quarts of water and reduce to 4 quarts.

Do you have any recipes you make when you're sick? Share them in the comments.

Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications.