February 1, 2023
Chef Kwasi Kwaa and restaurateur Biplaw Rai’s partnership project with Historic Boston, Comfort Kitchen, opened for business last Wednesday inside Uphams Corner’s historic comfort station, bringing what they call “global comfort” food and a new community space to the busy neighborhood.
The small, stucco-styled building, which originally served as a streetcar rest stop for commuters in the early 20th century, has been carefully renovated over the last decade. It had been lying fallow after it was boarded up in 1977 and was in a state of decay and disrepair until it was acquired in 2015 by Historic Boston in a competitive bid process run by the city of Boston.
After an initial plan to convert the space into a bike repair-coffee shop fell through, Historic Boston found the right partner in Rai, who previously owned the Dudley Café in Roxbury’s Nubian Square.
The 940-square-foot building is owned by Historic Boston for “totally technical reasons,” according to Kathy Kottaridis, the executive director of the organization. The plan is to turn over control of the site to Kwaa and Rai after five years, Kottaridis said, noting, “The whole goal in the end, eventually, is to get the building into their hands so they can be the owners of it.”
She added that at the time the comfort station was built (1912), it was really important to provide amenities and to make the city a functional, beautiful place. In fact, it was called the period of the City Beautiful.”
Kwaa and Rai’s menu traces ingredients like rice, grain, spices, and chicken as they spread through the African diaspora. “You can literally just sit here and be at a different part of the world instantly,” Kwaa said about the restaurant’s pop-up style dinner menu.
The menu offers selections of food from across the world as part of an effort to change the “cheap and abundant” expectations that Kwaa and Rai see around “immigrant food.” Kwaa puts it this way: “It’s the same amount of effort that goes into a Michelin star restaurant, it’s the same amount that it takes to produce the food that you’re consuming in excess. That’s the point that we’re trying to make here.”
Kwaa, who has wanted to see change in the food industry since he began cooking commercially, sees the Comfort Kitchen initiative as a chance to do just that.
The first menu, offering items like Caribbean potato curry cakes and Mediterranean beef kafta and trout, signals the restaurant’s mission: fostering community and equity through food, an issue Kwaa thought was greatly exposed during the pandemic.
“We’ve always known what we wanted from the food industry,” he said. “Covid not only exposed that, but it also taught people to understand not just what was happening, but why things cost what they do.”
Besides comfort food for and from all, Kwaa and Rai view Comfort Kitchen as their chance to bring fair wages and equitable treatment to everyone involved in its operations.
“We are truly a friends-and-family business,” said Rai, a reference to the way that he exclusively used local partnerships, like choosing Fazenda Coffee as roasters. On the family side, Nyako Perry, Rai’s spouse, has worked alongside them the entire way to the opening.
Kwaa pointed to Marisa, a chef working near the kitchen stove: “The young woman in the black hat back there,” he said. “I worked with her in the first kitchen I ever worked in. She trained me.”
He added, “If we don’t hold ourselves accountable, the people that we fail are not just some strangers that we just met,” Kwaa said. “These are people that we love. These are people that we’re going to see in our daily lives. Essentially, we’re trying to bring some humanity back into the food business.”
Comfort Kitchen partners, from left: Biplaw Rai, Nyako Perry, Kwasi Kwaa ,and Rita Ferriera inside the restaurant on Jan. 28. “Everybody that’s in this building is actually here because not only did they choose to be here, they were excited about choosing,” Kwaa said. “That’s what’s special.”
The entire Comfort Kitchen team hopes to become employee-owned if all pans out.
In the meantime, Kwaa said, they will continue doing what they and Comfort Station’s goal always set out to do.
“Our conversations since 2015 has always been ‘If we were to do it, how can we do it better?’ Better wages, better benefits, having folks be in a space where they feel not only seen and heard, but feel appreciated in terms of monetary and personal value. That’s where we’re at.”
The cafe/day menu is available Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. The eatery is closed on Sundays. Booking a table in advance is strongly recommended. Go to comfortkitchenbos.com.