UNLIKE THE START of 2001, when people had all the hope and optimism that came with a new millennium, 2002 is commencing under a dark cloud. As the doom and gloom of the conflict in Afghanistan and the worldwide economic crisis affect our spending habits, making us more reluctant to make major purchases, so too is it changing how we eat. Richard Feldman, chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Association and owner of the Annexx, Red Rock, Al's Diner, Food by Fone and other food-and-beverage businesses, says comfort food is in. 'Given these uncertain times, people want what is familiar. For everybody it's different. For Americans it's meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes. It's not bran and salads - it's throw caution to the wind.' Nellie Ming Lee agrees. As the food and wine consultant for Oliver's in the Prince's Building, she watches what people buy to cook for themselves. 'It's definitely comfort food-oriented,' she comments. 'People are spending more time at home. When the economy goes down, they don't go out as much, and what they're cooking is comfort food. The old stand-bys like pastas are always really popular, and so are one-pot meals, that kind of thing.' Even the Grand Hyatt's customers are looking for comfort food, says the hotel's executive chef, Josef Budde. 'Casserole dishes are more in demand, and braised dishes, like braised lamb or veal shanks, what we call secondary cuts. It has a lot to do with what their mothers used to cook; there's a certain amount of comfort factor in it. The first menu we've implemented with comfort food on it is room service and sales are on the rise. On the new menu we have braised lamb shanks and a very nice family dish, weiner schnitzel, which is pan-fried breaded veal.' Budde, whose customers don't generally have to watch their budgets too closely, doesn't think those who frequent the Grand Hyatt are going for less luxurious dishes, and they're not abandoning the top-end Grissini for the less expensive Grand Cafe. 'Our customers aren't really affected by the economy. They know what they're looking for and they're not starving.' Feldman, whose F&B establishments are less expensive, believes customers want value for money. Restaurants will appeal to them through coupons and promotional offers, but he doesn't think the downturn will cause establishments to lower their prices. 'I can't see that prices will fall much more; some of them are just surviving now. I do see special offers, off-peak-hour selling like early-bird specials - that's going to increase,' Feldman says. 'Fast food is in. It's cheap and there's a feel-good factor. People have a certain amount of masochism, they know they're being naughty, but they're eating it anyway because life is short. They know it's bad for them but they do it as a form of rebellion. Diets are out, health trends are on hold. There's going to be a psychological gloom-and-glutton scenario - people are eating to comfort themselves.' Lee doesn't go quite that far, but she says her customers are 'not going for fancy ingredients; truffle oil still sells, but not as well as a top-quality olive oil. They're buying simple and basic things, but they want the absolute best. They're living for the moment, and cholesterol be damned to some extent. It's not that they're not health-conscious - they don't want GM [genetically modified]. But they want enjoyment; if something has cream in it, so what, cream makes it taste better. And they want it with the best cream.' Budde also sees this. 'The dessert buffet [in the Tiffin Lounge] is going stronger than ever. I thought that everybody in Hong Kong was on a diet, but the ladies have dessert and cheese like there's no tomorrow. We used to have only mild cheeses, but now we have a selection of five, from blue to hard to medium. The taste for cheese is becoming more sophisticated; they don't want supermarket-quality cheese, they're looking for blue-veined cheeses and Brie de Meaux, which is a kilo-sized round that comes from near the Champagne region. They want triple-cream cheeses, artisan cheeses. They're even selling these at city'super and Great. Somebody must be buying it and it's not cheap.' Feldman summarises the new food mood most succinctly. 'The word for 2002 is pig out. Throw caution to the wind, let's eat.'