Frozen Food Takes On a Personal Cachet
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A new crop of businesses is offering busy people another way to steer clear of the drive-through. They bring customers in and teach them to prepare high-quality meals ahead of time, food that can be frozen, then cooked at home. Eric Niiler reports.
ERIC NIILER reporting:
The vibe inside this big kitchen is more easy-listening Starbucks than suburban industrial park. Sixteen customers are dressed in brown smocks and orange bandanas, listening to instructor Jonathan Laromy(ph).
Mr. JONATHAN LAROMY (Instructor, Let's Dish): Our recipes are served to suit kind of a mild palate, so if you guys like to season them up or season them down, whatever you want to, that's fine, but they're fine how they are. Personally, I add more heat and more garlic to my dishes.
NIILER: Laromy works for Let's Dish, a growing business that gets people to prepare fancy food ahead of time. Customers pay $155 to prepare eight meals. Each serves four to six people. The menus rival any urban bistro: chili lime-grilled chicken with black bean salsa, chipotle pork tenderloin or a decadent molten chocolate cake. Stephanie Kuhn prepares a marinated steak.
Ms. STEPHANIE KUHN (Customer, Let's Dish): You get a freezer bag, and you put it in a crock, and then you add garlic, soy sauce, thyme, rosemary and mustard seed. And then you put the steak inside the bag, and you close the bag, and then you rub it together to massage it into the steak.
NIILER: Kuhn and the others follow an assembly line routine at several food stations. All include fresh seafood, meat and vegetables, spices and various sauces. The food is wrapped in aluminum foil and Ziploc bags with the recipe label on the outside. After tonight's session, Kuhn will carry home enough food to feed her family for several weeks. Like most of the customers, Kuhn is a busy working mother.
Ms. KUHN: I work full-time and have two kids, and it's easy to come home and just have some things thawed out in the fridge and cook it without any thought.
NIILER: Let's Dish co-owner Lisa Hardiman is also a working mother who's opening several Let's Dish franchises in the Baltimore-Washington suburbs. Hardiman consults with a nutritionist and food chemist to make sure the recipes are healthy and will taste good after several weeks in the freezer.
Ms. LISA HARDIMAN (Co-owner, Let's Dish): A lot of chefs can make things very fresh, but they can't freeze it. Things like a jalapeno, for example, gets much spicier once it's been frozen, and therefore, knowing these sort of tips of the trade, you can't just take anything and freeze it.
NIILER: The Let's Dish concept is part of a growing trend. There are similar franchises with name's like My Girlfriend's Kitchen, Dream Dinners or Village Table. Ron Paul is president of Technomic Inc., a food consulting firm in Chicago. Paul says these do-it-yourself restaurant meals appeal to upscale consumers.
Mr. RON PAUL (President, Technomic Inc.): So you're getting more than food. You're getting an experience. You're getting some training and understanding and developing some culinary skills. So it seems to be a package that's attractive. It's in its very early stages, but it's definitely one to watch.
NIILER: Paul says this minitrend is following the trail blazed by gourmet takeout and high-end groceries like Whole Foods. Back in the Let's Dish kitchen, 46-year-old Mike Rhoat(ph) says he's just a regular guy that doesn't want to fuss around the kitchen.
Mr. MIKE RHOAT (Customer, Let's Dish): My wife and I are both here. We can knock this out in about 45 minutes, all eight meals or 12 meals or whatever, and we're done.
NIILER: Rhoat and his wife say they could probably save money if they went to the grocery and cooked everything from scratch. But by coming here, they save time. That means just a few weeks later at home, dinner can be a coconut curry shrimp in about 20 minutes. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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