Some Assembly Required
Make-ahead meal kitchens keep cropping up in Diabloland. We went undercover to visit the newest ones.
Heather M. Whiting, Models: Babette Stewart, Kate Elliot, Anne Cochran Freeman
When Betty Crocker came out with the first cake mix in 1947, the stir-and-bake innovation was a huge flop. The original formula required that the busy homemaker just add water, pour the batter into a pan, and slip it in the oven. This easy recipe was apparently too easy. When the company convened focus groups to unravel the failure, women complained that they didn’t feel as if they were actually baking. They wanted to work a bit harder to demonstrate their love for their families.
Betty Crocker changed the formula, and to this day we add oil, eggs, and water to our powdered devil’s food mix.
Contemporary innovators of the meal-assembly kitchen operate on the same principle. They offer convenient meals involving your participation and personal touch. Popping up by the hundreds all over the country, these kitchens take on the unpleasant duties of cooking—the shopping, chopping, and mopping—and leave the fun stuff to you. Originally designed to appeal to working moms, these kitchens have become a bigger hit with the stay-at-home parent crowd. One reason might be the social aspect of the experience. In an atmosphere made jovial by music, wine, and a group of friends, women—and a few men—across the East Bay are donning aprons to make pesto-prosciutto–stuffed chicken and pistachio-crusted rack of lamb. After two hours, the visiting chefs have up to eight family-size meals to take home.
So when life gets too busy for a from-scratch dinner, and another night of take-out seems unconscionable, you can take this middle road, pulling one of your own premade meals from the freezer and doing the final heating yourself. The result is somewhere between a homemade meal and a TV dinner, depending on the kitchen. Vegetarians beware: Meatless options at all the kitchens are few and far from tasty.
Consider that after you’re done filling out your registration (often online), assembling your meals, and doing the final preparation on your food, these kitchens might not save as much time and money as you first thought. And, you have to make the final call about food quality. But ultimately, these kitchens relieve you of expending too much of another precious commodity: brain power.
So, if you and your friends want to give make-ahead meal preparation a whirl, read on. We’ve checked out the five newest kitchens in our area and visited them anonymously to experience them as you would.
Minimum Cost: $150 for six meals serving six people each (36 servings).
Food: Recipes at this franchise of a national chain are industrial. Huge cans of Sysco tomato sauce and orange marmalade line the storage shelves behind the kitchen, and on our visit, five recipes called for onion flakes instead of fresh chopped onions—however, management says they’re using only fresh onions now. Still, we wonder who’s really saving time here. Seafood skewers with mango chutney and warm cherry cobbler are crowd-pleasers. Some serving sizes seem calculated for a small child.
Atmosphere: The kitchen is perfectly organized, perhaps a benefit of being backed by corporate headquarters. The staff is friendly and helpful and serves an appetizer from the next month’s menu during the cooking sessions.
One Caution: People at this kitchen seemed rushed, and fellow customers demonstrated aggressive kitchen rage on our visit.
2627 Pleasant Hill Rd., Pleasant Hill, (925) 287-1349, www.dreamdinners.com.
Minimum Cost: First-timer’s special of four meals, each serving four to six people, for $86–$102; after that, the meal minimum goes up to six, at a cost of $140–$162.
Food: Local customers rave that the meat here is the best of all the kitchens and applaud the use of fresh herbs and vegetables. Indeed, it was a pleasure to see bins of fresh mint and kalamata olives. The pistachio-crusted rack of lamb tasted as if it came from a premium restaurant. But pasta dishes were bland. The gnocchi with Parmesan-sage white wine cream sauce, for instance, was fighting a flavor battle between harsh white wine and lemon juice in eye-squinting quantities.
Atmosphere: Ensembles has minimal decor and on our visit didn’t play music. The clinical atmosphere reminded us that we were doing a chore. Recipes are simple to follow, but the kitchen is hard to navigate, and the sole staff person on our visit wasn’t very responsive to customer requests.
2550-B2 San Ramon Valley Blvd.,San Ramon, (925) 855-8355, www.nsemblesmeals.com
The Full Plate
Minimum Cost: $100 for four dishes, serving four to six people each.Food: Complicated dishes made easy can help amateur chefs build confidence—and earn them points with family and friends.At the Full Plate, rolling pesto and prosciutto inside chicken breasts and putting together a paella, while just part of the process of making these dishes, are great lessons in what home cooks are capable of achieving. Unfortunately, despite the positive cooking experience, we found the results problematic. The chicken was a bit tough upon reheating, and the seafood didn’t freeze all that well and suffered from freezer burn.
Atmosphere: On our visit, a party for a local moms group was in full swing, filling the kitchen with laughter and chatter. Young, friendly staff put out some wine glasses (you can bring your own bottle) and quesadillas to add to the congeniality, but had a hard time answering questions about the recipes.
1810 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek, (925) 939-3855, www.thefullplate.com.
Now We’re Cooking
Minimum Cost: Varies, but often six meals serving two to three at a cost of $70–$90.
Food: Recipes here are fun and creative. Chefs can really throw themselves into the work, getting their hands dirty making Baltimore crab cakes or calzones. Chefs making calzones especially appreciate hand-picking the fillings to suit their fancy. In summer, the kitchen gives away fresh produce from the farmers market as a perk.
Atmosphere: This kitchen is in a former cooking store, and its warmly colored walls, hardwood trim, and bar lined with fresh biscuits and honey make you feel as if you’re on the set of a cooking show. With its flawless organization, clear recipes, and attentive staff cleaning up after you, you could reel off one-liners like Rachael Ray while showing off your assembly skills.
148 E. Prospect Ave., Danville, (925) 743-1212, www.nowwerecooking.com.
Minimum Cost: $12.50 for one dish, serving two or three people.
Food: Down-home recipes like shrimp divan and skillet goulash might give the impression that Super Suppers recipes are just a step above Hamburger Helper, but this chain outlet doesn’t fall prey to boring standbys. We found several of the dishes surprisingly good, although some ingredients may trigger a heart-attack alert. The catfish with dill-caper cream sauce was tasty, and we enjoyed the breakfast egg strata, though it was layered with grocery store bread, frozen spinach, and prefab sausage bits. Most kitchens have separate instructions for halving recipes, but Suppers makes you do the math yourself. Note: The premade frozen side vegetables are worth the extra dollars.
Atmosphere: Of all these local institutions, Super Suppers feels the most like a real kitchen. Home-sweet-home art lines the walls, plastic bags lie folded in wicker baskets rather than housed in their cardboard boxes, and industrial piles of aluminum foil and measuring cups are out of sight. This is the only kitchen with walk-in hours and no significant minimum charge, saving you from having to make and keep an appointment.
7268 San Ramon Rd., Dublin, (925) 479-0949, www.ssdublinca.com.