Let's say you don't know how to cook—or just don't want to, and are in a position of privilege enough to have a choice in the matter. You're sick of ordering pizza and don't feel like going out. Or you're working late. Or you're involved with your couch and a video game. Or you have a hot date and some candles and you just need the basil pesto salmon or chicken piccata and capellini. For you, there is tech-start-up dinner-delivery-service Munchery. You can party like it's 1999 all over again—if you're in the right zip code.
Munchery started almost four years ago in San Francisco, when two tech guys kept having to face the eternal problem of what's for dinner. Their wives worked, too, as Seattle Munchery GM Christie Voos tells it; they liked to go out to eat on the weekends, but during the week, dinnertime became one of the most stressful times of the day. What if there was a service where professional chefs made dinner for you, brought to your door at the hour of your choosing? What if you could select from a half-dozen entrées, gorgeously photographed and lovingly blurbed, on the website or app, and have it delivered in a matter of minutes or hours, or preplanned for the whole week? It feels like the bubbly dream of the '90s, when kozmo.com, homegrocer.com, and the like magically met (almost) all your needs at the touch of a button. But you can go back to the future right now... probably. Munchery has been delivering meals downtown and to Capitol Hill since July, and recently added Ballard and some of Beacon Hill. In the Bay Area, Munchery is sending out more than 5,000 items a day now.
The first time I ordered from Munchery, my dinner never came. After perusing all the options (ignoring the tab that conveniently provides full nutritional information), I chose Persian chicken ("a lightly braised chicken thigh quarter in a sweet onion and fig broth, served with a pilaf of red quinoa, jasmine rice, cashews, preserved lemon, chilis and parsley...") made by chef Bo Maisano (formerly of 1200 Bistro and the Tin Table), along with a poached shrimp salad with remoulade and a bourbon pecan tart (both by Meg Grace Larcom, who owns the Redhead in New York but also lives here). I pre-tipped the driver $5, selected delivery for between 5 and 6 p.m., and waited.
After 6 p.m. came and went, I went to Munchery's live help, where an entity called Kate haltingly, eventually informed me: "It looks like there was technical error in our system and the order did not process. I'm very sorry about that." Kate offered to place an "On Demand" order for me, gratis, but as I told Kate, I had to be at a comedy show in half an hour. The feeling of entitlement was immediate and unpleasant; in no time at all, I'd become the kind of person who's irked that their personal chef has fallen down on the job. Munchery couldn't get me my dinner in time, so they gave me a credit for my next order. However, you can't eat an online credit. I went to the comedy show on an empty stomach, got tipsy accordingly fast, ate a whole burrito from Rancho Bravo around 10 p.m., and had the kind of strange dreams that late-night salsa can cause. When I went to order from Munchery again, I had a $15 credit, when my original order had been at least $25.
But Munchery worked like a charm the next three times, delivering fresh food in thoughtful configurations, ready for reheating. That's a 75 percent success rate, and the food was always good—never great, but always good. Munchery has three chefs in Seattle: Maisano and Larcom, whom I've already mentioned, and Marc Allen, who's worked at Brasa and as an exec chef at Microsoft. Voos told me that some customers become a fan of a particular chef, ordering their items exclusively; aside from the fact that Maisano tends to make more Southern American, Indian, and Mexican dishes, I didn't find a lot of differentiation among the chefs' work.
The chefs themselves decide what dishes they cook each day, and make the food at an industrial kitchen in the International District. They're full-time employees of Munchery, Voos said, and in the Bay Area, these jobs are coveted by chefs who want out of the late-nights craziness of the restaurant industry. Munchery only delivers between 4 and 8 p.m., and it's closed weekends. ("The hours can't be beat," Voos said.)
Entrées run from $7.95 to $9.95 each. The portions are medium-size to generous, with a side generally included. One representative Munchery dinner for two cost $35.44. There was Texas-style chili, made by Larcom; the flavor was rich, and while you wouldn't call it five-alarm, it had a noticeable spicy heat. Little plastic containers of toppings included lime slices, crumbled cotija cheese, fresh cilantro, radish, and red onion, which made the chili much tastier, and almost as pretty as its picture—this kind of consideration is a Munchery strong suit. The cute little round of cornbread was soft, not too sweet, and not at all dry, but some of the beef in the chili had unrendered layers of fat—not a tragedy, but a mark of it not having been stewed enough.
An entrée by Maisano of paneer and chickpea tikka masala also had a decent level of spice; even if you might not need the "cooling yogurt raita" the description promised, the heat was there, and the flavors were more nuanced than the usual Indian takeout. A piece of "Indian flat bread" was more like pita than naan; it was pillowy, but a little dry.
For dessert, chef Larcom's banana caramel pudding was served in a little jar, yours to keep and reuse. (I imagine these are going to start collecting in South Lake Union apartment cupboards, brought out to do shots.) The pudding had a base of vanilla pot de crème, with a layer of caramelly bananas given a citrus kick to cut through the sweetness, plus a layer of Nabisco Nilla Wafers ("No need to fix what ain't broke," Larcom's description noted) and whipped crème fraîche, topped with bits of crunchy caramel. This pudding was incredible, as was Larcom's picture-perfect and perfect-tasting caramel apple tart another night. These two desserts were $5.95 each, and arguably worth having delivered all by themselves. Larcom makes all the Seattle Munchery sweets, and her desserts make you feel like someone out there really cares. I'm still sad about the bourbon pecan tart that was lost to the technical error.
The instructions for reheating Munchery are sometimes not quite foolproof. Someone especially clueless would be confused when confronted by a wild mushroom potpie in a little aluminum pie pan, with directions that said: "MICROWAVE: Do not microwave. Aluminum foil packaging is not for microwave use... Enjoy!" From another order, a game hen (which was very tasty otherwise) had skin that was still pale and rubbery; reheated in a microwave, per the directions, it would've stayed that way, and in the oven, it desperately needed a last-minute blast under the broiler.
But Munchery is doing lots of stuff right. The packaging, while copious, is all eco- and eyeball-friendly, always recyclable/compostable, with good graphic design. And, remarkably, for every order you place, Munchery donates a meal for someone in need. (They don't make too much of it, in case the idea of hungry people gives you a sad; for my three separate Munchery orders, I only got one e-mail saying they'd donated to Northwest Harvest on my behalf, and that they'd continue to do so.)
Will I order from Munchery again? I'm not sure. Besides the pudding and apple tart, nothing I ate had that unforgettable favorite quality. And no matter how pretty the app and the packaging, there's something that feels disturbingly enabling about having your dinner delivered for you to reheat. But then again, I know how to cook, and I sometimes even want to.
[Excerpted from How to Be a Person: The Stranger’s Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself, Sasquatch Books, 2012]
This is way easier than you’d think, but tongs are VERY helpful for the part where you turn the chicken. (This recipe is adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated cookbook The Best Recipe—Cook’s Illustrated does things like roast 209 chickens in 209 different ways to find the very best method. Their cookbooks also have neat essays about all their experiments, the science behind cooking, different kinds of pans, and stuff like that.) Paying a couple dollars more for a free-range, or natural, or organic chicken is worth it (Trader Joe’s has a good selection). Maybe make this one for your roommates before you try it on a date.
Julia Child suggests that you serve roasted chicken with “a light red wine, such as a Bordeaux-Médoc, or a rosé.” Fancy!
3- to 5-pound chicken
8 or so of those small red potatoes (or fancy small red/gold/purple mix)
Heat oven to 375 degrees (move the rack to the middle). Cut the potatoes in half and put them in a rectangular baking dish with a good splash of olive oil; salt and pepper liberally, and stir them around to get them a little oily. (You can add mushrooms, carrots, turnips, and dried or fresh rosemary or other herbs, too.) Take the giblets—they’re those weird things inside the chicken—out of the inside of the chicken, and put them in among the potatoes. Rinse the chicken, inside and out, and pat it lovingly dry with a paper towel or two. Set it on top of the potatoes, one wing up. Important: To avoid potentially horrible illness, wash your hands and any surface the raw chicken has touched with hot, soapy water. Put a pat or two of butter on the chicken, and salt and pepper it liberally.
Roast your bird (that just means put it in the oven and bake it) wing-side-up for 15 minutes. Pull it out, turn it other-wing-side-up, pat-of-butter and salt/pepper it, and roast it for another 15 minutes. Pull it out, turn it breast-up (with the drumsticks sticking up in the air), pat-of-butter and salt/pepper it, turn the oven to 450 degrees, and put it back in for approximately half an hour.
Check it! You will know it is done when the drumstick wiggles in the socket readily and/or when juices run clear yellow when you stab it. (It doesn’t hurt to stab pretty deep in and look for any pinkness, meaning it’s not done, until you’ve made enough chickens that you have a good sense of doneness.) Cut it up and serve it with the delicious potatoes from underneath. And try the different giblets; some people like them.