DropChef: A helping hand for aspiring master chefs

DropChef is a business that delivers high-quality ingredients and instructions for your meals to your home – you just do the cooking. Is it worth the money?

 

It’s a scenario that will be all too familiar to most full-time workers. You have the best intentions to spend your weekend hovering over bubbling vats of soup and chilli to keep you well fed through the week, but by the time you get home from the office on Monday evening, you find yourself once again staring into the back of an empty fridge.

“Applying heat to ingredients is easy, but being organised enough to have the ingredients there ready for when you come home is the challenge,” says Roman Grogan, a 23-year-old marketing graduate who found himself reaching for the takeaway menu too many times when he started his first full-time job in 2013. Talking about it with his college friend Ryan Scott sparked a business idea: eating healthily when you’re time-poor is all about preparation, but would people pay for someone else to do this for them?

Their company DropChef, which they quit their jobs to work on full-time last year, delivers fresh ingredients for three dinners per week to subscribers’ homes or offices around Dublin, along with simple step-by-step recipes that take less than 30 minutes to cook.

Both had an interest in nutrition – Grogan played tennis for Ireland and Scott is a rower – but had little food expertise, so they approached Tamarin Blackmur and Brian Topping, winner and runner-up on RTÉ’s first MasterChef series in 2012, to develop the recipes.

As the ingredients – all locally sourced and seasonal – come in the exact quantities needed for each dish, there’s no messing about with measurements and no waste, which saves the guilt and expense of throwing out food you don’t use.

 

Cooking for girlfriends

At first, Grogan and Scott did all the deliveries themselves, interacting directly with their customers to find out who was using the service and why. Men signing up to prepare dinner for their girlfriends are their most common customer, many of whom treat the experience like a sort of cooking course.

“One guy in Swords was really sketchy answering the door because he was cooking for his new girlfriend but didn’t want her to know he was getting DropChef. He told me he didn’t really know how to cook, but because all the ingredients were there he couldn’t really screw it up,” Grogan says.

Inspired by the buy-one, give-one business model made famous by Toms shoes, Grogan and Scott teamed up with Irish charity Valid Nutrition to provide a high-calorie meal to a child in Africa for every DropChef meal sold. The impact of the initiative on profit margins has made it unpopular with potential investors, but they are determined it will remain at the core of their business.

But at €9.95 per meal for a single person, or €7.95 per person in a couple, is the service worth it?

“If you were to buy the ingredients yourself, you would often end up spending more, because you are buying more than you need for the dish,” Grogan says. “Compared to the cost of a takeaway or even a ready meal, it’s not that expensive.”

Cooking for yourself is much more satisfying, and a good way to de-stress, too. “There’s a sense of pride when you cook a dish from scratch. Work-life balance is what we are all searching for these days, and if you can’t find half an hour to put something on a frying pan after a hard day in the office, you’ve definitely lost your work-life balance.”

 

Putting DropChef to the test

Through years of working mostly from home, I developed healthy procrastinating habits, which revolved mostly around daily supermarket trips, scouring the internet for tasty new recipes

and slow-cooking curries and roasts for hours on end. It wasn’t the most productive use of time, and often meant I ended up working late, but at least I ate well.

All that went out the window when I started a new job in the Irish Times’ office last November. A midweek dinner these days, when my boyfriend isn’t home first to cook for me, is likely to be some sort of stir-fry cobbled together from whatever withering vegetables are lying around at the back of the fridge, or what he wryly calls my “Italian stir-fry”, which is basically the same dish with cheese instead of soya sauce. It’s about as nice as it sounds.

So when my editor asks me to give DropChef a try, I jump at the offer. At least it’ll get me out of washing-up duty for a few days.

I arrive home from work on the first evening armed with a large cardboard DropChef box tied with brown twine. Inside are three colour-coded recipes, and three neatly folded paper bags with coloured stickers to match containing the dry ingredients for each dish. Underneath is a Styrofoam coolbox holding slabs of meat and bags of fresh, fragrant herbs.

Choosing which meal to cook first is like selecting from a fancy restaurant menu. Will I have the marinated Thai pork tenderloin, ribeye steak with chilli butter, or chicken achaari (which I presume from the ingredients list is some sort of curry)? Turns out, this is the toughest food-related decision I’ll have to make all week.

 

Day 1

Ribeye steak with chilli butter and baby herb new potatoes

Frying steaks should be simple – all they need is a bit of seasoning and a blast of heat on each side – but I always get the timing wrong. I’ve ruined countless cuts of prime beef by cooking them into dry pieces of brown board, so hopefully I can get it right by following specific instructions.

Into a bowl with some soft butter goes the zest and juice of a lime and a chopped red chilli. I boil the potatoes, chop a large handful of fresh parsley, mint and rosemary, and toss them all together with some more butter, salt and pepper. All this herb-chopping and butter-tossing has me feeling very MasterCheffy indeed.

The recipe advises cooking the steaks for two to four minutes per side. I go for three, hoping they’ll turn out somewhere close to medium rare, while the mangetout simmers in another pot. In a “here’s one I prepared earlier” move, I take the chilli butter from the fridge, cut it into slices, and place it on top of the warm steak, all the while using words such as “plating up” in my head.

The butter melts deliciously into the meat, which is just perfect: still rare in the middle, with a caramelised layer of brown tastiness on the outside. It is the best steak I’ve ever cooked in my own kitchen. We would rarely have a drink with dinner midweek, but we crack open a bottle of Merlot, because eating steak this good without it would just be wrong. We scrape the plates clean. It all feels very indulgent for a Monday evening.

 

Day 2

Quick-marinated Thai pork tenderloin with baby corn and mangetout

Unless it’s cured or sausage-shaped, I’m not a massive fan of pork. But the cut for this recipe is a long, pink tenderloin to be sliced into 1cm discs, which already sounds much fancier than the dry, white and tasteless supermarket chops I would generally associate with this meat. The discs are mixed with the soy sauce, oyster sauce and garlic provided, as well as a glug of olive oil and some sugar from my own press.

There’s a handful of soba noodles in today’s paper bag, which simmer for five minutes. I feel my inner TV chef come out again as I tip the pork, baby corn and mangetout into a wok and stir-fry for a few minutes before plating up (this time those words are actually in the recipe), sprinkling the finished dish with sliced chilli, spring onion and sesame seeds.

With the word “marinated” in the heading, I thought this recipe would take much longer than the promised half an hour, but from start to finish it takes 24 minutes. We spend less than five eating it (with more wine, of course). Even soaked in soy sauce and fiery chilli, you can really taste the flavour from the pork. It’s a stir-fry, certainly, but a much better one than my usual.

 

Day 3

Chicken achaari and basmati rice

I cook a lot of Thai curries, but I’ve never mastered the art of Indian cuisine. Every recipe in the Indian cookbook gathering dust on my bookshelf has at least five ingredients more than I have on the spice rack. But everything I need for this one is already neatly measured out in sealed plastic pouches, ready to be tipped into the wok. So far, so simple.

I add the chicken, grated ginger, garlic, shallot, chicken stock and tomato puree. The mixture simmers while the rice is cooking, the kitchen filling with a pungent, spicy steam. The whole thing takes less than 20 minutes before it’s ready to be ladled into a bowl, and garnished with chopped coriander and red chilli.

The resulting curry is one of the spiciest things I’ve ever eaten, but it’s tasty under the heat with the coolness of some yogurt from the fridge mixed in, and with just a tablespoon of oil between the two portions, it is far healthier than an Indian takeaway.

 

Verdict

Before I opened the box of DropChef goodies, I was sceptical about the price. For the almost €50 it would cost for us to sign up as a couple, we would get our usual full week’s shop in the local Aldi or Lidl.

But by the end of the week, I get it. The ingredients are of far superior quality to what you’d find on a supermarket shelf, and having everything there ready and waiting when we get home means we can be sitting down to dinner less than an hour after clocking off from work. For time-poor foodies who are willing to pay for quality and convenience, DropChef is ideal, but for now, we’ve returned to our dull-as-dishwater stir-fries.

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