"My compliments to the chef!" exclaimed Tom as he raised his wine glass--for the third time that night. Tom has eaten at my house on previous occasions, and he's never been as exuberant about the food as the night I served a three-course menu from Simply Dinners.
Unfortunately, I was not the chef; I was simply the conduit.
Locally owned by Eddie and Maureen Yueh, Simply Dinners (simply-dinners.com) is a meal-assembly store at Broadway Boulevard and Pantano Road that opened February 2005. This concept has been sweeping the country. Like wine bars, which took almost forever to boom in Tucson--but now are popping up everywhere--the meal-prep business will soon explode here, too.
Dream Dinners, a franchise with headquarters in Snohomish, Wash., opened on the northeast corner of Orange Grove and Thornydale roads in January 2005. Created by two working mothers and named "the grandmother" of fix-and-freeze businesses by Time magazine, Dream Dinners was the first to roll out this concept on a national scale.
Both Super Suppers and Supper Thyme franchises are coming soon. A second Simply Dinners location is scheduled to open in central Tucson this spring. The Web site easymealprep.com lists hundreds of stores and resources for business owners.
One of the advantages of being independently owned is that the Yuehs can make their own rules. Their store is open throughout the day, and people are encouraged to drop in for an hour and make one recipe for $16. That's smart marketing and the way to entice new customers.
Amber Schlak, a 29-year-old third-grade teacher and working mom with two small children, doesn't like to come home from work and wonder what's for dinner. She goes to Simply Dinners once a month and makes 14 meals in two hours that she can pop into the freezer and prepare as needed.
"I can't imagine cooking full-time ever again when I know that this alternative is available," she says.
I tried Simply Dinners anonymously and on my own dime ($117.50 for six meals that each served four people). First, I went to simply-dinners.com and chose six recipes from a mouthwatering list of 14, and scheduled my session. (Menu items change monthly.)
When I arrived, I received my list of what I was making; I was then briefed on the strict cleanliness rules, how to move from station to station to prepare my recipes, and the location of all the bowls, utensils and supplies.
As a clutter queen, I was wowed by the sparkling organization.
While Frank Sinatra crooned in the background, I moved from station to station preparing my six recipes, as did the other customers--mostly male. We mumbled amicably as we collectively assembled our meals. There are no ovens or stoves, so all recipe ingredients are measured and mixed into plastic containers of all sizes; the concoctions are then labeled with directions and placed in Ziploc bags to be frozen for future preparation.
The concept makes sense: If I were to make these six recipes at home, I would be mincing, chopping and dicing my brains out. I may even draw blood along the way. I would need to buy at least a dozen different spices and some pastes or sauces that would eventually go unused.
However, at Simply Dinners, I didn't have to go grocery shopping. I didn't have to clean up--when I made a big mess trying to pour peanut sauce into a plastic bag, a cleanup genie made it all disappear.
Following the recipes was easy, as ingredients were divided, premeasured and spread out before me like a chorus line. Meat was prepackaged in the freezers. Trust me: If you can read, you can do this.
At home, I first cooked up the chicken and dumplings. I almost had a panic attack when I realized the dumplings were dry ingredients, but when I made the stovetop dish, the dumplings dumpled just fine. I then got the bright idea of inviting friends Tom, Jodi, Danny and Christina over to reap these delicious rewards. Dinners are meant to serve four to six people. Most people would only prepare one dinner at a time, but multitasking is my life, so I was able to make and serve an awesome steak Caesar, a raspberry-chipotle pork tenderloin with cilantro-lime rice, and Szechwan shrimp with brown rice (the side dishes are included).
Unequivocally, we rhapsodized about the pork; it had an aromatic meat rub. I baked the pork the day before (it can also be grilled), then added the glaze and heated prior to serving. Tom and Jodi loved the shrimp, while Christina and Danny raved about the steak salad with roasted red potatoes, parmesan cheese and premade Caesar dressing. I chose to serve this dish over romaine lettuce. We all agreed that the quality of meat and shrimp was outstanding.
The only downside of preparing three meals at once was the unavailability of a cleanup genie.
Initially, Yueh worked with David Lalli, former executive chef of the Tack Room, to create many recipes. Now, Tim Vogel, a professional chef who has cooked all over the world, advises on new recipes. (Tim: I would like to see more international menu items from India, the Middle East and Thailand.)
I made the two remaining meals--crispy salmon filets, and chicken satay stir-fry--and the salmon was my second-favorite entrée. Eating the Simply Dinners way has been a real treat.
I'm going back with five more friends to do the after-hours party, where customers can assemble recipes and bring wine to drink while Simply Dinners serves appetizers and dessert. Who knew making dinner could be this much fun?