My palate has two extremes: sliced cheese with saltine crackers, and full-out, from-scratch meals. There’s no in-between. So when I tried two 25-minute Chefdrop meal kits created by celebrated chefs Vikram Vij (Butter Chicken Schnitzel With Spicy Mash & Peas and Naan) and Phil Nguyen (Kimchi Pork Belly Fried Rice With Bok Choy & XO Sauce), I suddenly realized that I didn’t have to be stuck with two such nutritionally varied extremes for my own meals. It is possible to meal prep for easy meals and still have the food taste incredibly fresh – and damn good.
To find out the top-chef meal-prep secrets, I connected with the restaurateur behind the premium food delivery, Adam Teolis. We chatted about meal planning, batch cooking, being more efficient in the kitchen, the top tools for any chef (or in my case, any eater), and more. Check it out.
How do you decide which ingredients to prep and which to leave fresh?
The number one consideration is all about quality. So, it’s about how far can we take the food so that you’re only doing as few steps as possible when it comes time to actually make the food. So for example, chef Phil is passionate that fresh garlic makes a big difference in the food quality. So, we’re not going to chop the garlic for the meal kit.
Same with some of the vegetables. Carrots are already chopped because carrots can stand up to sitting in the container.
The decision also comes down to the nuances of the cooking techniques and how much labour is involved. So for something like Vic’s short ribs, someone at home would have to braise short ribs for 24 or 48 hours. It isn’t realistic. That’s another big factor.
Travel time’s a big one, too. Plus, we want to provide a shelf life.
And it’s an individual choice from the chef. Chef Nuit Regular, from Pai, for example, creates meal kits that are very focused on Thai cooking. She does leave you to do a lot of the work. And it’s a combination of ingredients that are really hard to find and are nice to cut for the aromatics. It’s something special.
It’s interesting to see the routes the chefs take to try to translate recipes into something one person can cook by themselves relatively quickly. And so they have to get creative with the way that a dish is built, or the way that things come together, and they’ve all chosen different paths on how to do it.
How do you make batch cooking easy?
It comes down to just how much is being prepped in advance, or how much is being cooked ahead of time. With a dish like the halibut baked in banana leaf from Mark McEwan, in the restaurant, it would already be pre-assembled and ready to go. The restaurant would probably make a whole bunch ahead of time and quickly finish them to order or quickly throw them in the oven to bake. As soon as it’s assembled, it’s in the oven, so you can actually really increase the food quality.
Leaving assembly last is a great tip, so it’s not just about reheating foods. Any secrets about how the right food containers can impact freshness?
There’s some testing involved. Some ingredients might be better suited in a paper bag, because of the moisture content. Produce and herbs can last fresh in a paper bag. And some can just sit out, like tomatoes, avocados, and peppers. One really cool way of storing food that we have started using at Chefdrop is wrapping herbs in banana leaf, which is totally biodegradable. It holds moisture, and it does a really good job of keeping those herbs fresh at the same time. And so given that there are not too much of other uses for banana leaves, it’s a really cool way to store ingredients.
Vacuum seal bags tend to be the safest for cross-contamination. They lock in food quality and help it avoid oxidation, so your food can last longer and stay fresher at the same time. Sauces, mashed potatoes, and other ingredients like that are great for vacuum sealing because it really extends shelf life. It ultimately is less plastic.
The other great advantage of the bags is the cooking side of things. You can take that bag and just reheat it or just put the bag in water and bring it up to a boil or a simmer. It’s a more gentle way of heating food, so you’re not losing any of the flavour and nothing’s getting cooked off. Ultimately, you’re getting a better quality meal. That’s a technique that’s used in a lot of kitchens.
With souvide machines, you can cook your steak at 65 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours for a perfect medium rare and then just sear it. That same idea can really help with cooking other things, not necessarily just meat. With some recipes, you can basically heat up a pot of water and reheat foods that way. I’m sure you’ve experienced what microwaves can do to food quality.
I love that you’re testing the food prep. How fun is that?
That’s the best part – I used to be skinny! We test everything. Everything that lands on the platform are vetted for quality. With typical delivery platforms, you never really know what you’re going to get unless it’s a place that you go to over and over and over again, and I know, even from my experience. My partner and I often don’t take risks on takeout. We go back to the same places, even if they might not be the best, because you just don’t want to waste 100 bucks.
What about container size? How does air impact freshness for meal-prepped ingredients?
It depends on the food and how it responds to oxidation. For example, you don’t want bananas and onions packed together. And for some foods, you want air to circulate through the container. Herbs and some produce actually last longer that way. For lettuces, you want to make sure there’s air circulation so that they can breathe and stay fresh. Whereas, with chopped onions, you might want some air circulating. If you vacuum sealed the onions, it can compress them, which changes the texture and the way that they cook.
What should regular folks invest into our kitchens?
A good sharp knife is definitely the number one thing people should have. Too often people cut with dull knives, and you actually run a greater risk of cutting yourself badly with a dull knife. Obviously, a cutting board. My favourite tool is a spatula – the rubber spatula, as opposed to a flipping spatula. I love cooking with those. A good set of tongs. Choose metal because of the sharper edges. It allows you to be more exact with what you’re trying to grab or pick or flip.
If I had a spatula, a set of tongs and a good sharp knife, I probably wouldn’t need much more.
From a food perspective, you got to have good, quality olive oil and two types of salt. Kosher salt is a must. It actually keeps me up at night, thinking “I hope people at home when they read ‘add salt’, aren’t using table salt.” It’s so different. Cooking with kosher salt is a game-changer. If you haven’t tried it, it changes everything. A good cook has kosher salt and finishing salt. A finishing salt, like Maldon, is lighter, and more delicate.
In addition to tasting fresh, what else should we consider for meal preparation at home?
It’s definitely a balancing act between connecting with the food and doing what’s best for the food. Some chefs really are embracing Chefdrop as a way of teaching people how to cook, and others are embracing it as a faster way or a better quality way of doing their restaurant food. Personally, I think it should be a good mixture of both is important.
Take all the labour-intensive stuff out of the recipes, like the long braise times or the more challenging steps. And let’s just include the ones that are going to have you connect with the food. There’s a whole new appreciation you have for Thai food after trying Chef Nuit’s dishes, and a whole new appreciation for her food specifically, and what they go through at their restaurant. That connection made through cooking really is so experiential. You get such an enriched experience that’s not stressful.
Sometimes you just want to have a glass of wine and have fun with a quick meal, right?