Dinner Kits in a Box? Been There, Done That

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I’ll never forget the quote chef Peter X. Kelly gave to me when I reported on the demise of his innovative new business, Impromptu Gourmet, back in 2002. “It looks like the second mouse is going to get the cheese,” he said.

Well, yesterday, The New York Times reported on a mischief of mice. (Yes, that’s the real word for a group of mice!) In this story, “Everything but the cook,” Julia Moskin writes about the new trend in dinner kits: boxes of pre-measured, pre-cut, individual ingredients that come with instructions on putting dinner together quickly in your own home.

Yes, that’s just what Impromptu Gourmet was.

Impromptu Gourmet

Peter Kelly, the founder and culinary director, convinced some of the best-known chefs at the time to contribute their menus for the project. They included:

  • David Burke’s Filet Mignon with Bacon & Polenta Cakes
  • Peter X. Kelly’s Ahi Tuna with Wasabi and Spicy Seaweed Salad
  • Gray Kunz’s Red Snapper with Tamarind and Lime Leaf Reduction
  • Charlie Palmer’s Breast of Duck with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze
  • Eric Ripert’s Shrimp with Bok Choy and Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette
  • Michael Romano’s Lamb Chops “Scotta Dita” with Tricolore Salad
  • Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Loin of Lamb with Black Trumpet Mushroom Crust

The chefs said they would only agree if Kelly used the same suppliers they did for their restaurants. He agreed, and opened a small factory in Valley Cottage that produced the kits. He oversaw all the quality control.

Peter X. Kelly

The kits were sold in stores like Citarella and Zabar’s, and you could order them online for FedEx delivery the next day. Besides the stories we did at The Journal News (you can read them after the jump), Impromptu Gourmet had national press. The company was in Newsweek when it launched, and there were articles in The New York Times and New York Magazine.

“It was a great idea and concept,” Peter told me just now by phone. “But timing is everything.” People use the internet differently now than they did in 2000, he says, and then 9/11 really had a big impact on the economy.

When Peter say the article in yesterday’s Times, he had deja vu. “It just brought back a sea of bad memories,” he says. “Getting up at 4 in the morning to finish that and then go to work! It was a fun experience doing it, but good luck to somebody else. It’s not for me anymore.”

Impromptu Gourmet

“I wish them luck,” he said. “Maybe they’ve got a better way to do it.”

Our JN stories on Impromptu Gourmet, after the jump.


First published March 16, 2002:

Impromptu Gourmet closes the kitchen

Rockland-based luxury food seller lays off 40 in closing

Christopher Mele The Journal News

VALLEY COTTAGE – Impromptu Gourmet, the Rockland County-based enterprise that sold restaurant-quality, cook-it-yourself meals, has closed after a sour economy stalled sales of its pricey kits.

The company’s chief executive officer, Max Polaner, said yesterday that he had received numerous calls from parties interested in re-launching, financing or buying the business following its March 4 shutdown. For now, though, the company is no longer taking orders and 40 full-time workers who put together 2,000 kits a week at a Valley Cottage kitchen have lost their jobs.

“We were doing OK. We were just not growing fast enough,” Polaner said. “We needed to grow very quickly to keep ourselves financially afloat.”

He declined to discuss the company’s finances or detail how many meals it sold in the 18 months that it was in business. “We were selling a luxury good in a tough environment,” he said.

The concept called for fresh ingredients of a chef’s tested recipe to be assembled in a kit so that home cooks could make a gourmet meal for two. Impromptu Gourmet brought together some of New York’s most famous and world-renowned chefs. The meals, which could cost up to $70 including the shipping fees, appealed to the fast-paced lifestyles of busy professionals.

Customers could order selections ranging from breast of duck with pomegranate molasses glaze to loin of lamb with black trumpet mushroom crust by phone or over the company’s Web site. In Manhattan, meals could be delivered in less than an hour and in one night across the country. The meals were also available in select stores and supermarkets.

While the concept was interesting, the price put it out of reach of most families, said Brian Todd, senior vice president at The Food Institute. “The economic slowdown certainly didn’t help it. As stocks turned the other way, people were probably watching their money more than they were when it first came out,” he said.

Peter X. Kelly, Impromptu Gourmet’s culinary director and a founding chef, said the company decided to halt operations rather than run into further financial trouble.

“The question was, can we make it without more capital?” Kelly said. “The answer that came up was `no.'”

Kelly said the meals were be popular as gifts. The company was prepared to partner with BMW, which would offer free meals to customers to test-drive its cars.

“We had a very compelling product that we didn’t sell enough of,” he said. “We didn’t get the ramp-up or scale that we wanted. We struggled like a lot of luxury products right now.”

Kelly said there were “differences of opinion” among managers “about where we should be right now.” He declined to elaborate. “I am not happy with the decision. There are people who are devastated that this company went out,” said Kelly, owner of Xaviar’s in Piermont and Garrison.

“This was a great company. We had tremendous potential,” he added. “It’s a shame that we’re not going to ride this pony all the way to the end. Somebody else will.”

First published Oct 17, 2001:

Fresh from the factory

Working like a clean, green machine, Impromptu Gourmet turns out 2,000 meal kits a week

Elizabeth Johnson The Journal News

Open an Impromptu Gourmet kit and you’ll find neatly packed, numbered pouches of ready-to-be-cooked food, lettered for easy identification. The pieces inside the corrugated cardboard box fit together like a jigsaw puzzle – a lot like the way the factory itself works, precisely and accurately turning out 2,000 make-it-yourself dinner kits a week from a corporate park in Valley Cottage.

Think Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with much stricter standards. Plenty of workers in white lab coats. No Augustus Gloop.

Impromptu Gourmet was launched a year ago today with fanfare afforded few food ventures: top New York chefs, backing from an established company and a big buzz from the media. Its concept is simple enough: Gather, prep and package the fresh ingredients for a chef’s tested recipe so that anybody can make the dish at home. Home cooks can amaze and delight their friends with a gourmet meal for two – no slaving over a hot stove. (Well, some slaving, but always less than 30 minutes worth.)

The idea seems to have worked. The company has met all its projections in the last year – and would even be ahead of them if not for the terrorist attacks grounding air travel and affecting deliveries. Even so, as Impromptu looks forward to its second year, it is changing its culinary course.

“It takes a long time to get brand recognition,” says Peter X. Kelly, a founder and Impromptu’s culinary director. “And we were probably too fast to jump into retail.”

When the company started, Kelly and CEO Max Polaner (of Polaner All Fruit) targeted the public. Customers could buy the meals from the company’s Web site or at local grocery stores. In Manhattan, meals can be delivered in less than an hour; across the country, in one night.

The original menu of the signature dishes of six chefs – David Burke of Park Avenue Cafe, Peter Kelly of Xaviar’s, Charlie Palmer of Aureole, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, Michael Romano of Union Square Cafe and Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges – has been expanded to include paella from Martha Stewart, a grilled dinner from Epicurious.com and desserts from Claudia Flemming, the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern.

Recently, Impromptu added Marinated Pork Loin with Tea Spice Rub, Gingered Sweet Potatoes and Five Spice Apples from Ming Tsai, the Boston chef who hosts “East Meets West” on the Food Network.

By Christmas, the company expects to offer kits from Williams-Sonoma and Neiman Marcus. This month, Impromptu began providing prepared foods for Kings Supermarkets, mostly in New Jersey. It’s also working with Food Emporium for future products.

While the kits will still be available for purchase online, the company is now targeting corporate gift-giving as a marketing strategy.

For HBO, for example, Impromptu is creating a “Sopranos”-inspired Italian dish – Chicken Cacciatore with Porcini Risotto, perhaps – from Artie Bucco’s kitchen. The company is also working with pharmaceutical companies that would give gift dinners to doctors, and with architects, who would give gift dinners to clients.

To handle the anticipated increase in business, the plant in Valley Cottage will be expanded, perhaps by the end of next year. The enlarged facility is planned to be as efficient as the current one. It’s the jigsaw puzzle workings that make it the envy of the food-packing business.

“Once we opened, we had a lot of people looking at us,” says Kelly. “General Foods, Lipton, because everything is fresh. That’s what makes it different and so much harder.”

The USDA inspector has an office on the site, but the standards that Impromptu set for itself go above the government’s. When a delivery truck arrives, its driver knows to open the boxes for inspection. The plant sends back more products than it accepts. Bruised carrots? No good.

The receiving area of Impromptu Gourmet is as pristine as the rest of the 10,000-square-foot warehouse. Shipments get a tracking number upon arrival, which is kept through the cooking process and stamped onto the box in which the meal is packed.

Products get washed in a receiving area and then that entire room is disinfected before another product comes in. Poultry, meat and fish are separated and anyone handling a raw product wears a red helmet. Anyone handling produce wears a green one.

On a recent morning in the produce room, workers were stemming basil, chopping flat leaf parsley and cleaning bok choy.

James Kelly, the production chef (and Peter Kelly’s brother), walks in with three zesters. “Lemons are on their way,” he says. The workers change their gloves and wrist guards and begin zesting lemons that will be candied to garnish the microgreen salad for David Burke’s Filet Mignon dinner kit, the company’s best seller.

Lemons, bok choy, basil – any kind of vegetable is fine with Evangelina Acosta, an El Salvador native who lives in Haverstraw. She’s worked in Peter Kelly’s kitchen before, making coffee and espressos at Restaurant X in Congers. But now, she’s prepping food that will be shipped to customers nationwide.

“We get a lot of practice with the knife here,” she says.

She’s got to work quickly. There’s a flow in the factory that can’t be stopped. Kevin Taylor, the vice president of operations, sees to that. Some products that arrive – pea shoots, microgreens, fish – have a one-day shelf life before they must be shipped out.

When the meat has been sliced, the vegetables chopped, the salads weighed and the sauces reduced, it’s time to put the pieces together. Nearly everyone in the plant gathers in the production room, where a packing machine creates the tiny, vacuum-sealed pouches customers find when they open a kit at home.

After everything is sealed, the pouches are placed in tubs in front of workers, who pack up tomorrow’s dinner by hand, one ingredient at a time, leaving the last piece of the puzzle to the Federal Express delivery truck that will take the meal to its final destination – someone’s kitchen.

Boil this, sear that, and voilá, dinner is served

I’ve cooked nearly all of Impromptu’s two-person dinner kits and desserts at home, and I can promise that the only hard thing about them is doing the dishes.

Take Charlie Palmer’s duck dish, for example, which I made on Sunday night. Fill a pot with water, and throw in the plastic pouches of cous cous, onions, carrots and pomegranate sauce. Empty the duck stock and duck confit into another pot. Sprinkle some packaged seasoning over the duck breasts, and sear them in a sauté pan. (The instructions even tell you how: six minutes on the skin side, one minute on the other side.) Then put the sauté pan in the oven and wait.

One of the hardest things about cooking a meal is making sure all the components come out at the same time. This is never an issue with Impromptu – they’ve figured that out for you.

While the duck is resting (letting the meat rest outside the oven for a few minutes keeps juices inside instead of spilling all over the cutting board when you slice it), you prepare the rest of the meal. Take the cous cous out of the water – it’s cooked now – and add it to the stock. After it’s mixed, scoop it onto the plate. Open the carrots and onions and put them on the plate. Put the now sliced duck on the plate and garnish. Voilá – as long as you have scissors and a couple of pans in your kitchen, it’s a no-brainer.

– Elizabeth Johnson

Placing an order

To order dinner kits from Impromptu Gourmet, click on www.impromptugourmet.com or call 866-IMPROM2.

The latest menu for the two-person kits includes:

· Marinated Pork Loin with Five-Spice Tea Rub by Ming Tsai ($37.95).

· Lamb Chops “Scotta Dita” with Tricolore Salad by Michael Romano ($44.95).

· Aged New York Beef Sirloin Au Poivre with Whipped Potatoes and Creamed Spinach by David Burke ($44.95).

· Lemongrass Chicken with Sweet Rice in a Banana Leaf by Jean-Georges Vongerichten ($37.95).

· Shrimp with Bok Choy and Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette by Eric Ripert ($37.95).

· Breast of Duck with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze by Charlie Palmer ($39.95).

· Cedar Planked Salmon with Arugula and Roasted Garlic Crust by Peter Kelly ($39.95).

Also, on the Web site are:

· Paella for Six by Martha Stewart ($75.00).

· Epicurious Mixed Grill ($49.95), which serves four.

First published June 14, 2000:

Gourmet in a box

Pascale Le Draoulec

Once you’ve dined with some regularity at places like Restaurant X in Congers or Restaurant Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel, it’s really hard to settle for ziti when dining at home.

Your taste buds know better.

If only Restaurant Jean-Georges delivered the chef’s signature Boneless Lamb with Black Trumpet Mushroom Crust and Leek puree.

Well, now it does. Sort of.

With a little help from Peter X. Kelly – who has just launched ” Impromptu Gourmet, ” delivering chef-designed gourmet-dinner kits complete with step-by-step instructions to your office or doorstep.

The beauty of these entree kits is that not only are top New York chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten parting with their signature recipes, but all of the prep (read: grunt) work is already done for you. The garlic is peeled and chopped, leeks are cleaned, cooked and pureed, herbs are picked clean.

” The mise en place is done for you, ” says Kelly, who owns the top-rated Restaurant X in Congers and Xaviar’s in both Piermont and Garrison. ” The food in the box comes exactly the way it would come to the chef on the line for service at a four-star restaurant. ”

It’s like having a sous chef in a box.

And not just any sous-chef.

In addition to Vongerichten (who also owns Vong in Hong Kong), Kelly has tapped such toqued titans as Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin), Charlie Palmer (Aureole), Gray Kunz (formerly of Lespinasse), David Burke (Maloney & Porcelli), Michael Romano (Union Square Cafe) and Sottha Khunn (Le Cirque 2000) to contribute their recipes.

The kits, which serve two and run about $35 including shipping, will be available online come September at www.impromptugourmet.com and later this summer at upscale retail outlets such as Citarella (1313 Third Ave. at 75th Street and 2135 Broadway, also at 75th Street).

Each kit contains a short bio of the chef and a picture of what the dish should ultimately look like, as well as the (short) list of kitchen tools you’ll need. The kit concept assumes that you will have basic ingredients, like olive oil, in your home pantry.

” The whole key is the dish can be produced in less than a half-hour, and everything is at your fingertips, ” says Kelly. Cleanup, consequently, is minimal.

What’s more, the ingredients are all restaurant quality and not typically available to the average consumer, says Kelly. Many of the greens used for the kits are grown specifically for these chefs and their restaurants.

Ripert, for example, would not contribute his shrimp recipe unless Kelly promised to use the shrimp from his shellfish purveyor at Le Bernardin. Since plain old Kosher salt doesn’t cut the mustard for Vongerichten, his lamb dish kit comes with a tiny pouch of Fleur de Sel, the Ferrari of sea salts, harvested in Brittany, which intensifies the taste of the lamb and is not easy to find at Stop & Shop.

Ingredients are packed into vacuum-sealed, clear pouches and the kits are assembled at a 10,000-square-foot plant in Valley Cottage in Rockland County. Eventually, Kelly hopes to offer first-courses and desserts, tapping different chefs but of the same caliber.

He admits he was a little nervous at first, approaching star chefs like Ripert ” about putting their food in a box. ”

” But the chefs really got into it, ” he says. ” They are all pretty excited by the concept ” of a home chef in Scarsdale (or Iowa) being able to whip up the same Potato-Wrapped Sea Bass in Barolo Sauce that Sottha Khunn prepares daily at Le Cirque 2000.

Kelly says it will be interesting to watch whose dishes will be the most popular on a national level when they broaden distribution by the end of the year. David Burke’s kit should be a hot seller in the summer months because everything in the kit is designed for the grill.

You don’t need to know how to cook to prepare the meals, but you should know your way around your kitchen.

We tested two of the kits, Kelly’s Wasabi Crusted Pacific Ahi Tuna and Jean-Georges’ aforementionee lamb, and both nights we were seated for dinner within 20 minutes of tearing the seal off the cardboard box. Barely enough time to sip the requisite glass of red wine while cooking.

In both cases, it felt as though the respective chef was right there in the kitchen. It’s like painting by numbers, only with Monet or Diebenkorn whispering in your ear as you apply color.

Kelly says each kit is ” like a minicooking class ” since you learn new tips along the way, straight from the master’s mouth.

With Kelly’s kit, for example, you learn the proper way to sear tuna; Vongerichten explains how letting the lamb rest a few minutes after cooking locks in the juices and makes the meat more tender.

I loved the small pouch of bright red Tobiko caviar in the tuna kit, which I was supposed to sprinkle artistically around the rim of the plate a la Emeril Lagasse, as Kelly does, but which I rained on my potatoes instead. This was partly because of my rebellious streak, but also because the bright red caviar would not stand out on my persimmon-colored dinner plates. Other than that, the kits don’t allow for much deviation, and why should they?

I happen to sear tuna often at home, but you could tell by their firm, ruby flesh that these tuna filets were of a superior grade. I probably would not have made the spicy seaweed salad from scratch, and having it as a chaise for the filets to recline on gave the dish aesthetic and flavor panache. The kit even came with two fresh rosemary twigs which did double duty: First, they were used as a fragrant seasoning for the roasted potatoes (which came scrubbed, quartered and ready to bake, thank you very much), and then, I was instructed to plant them in a decorative salute in the tuna filets, just like Kelly does at Xaviar’s.

With Jean-George’s Boneless Lamb kit, all I had to do was flash cook the mushroom-coated lamb in a skillet and then finish it off in the oven for about three minutes, while my precooked leek puree, wild rice and scallion batons simmered in their respective pouches in a pot of boiling water. Positioning my dollops of leek puree onto each plate to rest the lamb loins on and spooning out the lamb jus, it was easy to fantasize that I was on the line at Jean-Georges, until I looked down and realized my dinner platewas pure Pottery Barn – not Bernardaud.

Both meals looked festive and tasted remarkably good and, dare I say, of restaurant quality – even though I didn’t find a tip on the table when I cleared the dishes.

It was hard to believe both meals had come out of the flat cardboard boxes now in the recycling bin.

Even though they only took a few minutes to prepare, both meals definitely felt like a special-occasion splurge, and I was glad to have the right wine on hand and the time to linger. Eventually, the kits will come with wine suggestions and in a size that serves six – perfect for an elegant but easy dinner party.

Kelly is not the least bit worried the kits will be so successful they’ll ultimately harm his restaurant business.

” With all the money people are spending updating their kitchens, ” he says, ” why not use them once in a while? ”

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About Author

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and LoHud.com, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

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