Culinistas take the stress out of cooking

What if you could come home to your dorm room or apartment and enjoy a hot plate of Thai coconut curry or chicken parmesan all without having to cook or defrost?

The Dish’s Dish, a chef service new to Los Angeles, offers both working adults and students a way to enjoy any food they want to try, for a fixed weekly fee.

The company began in 2006 when founder Jill Donenfeld had a new idea for those who crave home cooking but don’t have the time to do it themselves. Instead of offering costly full-time chefs, Donenfeld has assembled a team of culinistas who will make weekly house calls, buy the groceries, create six to eight dishes in your kitchen and box them all up for a week’s worth of grub.

“You have the chef all to yourself,” Donenfeld said. “They can make anything. You can ask for hardcore comfort food one week and then the next week, if you’re interested in trying macrobiotic, she can do a whole macrobiotic spread for you. It’s completely customized.”

Donenfeld attended college in New York City but always wrote food reviews and maintained other culinary-industry side projects. Then, a family she babysat for asked her to cook something they could nibble on throughout the week and she saw an opportunity. By graduation, she had four clients and the start of a brand-new business.

“I had $5,000 in my bank account, and I thought I should just go for it,” Donenfeld said. “I was 21 at the time, so I figured if I failed it would be OK … I didn’t have much to lose.”

Hiring two private chefs to assist with her growing clientele, she began what would become the essential service of The Dish’s Dish — a chef who comes in, cooks and then gets out of your way. Originally based in New York, The Dish’s Dish services were utilized by everyone from busy parents to time-strapped students.

“[Students] like it because they can come home after being in a library all night and have good food completely tailored to them,” Donenfeld said. “It’s basically like having their mom come over once a week and say ‘OK honey, what do you want? I’ll make it for you just the way you like it.’”

The service costs $300 per week, plus the cost of groceries, which sounds steep, but it is capable of feeding a whole household. Donenfeld said three money-savvy New York University roommates split the bill and enjoyed home-cooked food for the whole year.

In January, the company expanded into Los Angeles, and in addition to serving households, the company now cooks for parties and special events.

To crunch a few numbers, USC’s Cardinal meal plan costs $2,521 for the semester. That includes 10 meals per week and $510 dining dollars. The Dish’s Dish service costs $300 plus groceries (let’s say $150) and covers around seven meals. Split that with two roommates and that’s about $2,250 per semester for fresh, completely customized, homemade food. It is certainly more expensive but offers benefits and taste that Everybody’s Kitchen can’t quite compare to.

Want to sample the world’s cuisine? Culinistas will prepare any kind of meal, from French to Japanese to even African or Caribbean. Culinistas will also cook for any special diet, be it gluten-free or vegan.

Of course, actions speak louder than press releases. The Dish’s Dish was kind enough to send over my very own culinista, a young chef named Gaby Dalkin.

Because I wanted to see for myself the flexibility of the service, I asked for one ethnic dish and one vegan dish. Our menu? Thai coconut curry, chicken parmesan, roasted herb potatoes and an apple crisp. I would like to say that Dalkin just came in and cooked, but that would skip over an interesting aspect of The Dish’s Dish service — the personal touch.

“My favorite part about being a culinista is being able to nourish my clients with great food when they don’t always have the time to make it themselves,” Dalkin said. “They are always so appreciative, and the way these dinners bring them together is great.”

For the next hour, Dalkin and I chatted about everything from making curry to favorite food blogs — all while she whipped up a fabulous meal. I felt as if I could ask any food or cooking-related question or just talk about Julie & Julia.

When her job was done, the taste testing began. Each dish was delicious, from the savory chicken parmesan to the warming apple crisp. Even more, the dishes were restaurant quality without being restaurant-heavy, making them a fantastic alternative to eating out night after night. That, too, is one of Donenfeld’s aims for the company.

“My goal is to help people become more conscious eaters,” Donenfeld said. “I think the way to do that is to make eating at home easier and more delicious.”

In addition to just cooking, The Dish’s Dish allows clients to accompany their culinistas to the farmers market and gain familiarity with the whole cooking process. The company even has a DVD set for those who want cooking lessons. But at its core, The Dish’s Dish is there to provide good food for busy people.

“People love it; it adds ease to their lives,” Donenfeld said. “They love when their chefs will turn them on to a new food or a new dish. They love when we get their kids eating new things. And for students in college, they just like that they don’t have to think about it, and they’re not gaining the freshman 15 because they’re not eating all that pizza in the middle of the night.”

Mimi Honeycutt is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. Her column “Gingersnaps” runs Wednesdays.