The Man Who Came to Dinner

In the course of being wined and dined, The Man Who Came to Dinner strives to uncover new and exciting developments in the gastronomic world.

Assuming there's a free meal attached, obviously.
For the purpose of these industry-related forays, we have developed an elaborate, totally objective, and almost painfully critical rating system to ensure the highest standards for our readers. And a recent invitation that arrived at SFDinner@aol.com provided the perfect trial run for our grueling dine-athlon.

Reading the e-mailed invitation from CookExpress.com I was intrigued enough to surf on over (+3 points). (The company operates through a Web site.) It took me a moment to understand exactly what the company does (-2 points). But then I got it: Cook Express proposes to deliver gourmet restaurant-style meals in semiprepped but uncooked kits for you to finish preparing at home. It's kind of a cross between Waiters on Wheels and the take-and-bake pizza concept.

I decided to bite (+5 points).
As I pulled up to the Cook Express kitchen, off Highway 101 in Burlingame, I could see a group of Cook Expressers eagerly awaiting my arrival just beyond a swinging glass door. Suddenly apprehensive, I was compelled to drive one more lap around the block (-3 points).

Once I braved the interior I was swept into a sea of introductions: CEO, COO, marketing-this and development-that. Everyone had a big smile on his or her face (-10). Off to the side I spied a well-set table for six, an appetizer tray of cheeses and olives, and one dozen assorted bottles of wine. Some simple math brought me to this conclusion: two bottles per person (and that's +25 points).

"We were going to ask you to finish the cooking," said Dennis Joyce from marketing. "But there's six people tonight and we thought that might be too much."

"Unless you'd like to cook?" offered Meredith Taylor, president and COO. "After all, that is the idea."

"Of course," I accepted. "I'd love to give it a try." It was participatory dining (let's say +15).

My willingness to play ball seemed instantly appreciated as the group whisked me toward the kitchen to be "smocked and netted." I was quickly draped in a giant white kitchen smock (+10 points) and my first ever lunch-lady hair net (+2). I was not, however, outfitted with one of those cool fluffy chef's hats (-10).

Inside the large, industrial kitchen I was introduced to Executive Chef Gaines Dobbins and his sidekick, Matt Koss. As development chef, Matt is responsible for creating and testing the various concoctions that will make their way onto the Cook Express cybermenu.

Kathy Weiss, content manager (man, there were a lot of people), quickly filled one of my hands with a cracker and cheese (+5) and the other with a glass of Rosemount Estate Granache/Shiraz '97 (+10). Gaines and Matt led me on a tour of their kitchen, the highlight of which was the walk-in refrigerator filled with a huge array of ingredients in various stages of pre-prep. We selected two entree kits for the evening's meal: The Pan-Roasted Salmon and Jan Birnbaum's Pork. The latter, I was told, is an example of the company's monthly contribution from a "celebrity chef."

After I'd refilled my wine glass and restocked my cheese hand (+15) we all met back in the center of the kitchen to begin the main event. It was decided that Darby Williams, Cook Express' founder and CEO, and I would each finalize one of the meals -- just like you would at home.

After a fair amount of deliberation I decided to go with the salmon. Darby, by default, would prepare the pork.

Opening the sturdy cardboard box, labeled "Pan-roasted salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and red wine demi-glace," I found a set of finishing instructions and a complete meal kit. Each ingredient in my pack was neatly stored in proportionately sized plastic containers. The salmon fillets were shrink-wrapped. And each item was clearly labeled with a giant letter, corresponding to the appropriate step in the instructions.

For a moment, I felt like an audience member who'd been asked to participate on a late-night infomercial (-10).

A race was declared (+20) as Darby and I began cooking. I had a considerable edge going in, as my instructions estimated a "Time to finish: 20 minutes," vs. the 30 minutes projected for Darby's.

On your spatulas. Get set. Go!
Over the next 20 minutes I preheated, seasoned, added, sauteed, turned, roasted, stirred, removed, covered, poured off, and wilted (+30). It was like assembling a kid's bicycle at Christmas -- but for grown-ups.

I was also careful to take frequent breaks for wine (+10) and intermittent bites from the Mixed Mesclun Greens and Classic Caesar Salad packs (+5 and +7, respectively).

Following the instructions to complete my meal was a fairly easy task (+5), but not entirely without its challenges (+10). I definitely needed to keep my eye on the clock and juggle a few different things at once. In fact, while it might have seemed that everything was under control as I took a break to sip my wine, I was secretly a bit frazzled by the group, who kept trying to engage me in small talk about New Jersey (-25).

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