The box arrived as promised on a Thursday. It was a regular-sized one, with three letters on it: “Din,” heralding the arrival of ingredients for two restaurant-quality meals I would be able to produce in my own kitchen in the next few days.
While meal delivery options continue to expand at a rapid pace, the Din concept jumped out at me as something different. My husband and I love eating out at restaurants. And I also love to cook a stellar meal at home myself. The idea of being able to produce a restaurant-quality dish in 20 minutes at home sounded too fun not to try.
The restaurant angle is indeed what makes Din unique, said Emily Olson LaFave, Din’s co-founder and chief creative officer, noting that Din is like having your own personal sous chef.
“We are partnering with restaurants, and we have a team of in-house chefs who come from restaurants like Quince, Nopa and Cyrus,” she said. “We do the prep work, so just as in a restaurant, it speeds up the cooking time. It also allows for a better dish with more flavor, as a lot of things that take time to develop flavor are too much time for the home cook to do.”
LaFave and her husband Rob were the founders of Foodzie, an online marketplace for artisanal foods. Din is their latest start-up, which they hope will empower people to cook more often at home, as well as acquire new techniques that they’ll hopefully use again.
“And sometimes we take inspiration from a dish we’ve seen, and our chefs riff on that,” LaFave said, noting that many of their dishes also come from their in-house team of chefs.
LaFave said they see their typical customer as people who are passionate about food, and love restaurants and restaurant culture. As for whether they already cook at home, so far it’s a mix between those who cook quite a bit already, and those who are just beginners.
Noting that it’s usually one person who’s responsible for planning, shopping and putting dinner on the table in a household, LaFave said subscribing to Din changes that since anyone in the household can put the meal together.
“Couples or families can cook together, or a child can even do it,” she said. “We’re taking away that daunting part of planning by having that meal waiting in the fridge in that bag with everything inside. We’re equalizing the role of putting dinner on the table, by taking the pressure off one person. Simplifying that one thing in your day can have a big impact on your family relationships and connections, which is really meaningful for us.”
That all sounds great, but let’s talk about the Din experience. I enlisted my husband and another couple to weigh in on the experience with me. I ordered two dishes from a list of six choices, though Din chooses two for you, and you can change them if you prefer something else. Din uses organic and sustainable ingredients, and always has vegetarian and gluten-free options. Two servings of two dishes is the minimum order, which costs $60, or $15 a serving, and the service is intended to be used each week (more meals and entrees can be added).
If you live in San Francisco, your meal is dropped off by courier in a white insulated tote; if you’re further out – they deliver throughout California and Nevada so far – your meals come in the tote inside a cardboard box with insulated bubble wrap along with several “ecogel” packs to keep the food cold. LaFave said couriers pick up the totes in the city, but that subscribers outside the city can return all of the packaging with every five orders.
“That was definitely something that we took into account when we initially designed the experience,” said LaFave.
I ordered a farinata – a chick pea flour pancake from northern Italy that is known as a socca in France – that came with braised artichoke hearts, Crescenza cheese, kale pesto, pepitas and fresh herbs and lemon to make a small herb salad on top. The recipe came from the Santa Cruz restaurant Bantam. My second choice was a crispy chicken that had been cooked sous vide served with escarole and Tokyo turnips on a bed of cashew “cheese,” with sherry-soaked currants. Sesame seeds and sumac were also included to sprinkle on top, with a lime to squeeze over the completed dish. This dish was created by Din’s own team.
Each entree comes in its own paper bag, with a label telling you how long the ingredients will last (ours was delivered on a Thursday, and the contents would be good through Sunday), with each individual ingredient in a plastic bag or loose, like a lemon or garlic clove.
With each item coming in its own bag, we wondered why all the produce, for example, couldn’t be bagged together. We also wondered if the sauces and pre-made items could be shipped in containers that could also be sent back to the company, but then of course, that increases the amount needed to be shipped. Either way, this is a resource-heavy experience.
The prep work entailed mincing garlic, slicing a shallot and plucking herbs, while the cooking required us to make the farinata (mix chick pea flour and water in a bowl, sauté garlic, add garlic to batter, put batter into skillet and then oven) and sear the chicken.
Overall, we found the quality of the food excellent – we especially liked how we had to only sear the chicken, but had the sous vide experience at home, without our own sous vide machine – and recipes were easy to follow, so we had no problems with execution, though it did take longer than the 20 minutes per dish advertised. While we liked receiving one garlic clove and just enough herbs for what we needed, we found amounts of a few items excessive; in our case it was an excess of Crescenza cheese (a very creamy Italian fresh variety) and sherry-soaked currants. We had no problem using the rest of the cheese for something else, but didn’t know what to do with the currants and they ended up going to waste.
Also, a few leaves of fresh oregano had already turned black.
As both my friend and I cook a lot at home already, we saw it as more of an indulgence as opposed to something we’d do weekly (the Din system delivers to you weekly as long as your account is active, unless you choose to skip a week or two). But we could see Din’s appeal for families with kids to get restaurant-quality meals without having to pay the babysitter, or for those people who don’t know much about cooking but want to impress someone with a home-cooked meal. And having the money and time is essential, of course, as while the cooking time is supposed to take only 20 minutes, of course there is still the clean up time to consider.
One guest compared the experience to hiring sherpas to help you climb Mount Everest.
And while browsing their menus I continually found things I’d want to eat, I found many of the dishes too rich for a regular meal at home.
My favorite thing about the experience was that I didn’t realize how easy it was to make a farinata myself. I liked how it taught me a recipe for something quick and easy enough that I can add to my repertoire, which is exactly what LaFave wanted to hear.
“Ultimately, we hope that the take-away for someone is ‘I can do that on my own,’” she said, “which will make you cook more often and do it from scratch when you have the time.”