I’m new to the city; my schedule demands odd hours and late nights in front of a dated Mac; cooking at home has always been a high priority, but I’m not in North Carolina anymore. Six hundred miles separate me from the Irish Beef Stew that my mom’s evening table embraces after odd workdays and unpredictable weather. I had adjusted to life without it, and I’d adjusted to the takeout train.
From seasoned New Yorkers I’ve gathered that this experience is not uncommon: rushing, finding the dollar slice for convenience and taste, finding it the next night too, budgeting time to cook for a single (cough) or multi-person home, eating out anyways, reviving the day-old greens with prayer and merciless washing, eyeing the compost pile.
Enter Umi Kitchen, an app that allows you to order home-cooked meals from your neighbors. Enter many a talented cook with a unique story, each preparing up to fifteen meals a day from diverse kitchens across the city.
Umi, translated from Arabic, means “my mother” and was chosen by co-founders Khalil Tawil and Hallie Meyer as a celebration of those cooks in our lives who nourish. After selecting a meal and a timeslot from a vetted at-home cook, the dish arrives bagged in a wide diameter across Brooklyn or Manhattan, which among many choreographed parts, separates Umi from a recent boom of delivery services and startups. Handwritten letters from the cook also offer a distinctive signature, sometimes paired with desserts or other treats.
Denise of Denise’s Whole30 Umi kitchen remarked that, “the personalization is yet another marker of the differentiation that sets Umi apart.” Each meal on the app includes a bio of the cook, a meal description, and a list of ingredients for each dish. Denise’s bio celebrates a Whole30 adaptation of Irish and Italian cooking: “I learned to cook from watching my mom and dad as most of our family events revolved around food.” The Whole30 palate means no “grains, dairy, soy, beans, added sugars, alcohol or processed items.” Coming from a proud Irish family (understatement) with their own cooking secrets, I wondered how Denise’s take would stand up to the non Whole30 thing.
Stepping out of the building elevator to meet Denise in her home kitchen, I smelled bacon and the workings of a brilliant cook. Her meal for the evening, shrimp and grits, was in prep for the first window of delivery. She sat at her table writing notes to fifteen homes across the city but was quick to point out essential questions for any aspiring Umi. “What is the brand of the food? More than the brand, what is the food’s identity? That’s what separates it from being a commodity on the plate. And that’s what makes Umi different.”
After selecting a meal and a timeslot from a vetted at-home cook, the dish arrives bagged in a wide diameter across Brooklyn or Manhattan, which among many choreographed parts, separates Umi from a recent boom of delivery services and startups.
Denise always loved to cook but spent most of her professional life in corporate America. “When I had time, cooking was a way for me to relax after long days.” After Umi started, she recognized an opportunity to both share her cooking and use her talents to create a profitable business. Shrimp and grits was sold out for the night—and since meeting her, I’ve seen a continuous stream of sold out meals. This isn’t coincidence. And full circle that her meals likely make their way to the homes of people who on any given night, might not have the most time to cook.
Expecting pots and pans to be everywhere (zoom in on my home kitchen), I noticed how tidy Denise’s setting was. Umis are required to take food safety and cleanliness with restaurant-level seriousness: each Umi is certified by ServSafe. The bacon was cooked and laid out; the grease would be used later in the dish; the salads were prepped and refrigerated; the counter space and kitchen table were pristine. “The French cooking concept of mise en place makes error less probable,” Denise said. My favorite aside: “parchment paper and the freezer are my best friends.” We were able to chat about her preparation and process in the lull before the oven was preheated.
Denise cooks everything made to order. She buys most of her proteins and fresh ingredients in bulk (organic when possible) and measures everything “to the tablespoon.” Making meals with shared ingredients maintains her food’s identity along the Whole30 and paleo diet, but it also works to the economy of her kitchen: “I’m maximizing my profit margin penny by penny. No waste. Everything adds up, even the smallest amount of olive oil, and it’s important to be smart with choices and recipes, while creative.”
Invited to the table in this way is rare for those of us on the other side of the Umi app. But a customer’s feedback is a way for Umi cooks to get to know the homes for which they’re cooking.
“One of my regulars typically orders two meals on any given night, but there was a week when she upped her meals to four. From her feedback I learned that her in-laws were in town and that they loved my cooking and had an easier week. In this way, I’m connected to a story, and to a family that isn’t mine.” Umi after all is advocating for more a feeling and less an exchange. In Denise’s words, “Through Umi you get to see the face of the cook, not the invisible hand of a master chef.”
Depending on the meal, cost is 12, 14, or 16 dollars (with a delivery fee), which is a critical detail for Denise and Umi’s founders. “The different price points allow for a wide range of accessibility to our customers, which is ethically important; additionally, we Umis cook different dishes and our cost of food and time varies. Similar to multiple dishes on any restaurant’s menu, my buffalo chicken bake should be a different cost than my spaghetti and meatballs.” Touring her kitchen, I was able to meet her best friends Parchment and Freezer (they’re lovely), while also seeing the fresh, perishable ingredients that would make up shrimp and grits and the meals’ moves across the city.
It was there that Denise clued me in on one of her Whole30 favorites, a take on her mom’s Irish Beef Stew, which is one of almost a dozen meals that she has on the cook line for Umi. “The difficult part about stews if you’re in a single home is that they’re impossible and sometimes wasteful to make for one person.” Eyeing the compost pile again.
Because I have Disney scenes rotating through my head on loop, I was quick to imagine the moment in Ratatouille when the esteemed food critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the movie’s namesake and is immediately transported.
A week later, the Umi meal “Not Mom’s Beef Stew” arrived on time and warm. Denise’s letter welcomed me to the Umi family, in addition to thanking me for letting her cook my first dinner with the app (there will be more). She added, “While Whole30 takes a bit of preparation, research, and creativity, it’s not impossible to recreate the meals of my childhood.” I took a bite of the stew, which replaces the flour of the gravy with Denise’s mysterious Whole30 design. Because I have Disney scenes rotating through my head on loop, I was quick to imagine the moment in Ratatouille when the esteemed food critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the movie’s namesake and is immediately transported into the past and to hometown cooking.
Not My Mom’s Beef Stew by Umi Kitchen Denise’s Whole30 aptly wasn’t Mom’s Beef Stew—but it was damn close and damn delicious. I remembered something else Denise said: “I’ve always cooked for family and friends, but I feel like through Umi I am cooking for a new family.”
I’m in a new place, setting the table with a scrumptious (Grandmother’s favorite adjective) meal. It’s good to be home, and it’s good to know that a home-cooked stew for one is an iPhone and a handwritten note away.