The Busy Chef's clientele reveals an interesting phenomenon: People who are willing to put considerable labor into a big family dinner may feel strange doing the same for just one or two.
When it comes to cooking, everyone likes adding a pinch of spice, but it's the hours of prep work that'll kill you. Many harried people opt to eat out just to avoid the skillet and cutting board. Still, there's something impersonal about take-out containers — and when you've invited a date to dinner, they can be downright embarrassing.
What if you could skip to the fun stages of food production: Eat your beef Wellington and assemble it, too? Since 2005, northern Vermonters have found that sort of option at The Busy Chef, located in a strip mall on Susie Wilson Road in Essex Junction. Owner Cindy McKinstrie conceived the business as an alternative to endless take-out or nutritionally poor "kid-friendly" restaurants for what she calls "the dual-working family." The concept is simple: McKinstrie concocts monthly menus, each complete with 12 seasonal main courses, and preps all the required ingredients. Patrons show up, throw meals together on-site, tote them home and toss them in the freezer.
McKinstrie, a 53-year-old mother of three who has been in and out of the food industry since the tender age of 14, says one of her main aims is getting folks to dine with their loved ones. Ironically, The Busy Chef hasn't been a big hit with families — or with people who want a hands-on experience with their foodstuffs. But it's found a profitable niche in two different demographics: singletons and empty-nesters, both full of people eager for what McKinstrie describes as "restaurant-quality food without the tax and the tip."
Venturing into The Busy Chef is like arriving at a sizeable buffet between meals. Stainless-steel "prep stations," currently filled with the autumnal components of October's menu, run down the middle of the room, which is separated from the open kitchen by a demi-wall. Beneath the shiny lids reside rows of plastic bins full of items such as caramelized onions, raw chicken legs and apple cider sauce, dotted by the protruding handles of stainless-steel measuring spoons and cups. Drink coolers and a freezer stocked with Island Homemade ice creams and sorbets hum quietly along the walls near the cash register. Another wall bears metal metro racks stocked with spice jars, kitchen gadgets and paper products.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, McKinstrie, dressed casually in a cheerful red shirt and black pants, with wisps of hair peeking from under a matching skullcap, hangs out in the back kitchen with her son, a TBC employee. They are chopping and cooking the ingredients that will be used for the next day's meals. When a customer enters, McKinstrie walks out to greet her, ready to explain how it all works.
But most regulars, and even newcomers, don't need much instruction: They're not here to get their hands dirty. Though semi-DIY food businesses have been a hit across the country, McKinstrie says Vermonters haven't been jumping at the chance to mix up ingredients and ladle out sauces themselves. So she makes sure "you can pick and choose how involved you want to be." For a $2 surcharge per meal, McKinstrie will do the food packaging, a service she says 80 to 90 percent of her customers request. All she needs is two-day notice, given via phone or Internet, but last-minute shoppers can make good use of McKinstrie's freezer full of grab-and-go items, such as smoked trout and corn quiche, barbecued beef and duck confit crepes. Or they can choose from the offerings of Anything's Pastable, which shares TBC's kitchen.
Ellen Hagman typically makes about six meals at TBC per month, stocking up on a few extras from the freezer. The empty-nester says she's one of the few customers who prefer the DIY option. "It's really the best way," she explains. "If there's something you'd prefer to leave out, you can do that and add more of another thing. You can put in more of a spice or less of a spice." When Hagman's in a rush, though, she's not averse to letting McKinstrie do the work. "It's like a godsend if you're working, or even just from the relentlessness of coming up with food every night," she sighs.
McKinstrie says customers like Hagman "like great food and they're tired of cooking. They've done it for 40 years. People are like, 'I still want to smell the cooking in my house,' but they don't want to go through the fuss of it."
Fuss is an especially big issue for single gal Ellen Goodman, an employee of the Champlain Radio Group, who is currently recovering from surgery. "I'm kind of limited in the amount of driving I can do," she says. "[McKinstrie] was the perfect answer in terms of picking up a bunch of meals and having lots of wonderful food, but not doing all the work involved."
Even when mobility isn't a problem, Goodman notes, "It's a treat for me to have a wonderful meal, 'cause when you live alone, you don't cook for yourself like that. It's like a gift."
The Busy Chef's clientele reveals an interesting phenomenon: People who are willing to put considerable labor into a big family dinner may feel strange doing the same for just one or two. Case in point: Julie Wick is an accomplished cook, but these days she feels comfortable letting someone else grate the ginger and sauté the shallots. When she was raising her family, "We sat down to dinner almost every single day. I was a complex cook. I used lots of herbs and spices," recalls Wick, who puts three or four TBC meals on the table each week. But cooking that way for two seemed like a hassle, and now Wick likes to bring home McKinstrie's Jamaican chicken or barbecued beef. "The meals really are gourmet; they do have all of those interesting ingredients and creative presentations," she says.
These are customers who know enough about food to care where its "interesting ingredients" come from. Many of McKinstrie's arrive via Squash Valley, because "they're the ones who can get me local when it's available," she says. Meats are delivered "fresh, straight from the farm" — Laplatte River Angus Farm and Misty Knoll, that is. They end up in dishes such as beef hanger steaks with russet potato, sweet potato and celeriac hash; and chicken breasts with apple cider gastrique and a side of toasted barley mixed with soybeans, apples, onions and walnuts. The lamb's local, too.
The way McKinstrie sees it, pretty much anybody could become a customer under the right circumstances — convalescents, harried party hosts, stressed-to-the-max parents, people on hot dates, coworkers interested in team building, and even friends who want a novel way to socialize. Well, maybe not: "Getting a bunch of women together at the same time, it's like herding cats," McKinstrie chuckles. "That's why we tend to have a lot of single sessions."
What is "cooking" at The Busy Chef like? To find out, I made shepherd's pie, carefully following instructions on a laminated card at one of the 12 prep stations. First, I propped a large Ziploc freezer bag inside a tall metal container, tucking the top over its sides to hold the bag open. As I prepared to stick a long-handled metal measuring cup into a vat of shredded, braised beef, McKinstrie politely asked me, as she does all customers, to make sure my scoops were level - premium ingredients often tempt people to do a little cheating, which would lead to higher prices.
I began dropping measured portions of veggies on the meat, layering carrots, soybeans, onions and mushrooms. While the mushrooms and carrots were easy to scoop, the still-frozen soybeans skittered around in their container. After ladling in a couple of cups of house-made beef jus, I was ready to zip the bag.
A second one quickly filled with a mixture of mashed potatoes and grated Grafton cheddar. McKinstrie helped me squish the air from both bags. "Give 'em some love," she said, hugging them to her body and mashing the two sides of the zipper together. The final step was adding instruction labels from a folder marked with the name of the dish, and swaddling the two baggies together with Saran wrap for easy freezer ID.
Back at home, I didn't bother with the freezer stage, but dumped the beef and veggies straight into a 9-by-9-inch baking dish and smoothed the potato-and-cheese mixture on top. After 40 minutes in a 375-degree oven, the concoction was bubbling and the house filled with pleasant cooking aromas. The top wasn't yet brown, so I amended the instructions and broiled the casserole till it was.
Once I'd added lots of salt, the pie was delicious. (McKinstrie prefers to let folks season to their own taste.) The beef was tender and flavorful, and the vegetables blended in just the right proportions - none was overpowering. The thick layer of potatoes was a bonus. The dish offered plenty of food for three people, with leftovers for at least two.
The next day, I sampled a serving of TBC's beef-and-barley soup. This one went in the microwave, no instructions needed. More the consistency of a stew than a soup, it was a hearty fall dish flavored with shallots and full of toothsome bits of barley.
For frugal cooks, the pricing at The Busy Chef, particularly for larger meals, isn't particularly enticing. A small shepherd's pie (serving two to three) costs $24, and a large portion (serving four to six) will run you $46. While that's still a good value compared with a restaurant, some may balk at throwing down nearly $50 for a down-home, country-style casserole. Other items seem more reasonable. For instance, a small turkey bread pudding with no sides comes to $19. Add a salad, and dinner is served. Personal-sized flatbreads are just $5 or $6, and bake 'n' serve cookies run a half-dozen for $4.
Some might see another, less tangible drawback: Assembling your meals at The Busy Chef - with its plethora of plastic bags and measuring cups - feels more like working in a science lab than it does like cooking. There's none of the mess or the tactile pleasure of handling a moist, glistening, just-peeled potato or smelling the onions as they caramelize.
But for those who have more extra cash than time, or inclination to prepare food, The Busy Chef is a handy alternative. And no matter how accomplished a cook you are, it's always nice when somebody else does the dishes.