Have kitchen, never cook in it

Posted: May 03, 2013

MY FRIEND Sammye has never claimed to be a domestic goddess. "The only reason I have a kitchen is it came with the house," she'll proclaim in her distinctive Mississippi twang.

And she's not alone. There are plenty of Americans who say that they don't or can't cook - about 28 percent, or almost a third, according to a survey conducted by Impulse Research on behalf of Bosch home appliances. To someone like myself, who loves everything about the cooking process, how these folks manage to feed themselves is a mystery. Turns out, they have plenty of options, although eating healthy and staying on a budget aren't always part of the equation.

Chef Patrice Rames calls this segment of his customer base "kitchen museum owners."

"They never sully them with actual use," Rames, chef/owner of Bistro St. Tropez, atop the Marketplace Design Center, said.

He recently created a "chef-in-a-bag," sous-vide take-home line of French dishes (coq au vin, lamb shank) that give non-cooks boil-in-a-bag, restaurant-quality food for about $14 a person. "These are people like my wife, who is an overworked, overstressed lawyer," said Rames. "She travels a lot for business, and if she isn't fed by others, takes most meals at a restaurant, or as takeout."

Yogurt and toast

When Lis Braun, of Penn Valley, was a teenager, her mother slapped a note on the refrigerator that said, "I'm no longer a short-order cook. You're on your own!" Braun, who had a successful career in dance until she switched to horticulture and artisanal garden installations, remembers surviving for years on yogurt, toast, cream cheese, jam, potato chips and Coca-Cola.

"I was skinny, too," she recalled.

Her strategy was to rely on the culinary prowess of friends and partners. "I almost always lived with people who did cook," she said. "Cooking is like having children [which she does not]. You have to pay attention to it. If you get distracted and walk away, something disastrous could happen and often does. I have all the respect for cooks but I just don't have the aptitude."

In the Bosch survey, the most cited reason for not cooking was having a spouse or partner who did most of it. Other major excuses were "not having enough time" (21 percent) and "not wanting to clean up afterwards" (25 percent). Many also said they couldn't get to the grocery store.

"It's too much trouble to go to for just one person," said Marple actor Randy Louis, who has appeared in the movie "DodgeBall," the HBO show "Sex and the City" and was featured in the April 25 episode of the CBS crime series "Elementary."

Louis struggles with his weight - he'd lost 75 pounds at one point when he lived in L.A. and has gained most of that back. "I'm 50, famous and charmingly fat," he said.

Louis survives mostly by dining out and by frequenting the takeaway section of his local Fresh Grocer or Acme. He has a spiffy new kitchen but can't recall ever turning on the oven. "I use the microwave all the time," said the actor, who lives alone, tends to skip breakfast and eats his larger meals later in the day.

A typical meal for him might be a burger and salad, or maybe rotisserie chicken with sides. He estimates his food costs in the $10-a-day range, if he is careful and uses discount offers.

Eating out — a lot

As a kid growing up in Wynnefield, Sharla Feldscher was used to the housekeeper's cooking - her mother was rarely in the kitchen. When she married at 21, the teacher-turned-public-relations-pro cooked because it was "what everybody did."

When her husband started playing a lot of early evening tennis, she and her two daughters would play hooky from the kitchen. "We'd go to the mall, the movies, have peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. It was fun. And I got out of the habit of cooking."

Feldscher has a sparkling modern kitchen in her Voorhees townhouse; it's used mostly for holiday meals. "We eat out a lot."

Lee Cohen echoed Feldscher's aversion to the stove. "I don't have the patience for it," said the Belmont Hills health-care administrator. "When I'm hungry, I want something instantaneous."

Cohen is a fan of sushi, take-out Chinese and prepared foods. "There's always leftovers, so it's actually pretty economical."

Helping in the kitchen

Non-cookers do have their usefulness in a kitchen. Restaurants view them as a valued and helpful segment of the customer base.

"The guests that join us multiple times a week order the exact same thing most of the time," said Brian Sirhal, co-owner, with chef Tim Spinner, of Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount, and soon-to-open Taqueria Feliz in Manayunk.

Sirhal sees social media as a touchstone for this crowd as well, the better to entice them in with nightly specials.

Chef Michael Cappon, of Isabella in Conshohocken, said his "large base of loyal and regular customers causes me to have to do the dance of keeping the menu new, fresh and seasonal, along with keeping those staple dishes on that the customers come in for."

He also uses his regulars as a sounding board for new ideas and dishes. "They are an invaluable resource, because, as regulars, I can have a candid conversation with them as customers."

Bar Ferdinand has a solid group of people who come in weekly, according to beverage manager Ben Robling. "A lot of these people are foodies."

The kitchen often sends something new out for these customers to taste - both to show appreciation for their business and to get feedback on new ideas.

Real meals in minutes

The non-cooking segment of the population hasn't gone unnoticed by savvy entrepreneurs. FreshDirect, a Long Island City, N.Y.-based online grocery service that puts an emphasis on seasonal, quality products and local growers, touts something called 4-Minute Meals.

Unlike precooked microwave dishes, 4-Minute Meals are made of raw and semicooked ingredients that are finished by steam under pressure in the microwave, said merchandising manager Jason Lepes.

Pricing ranges from $5 to $9. And there are plenty of flavors available: You could eat a 4-Minute Meal every day for three months without a repeat.

For people who love the idea of making fresh food at home but run out of inspiration and time, Nick Taranto and his business partner, Josh Hix, founded the company Plated last June. The friends met attending Harvard Business School, where they tried to eat well and healthy.

"When we both moved to jobs in New York City, I found myself eating poorly and spending a ton of money on takeout and restaurants," Taranto said.

Plated delivers nutritious, fresh food to your door, weighing in at 700 calories or less per meal. You assemble the dish in your own kitchen, with dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes. The company's network of refrigerated warehouses serves customers in Philly, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, but nationwide expansion is planned come fall.

The average customer orders two or more meals per month, priced between $10 and $15 a plate. "The big secret with retail grocery is that the gross margin's pretty good, somewhere between 40-50 percent," said Taranto. "But 95 percent of that gets chewed up in spoilage, and in maintaining bricks and mortar."

"We don't have to worry about that. And our customers like the idea that they're making fresh food for themselves at home."


Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.

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