Here we go again: batten down the hatches, back to square one. Except, this time, we (sort of) know what’s coming: housebound; baking till we’re flogging the variable outcomes to any receptive neighbour; longing for something – anything – cooked by another human.
Restaurants are shut, again, but one difference is they’re better prepared. Before March, food deliveries were, mostly, confined to local takeaways. Michelin-starred takeout? DIY pizza? Dinner from that spot you read about that’s – inconveniently – 500 miles away? Unthinkable.
With chefs finding themselves in a quandary over how best to continue when forced to shut, 2020 saw the birth of restaurant meal kits. Some opted for traditional delivery (since March, 16,000 restaurants have joined Deliveroo). Others for click-and-collect. But many chose the meal kit route: essentially a pre-prepared, bung-in-the-oven version of the restaurant’s food, either couriered by the restaurant, or sent via dedicated platforms, such as Dishpatch.
For restaurant lovers, it’s a fascinating development, a ray of light in a turbulent year. There are obvious factors: a night off from the stove; an expertly cooked meal at, usually, affordable prices; a chance to try food from a far-flung restaurant, albeit in altered form. One facet, perhaps, is even more crucial – restaurants need income, and it’s a brilliant way to support an ailing sector.
And boy has it taken off. Tommy Banks runs Roots York and the Black Swan, both in Yorkshire. A week after the first lockdown began, Banks was going “a bit crazy”. With staff furloughed and the family farm’s crops ready to eat, he thought: “Are we going to lose everything we’ve worked for?”
Banks quickly launched Made in Oldstead, delivering locally to begin with and eventually nationally. The boxes contain three courses of cheffy food at roughly £21 a head (think venison bourguignon with raw milk polenta) and are as hotly contested as Glastonbury tickets: they sell out within hours.
After a dip this summer (still selling 400 kits per week), the new lockdown has seen 1,000 boxes sold on one weekend. “It’s crazy. It’s so exciting,” says Banks. It has allowed him to rehire furloughed staff. With the restaurant operating at half capacity in the summer, having 25 members of the team concentrating on meal kits provided a lifeline. He even hired four new chefs.
A similar thread runs through Opheem’s transition from Michelin-starred restaurant to nationwide deliveries. Aktar Islam, who runs the Birmingham spot, was intent on holding on to his staff. The best route, he thought, was to keep going. By May, he was cooking his famous Sunday roasts for collection. When he stopped briefly in July, he received almost 500 requests a week, many asking for an additional curry box. In the first week back, 50 were sold in four minutes.
Aktar at Home became a crucial source of income. “Thankfully we’ve not had to let anyone go, and we’ve been able to create another three jobs,” says Islam. His curry boxes, enough for four with leftovers, represent excellent value at £60 (dining in costs £65 a head for the five-course autumn tasting menu). Once a month, the box also features smoky tandoori roast lamb shoulder, a signature dish.
She believes the meal kits, featuring her famous laksas or three-course rice sets, offer a “steady additional income stream”. Yin has also been inspired by the wide reach, as opposed to traditional deliveries (which she continues to offer). “People are really grateful to be able to get our products in Scotland, or Berkshire, anywhere,” she says. “That’s really nice to see. If it brings comfort and variety to people in these weird times, then I’m very happy.”
The knock-on effect for suppliers is important, too. Islam says his butcher took just £90 on the day before the second lockdown. “Our butcher, fishmonger and veg suppliers are all part of the organism. We are keeping them alive,” he says. Banks includes almost 65lb of artisanal cheese every week.
Nationwide delivery is no mean feat. Most kitchens aren’t prepared for large-scale cooking. Banks makes use of a local industrial kitchen, while Yin sends her cooked food to Pezu, an online marketplace equipped to package and send via courier.
Ensuring the product transports well is vital. Banks says an initial experiment with foil containers was “a disaster”. Islam thinks curry travels well, is freezable, and even improves with time. “We worked hard testing everything before launching, to make sure the end result was the same [as in our restaurants],” adds Yin.
Most meal kits now come in containers or single-use plastic bags, which admittedly does bring up environmental concerns.
Nevertheless, they are seemingly here to stay – Islam believes a return to normal is “wishful thinking”. Who knows when restaurants will reach full capacity again?
Indeed, the very meaning of a restaurant may evolve, and that may not be such a bad thing.
Five restaurant meal kits, tested
Aktar at Home, Opheem, Birmingham
£60 for four, aktarathome.co.uk
Enough to feed a small army. Aktar Islam’s signature lamb, in a smoky tandoori marinade, is popped in the oven before tackling EIGHT other components.
Juggling countless pans, the microwave and deep-frying, I feel like a chef except I’ve done no cooking, and I sit down for arguably the best Indian meal I’ve had outside a restaurant. The leftovers last three days.
Santo Remedio Remedy Kit, London
£45 for two, santoremedio.slerp.com
Santo Remedio is one of London’s best Mexican spots. Its vac-packed short rib simmers away, while an assortment of sauces are heated, fresh salads mixed.
I load the corn tacos with beans, coleslaw, salsa and pickled red onion. It culminates in something Mexican food is unrivalled for, a perfect blend of textures and flavours: fatty beef; bitter, earthy mole; crunchy, vinegary coleslaw; soft, unctuous beans. Ditch fajita night for this.
Libertine Burger DIY Kit, Leamington Spa
£25 for four, libertine-burger.myshopify.com
A little more interactive as the burger isn’t pre-cooked. A good burger rests on premium beef (fatty!); soft, slightly sweet bun that retains its texture; American cheese oozing through the patty’s crevices. This is all present, which provides everything except lettuce. Greasy, messy, but certainly worth it. No fries included.
Nopi classic dinner kit, Nopi, London
£44 for two, ottolenghi.co.uk/delivery
Befitting an Ottolenghi establishment, this kit came in an elegant box with glass and cardboard packaging (mostly) in lieu of plastic. The food was the most restaurant-y of the lot, with combinations most home cooks wouldn’t dream of.
Spatchcocked poussin is placed in the oven, giving time to assemble the rest: cucumber salad inspired by the excellent restaurant Xi’an Impression; a knockout sauce – a deep, meaty brown – is heated; sticky rice, wrapped in banana leaf, bunged in the oven. I’d be happy to receive this at a restaurant. While this dish is, sadly, only available in London, other Ottolenghi meals are available nationwide.
Lu Ban Kitchen Heat at Home, Liverpool
From £10 for two, lubankitchen.co.uk
Liverpool has a long-established Chinatown, so it seems fitting to order from Lu Ban, just outside the original Chinatown borders. You order by the dish and there is a wide selection. I opted for jiang beef, a dish from the Tianjin region, with pungent oyster sauce. Alongside it came ma po tofu, in an earthy sauce, and siu mai pork dumplings, steamed to perfection. Rice wasn’t included, so make sure you’re stocked up.
And five more to look out for
Rick Stein, Cornwall
Nationwide, from £40 for two, rickstein.com/steins-at-home
One for seafood fans, with hake, sea bass or a blowout lobster box (costing £100) available.
Elite Bistros, various locations
Nationwide, dishes individually priced, elitebistros.com
Food from Gary Usher’s north-west bistro group, including braised featherblade.
Six by Nico, various locations
Nationwide, £60 for two, home-x.com
A four-course feast, with sides and wine, based on the food of Bangkok.
Nationwide, from £36 for two, kolambahome.co.uk
Home-style Sri Lankan cooking, in kits for two or four, with gluten-free and vegan options.
Monty’s Deli, London
Nationwide, from £18, montys-deli.com
Excellent pastrami and salt beef, with bagels an extra, from this London favourite.