Hello Fresh

For the past few weeks I have been struggling with the idea of reviewing Hello Fresh. A large part of me wants to be concise to an extreme degree: “Hello Fresh? Yeah, nah.” Yet such brevity would I think hide the existence of a more interesting story.

Stepping back for a moment, allow me to introduce Hello Fresh. It is a meal kit delivery service. Meal kit delivery services, if you have had occasion to listen to a podcast in the past, oh let’s say year are having a moment. The basic structure of these services is that for a weekly fee one receives a box of pre-portioned ingredients and some recipe cards. One then combines a with b and hopefully enjoys the end results.

The draw of these services is apparent: convenience. Subscribers are free from the time spent coming up with recipe ideas, shopping and generally spending time thinking or worrying about their nighttime meal. Subscribers, aside from getting food each night, are also potentially exposed to new ingredients, techniques and cuisines.

The criticism of these services is extensive: they are expensive, the are generally not environmentally friendly, they consist of a limited variety of options, and they provoke a sense of generalised anxiety and unease, in the manner of any online company that tries to hide questionable practices behind a well polished app or website.

Why and How

Occasionally, the unthinkable machinery of modern corporations works in our favour. By completing a ‘step challenge,’ the cross-marketing department of an airline owned health insurance company sent us a code for a free box. Normally, we would have demurred, however an nonagenarian’s interstate birthday party required us to abandon our usual weekend rituals. We used our code to sign up for a four-people/five-meal box (to provide both for lunch leftovers but also it seemed wasteful to use the code on anything other than the most expensive box!)

The design of the available options on the website implies a five-meal vegetarian box is quite beyond Hello Fresh, so we went with the ‘classic’ box: which is Hello Fresh talk for a colon-load of meat. And, I have to say, calling it the ‘classic’ box is a nice way of suggesting anyone engaged in a non-meat diet is somehow on the bleeding edge and needs to be contained to only 3 meals a week lest they multiply and spread their unorthodox ways. Had we not had  the free box trial offer we would have had to pay AUD$189, a sum of money which seems quite extraordinary.

Luckily because we, as a society, are quite good are eliminating any last trace of dignity for workers, we were able to select a delivery window of 3am to 7am. The advantage of this window is that we could pretend our delivery was not being completed by someone forced into working awful hours, but by a chipper robot. This allowed us to at least pretend not to be as guilty as we felt. The box that appeared on our doorstep one morning was filled with the stuff to make our meals, protected by various bladders containing a gloriously squishy semi-frozen gel. I was pleased that by the time we unpacked the contents everything felt still cold.

I was also happy with the quality (with one exception, of which more later) of the food that arrived. Vegetables were fresh. The chicken was free range (as I write this I am afraid to google to see whether or not Lilydale chicken is truly free range, having once been burnt by believing the ‘free range’ branding on some Otway pork…). The remainder was either Hello Fresh branded (such as dumb little sachets of chilli flakes) or from brands that while not entirely familiar, at least did not fall into the Aldi supermarket brand name uncanny valley.

Our menu for the week was:

Obviously not anything too wild, but I allowed myself to be naively optimistic at first. Za’atar and chicken is an excellent combination. Who does not like a good carbonara, a dish that manages both mid-century Italian cinema sensuality and a certain en vogue tracksuit coziness? Korean beef tacos sounded like a fun of nod to the LA food truck scene, and perhaps a welcome break from some more bland dishes. And I like chilli. I tried to keep up my enthusiasm for chilli even as I read the full title of that dish: “Beef chilli con carne pie with cheddar & coriander sweet potato mash.”

My initial concern was that every night’s meal consisted of meat, meat, meat.  I understand that a lot of people do eat like this, and more power to them. We, on the other hand, have not eaten so much meat in such a short amount of time. Opening the fridge was a little like discovering a wee little abattoir.

The above shot taken from the rather cruelly named ‘Flavour Generator’ gives you an object lesson in how the Hello Fresh team approaches food. 

The Food

The dishes ranged from fine to horrendous. The fine dishes were fine in the way that legacy airline carrier economy food is fine. Fine in the way the food at a college or army barracks is fine. Not bold or exciting but not bad. I was struck with an overwhelming sense of the dish being proximate to legitimately delicious, if only for a small for tweaks or additions. They could have been so easily improved and made something special but sometimes food that is fine is, well, fine. The two chicken dishes fall into this category.

The other dishes—three out five—were decidedly not fine. The addition of pine nuts gave nothing to the carbonara, other than the fear of pine (nut) mouth. The accompanying salad of baby spinach tossed in balsamic vinegar AND HONEY was gross. No one has ever thought that balsamic vinegar was of insufficient sweetness. It was very nearly edible.

The two beef dishes were just bad. The supplied beef (in packets variously labelled ‘mince’ and ‘stir fry’) was the consistency of finely diced cartilage and gristle. It was so wet it refused to do anything more than boil in its own eldritch juices. Eating it was a source of such distinct discomfort that even know, months later, I struggle not to break out in a cold sweat.

The resulting dishes made from this wet, horror beef (tacos/pie) were fling-the-plates-away-from-you terrifying. The pie—a mass as bland as it was deeply offensive to all those with working palettes—haunts my memory. Eating it was to be reminded of how lucky one had hitherto been in life. The tacos were more palatable, in the same way that the outer parts of the sun are technically cooler than the inner parts. The ‘soy, honey, garlic’ marinade imparted as much Korean taste as you would expect. The aioli—sorry “garlic aioli”—one was instructed to add to the tacos was a great addition in that it added another thing to deeply regret in your life and therefore will make for a much richer autobiography.

Goodbye, Hello Fresh

Of course, Hello Fresh was never going to be for us, we who have the time, money, and motivation to eat in a more pleasing and honest way. I imagine, from my meringue tower, that these services could be of benefit to some people.

But not Hello Fresh. You see, the real problem of Hello Fresh is that the people who make it sincerely hate food. Every part of the experience is soulless and awful. Whether or not this is because of the commercial reality of trying to get Hello Fresh to make a profit, or through the creators seeming inherent hate of food, I cannot say.

Please do not think that this service will help you learn how to cook. It will not. The recipes are appallingly written. Every minor step that could have allowed for the introduction of better flavours has been stripped away. The chicken and leek dish has chicken breasts thrown in the oven when the quickest sear in a hot pan beforehand would have given a richer flavour. The timings and suggested sequence of recipes occasionally leads to the conclusion that no one has previously cooked these recipes before.

There are thousands of cookbooks out there that will teach you how to cook (please allow me to suggest the fantastic books by English writer Jane Hornby) or how to become a better cook or how to cook quick food. The business model of Hello Fresh is predicated on people not discovering the simple fact that Hello Fresh charges a massive premium and offers no unique value.

The recipes, even at their best, are bland and unexciting. Cynically, one can make an argument that the best way to keep people subscribed to the service is by giving them very bland and ‘safe’ food. Were they to up the flavours it is easy to imagine people more quickly coming to the realisation of how awful the experience is. I have no insight, of course, but the churn rate of Hello Fresh must be substantial. Like a few other things in life, it is an experience best avoided, or at the very worst, tried once and then turned into dinner party conversation fodder.

I am not convinced that this service is as convenient as it may seem. Recipes frequently require at least two or three ‘pantry’ items (that is, an ingredient like eggs (!), soy sauce or rice vinegar that is not supplied but is nonetheless required by the recipe). In many cases you will still have to make a grocery trip to cook from the box. And because everything is prepackaged, you have absolutely no ability to cater for unexpected guests or vary according to your own tastes (other than in a subtractive, I just won’t put that in, way).

The most damning part of the experience was looking at the ingredients for that god awful chilli con carne: it included “mild Mexican spice blend.” If you’re comfortable with eating, and indeed living in a world where such a thing is possible, then please proceed with that Hello Fresh order. If you think life should be a little bit more interesting and vivid than “mild Mexican spice blend” please run away from this service, even if you have both a free trial code and a morbid curiosity.

I unequivocally believe that eating well is the main part of living well. Food is not just fuel, but it is a source of joy and of nourishment for both body and mind. To eat well is a profound act of self-belief and affirmation. To buy into the vision that Hello Fresh represents is almost to engage in self-abnegation. Please allow me to suggest you are more valuable and worth more than the experience of Hello Fresh.

I sincerely implore the time poor or those who do not quite know their way around the kitchen to explore any other option (and there are so many!) before resorting to this experience.