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.

EveryDayCook — Alton Brown

Alton Brown is an iconic food personality. He is deeply loved, especially in the United States. His claim to fame (although he has a few by this stage in his career) is that he brings a science orientated perspective to food and cooking.

While that is an approach many adopt these days, Alton seems to have been amongst the first to do this in a mainstream large scale way. His seminal show, Good Eats, continues to have an impact in how people think about food (and, of course, how people cook food).

While he has written quite a few cookbooks (10!) this is both marketed and (after spending some time with it) is a highly personal cookbook. It discards some of the structured and didactic approaches of his other books and is instead a collection of the food he likes to eat.

Structure and Design

Hardcover. No ribbon.

224 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Morning
  2. Coffee break
  3. Noon
  4. Afternoon
  5. Evening
  6. Any time
  7. Later

The book has an interesting gimmick (or perhaps creative design limitation): all the pictures were taken with an iPhone 6 plus.

It is testament to the iPhone (happy 10th birthday, by the way!) that the photos are remarkably fit for purpose. I suspect if you did not know you would just assume they were shot with some expensive professional digital camera. Very occasionally a shot might look slightly low resolution, or not the usual pixel perfect presentation that we normally expect from a cookbook photo in 2017, but on the whole the pictures are impressive.

It is a tremendous result, and I hope it inspires more work and more creative exploration of some of the most popular (and accessible) cameras in the world.

While I am bullish on the photography, the design of the rest of the book leaves me much less impressed. From the handwriting font of the recipe titles, to the horrendous overuse of photo background on recipe pages there is a certain lack of restraint. It’s a fun approach, arguably, but not one I get a lot of enjoyment out of.

Some of these design decisions make the book harder to use and enjoy. Unlike the iPhone photography, which is a creative gamble that pays off, the design of the book as a whole is inconsistent, difficult to use and dates the book terribly.

On a further critical note: the structure is not useful. Given Alton’s otherwise admirable propensity to eat whatever at anytime of the day, the structure he adopts in the book is close to useless.

Thoughts

I love how personal this book feels. We see a lot of tv and internet food people writing ostensibly personal and honest cookbooks and a lot of them feel cold and bland.

This book wears its heart on its sleeve, for better or worse. You get a real sense of what Alton Brown is all about as well as the food he cooks and eats for himself.

I wish more cookbook authors would adopt this personal tone. It combines biographical elements with food writing in a way that enriches both.

Of course, the more personal a book is, the riskier it becomes. If that person’s particular style or approach does not resonate with you, you are unlikely to get a lot out of the book.

And this is almost what has happened with this book. I love Alton, but the recipies in this book have left me cold and wanting more. In fact, it was hard to find recipes that appealed enough to want to make them in the first place.

The food, while certainly being the food Alton cooks for himself on a frequent basis, was not food that I wanted to cook for myself on a similar basis. Recipes tend towards being meat driven and in some cases quite time consuming to prepare. For a book titled ‘Everyday Cook’ I could not help but think the recipes were more somedays cook.

This is not to suggest that all the recipes were either unappealing or unsuccessful. Of the handful we cooked, there were a few candidates destined for the all time hall of fame.

Here is what we have cooked so far:

  • Breakfast Carbonara (as much as I love the idea of pasta for breakfast, I am too #normcore and as a result made this for dinner. I feel pretty loyal to my own carbonara recipe, and I felt Alton’s sausage and orange zest version was not quite delicious enough to make me change my ways.)
  • Turkey sliders (I liked the approach of adding a lot of umami rich elements, but the end result was not particularly exciting.)
  • Smoky the meatloaf (This recipe highlights a consistent theme from the book: a lot of effort does not always yield satisfying results. The idea of putting BBQ flavoured potato chips inside the meatloaf was a nice touch, however.)
  • Roast Broccoli Hero (Okay, one of the really good recipes in the book. This  is the vegetarian sandwich to end all vegetarian sandwiches. The roasted broccoli goes so well with spicy pickles and ricotta salata.) 
  • Roasted Thanksgiving Salad (a quinoa and roast root vegetable salad feels so old fashioned for some reason: the end product was nice, but nothing to get excited about.)
  • Fish Sticks and Custard (I convinced my loving and patient partner to service the ‘custard’ with this: it’s really a warm tartare sauce. I hope one day she can forgive me. The fish sticks were, unlike the offensively bad custard, quite good, but again a lot of effort for only a fine result.)
  • Chicken Parmesan Balls (Nice, not great.)
  • Savoury Greek Yogurt Dip (this is a good recipe if you like dipping vegetables into the blandest yogurt based dip imaginable.)
  • Chicken Piccata (this, the roasted broccoli hero, and the flavoured oil for the next recipe, are the only three recipes from this book I was happy about. It was a really good chicken piccata, a dish that deserves to be consumed far more often.)
  • Weeknight spaghetti (the real star of this dish was an incredibly tasty herb and garlic oil. The spaghetti sauce, which you make using a few tablespoons of the oil, was quite nice in its own way.)
  • Turkey Tikka Masala (see comments about re: good but not great.)
  • Open Sesame Noodles (this recipe is poorly written and yields poor results.)

Why this book?

  • You like Alton Brown
  • You want to support to creative decision to just use an iPhone for photography
  • You feel really passionately about bringing sexy chicken piccata back

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ A job interview And does it just spark joy?

I wanted to like this book. I admire parts of it: the personal tone, the photography, and three recipes. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to love it or find much joy in cooking from it.

I could not, then, recommend it to any of you. It might be interesting to borrow from the library for a flick through, but not one to buy and keep forever.

Sorry, Alton. It’s me, not you.