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."