Playing pretend chef with restaurant meal kits

Dirty dishes are worth the novelty of bringing the dining experience home.

Happy Groundhog Year, everyone.

I’m always looking for ways, these days, to differentiate one day, one week, one year from the last, something to distinguish any given day from any other. When you’re barely leaving the house, that can be a challenge. Except in the kitchen.

Not to brag, but there’s been some magic happening in mine. Over the course of two weeks I made Trinidadian doubles with channa masala and cucumber chow,

Chinese beef in black pepper sauce,

and *chef’s 😘 kiss* eggplant parmigiana cooked to perfection.

You’ve read the headline, so you might have guessed I didn’t do this all on my own. Each dish was made from meal kits concocted by three Toronto restaurants: Patois, Lai Wah Heen and Eataly, respectively.

I used to think such kits were a dumb idea. Now I think they’re one of the best trends to come out of the pandemic.

If you’re ordering from a restaurant, I’d thought, why should you have to cook it on your own stove, dirtying pots and pans, and fussing over precise instructions? Why not just get ordinary takeout or delivery?

Because on every measure, except those dirty pans, the meal kit is superior:

  • Taste: Fresh from the stove or oven, not scooped, lukewarm, out of soiled containers.

  • Cost: One meal kit is often larger than a typical takeout dish, so you’re saving money.

  • Satisfaction: Yes, someone else does all the preparations, and in most cases you just put it all together and add heat. But there’s still something satisfying about playing pretend chef and delivering a pro meal to your famished family.

Plus, it makes the whole house smell amazing, which helps to recreate a bit of that long-lost restaurant ambience.

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The kits are uniformly attractive and neatly organized with easy-to-follow instructions.

Eataly takes the experience one step further, providing a basket of raw ingredients in advance that you’ll use in a one-hour live cooking class. The virtual classes book up quickly, so be sure to reserve well ahead.

Lai Wah Heen, one of the city’s best-known destinations for high-end Southern Chinese cuisine, freshly prepares each meal for same-day pickup. Other kits include three-cup chicken (pictured below), Wuxi spareribs, scallop cakes in truffle oil, and lobster with ginger and scallion.

The Caribbean-Chinese joint Patois offers its delicious doubles kit, a jerk pork yakisoba kit and a substantial juicy jerk chicken (pictured below), complete with rice and peas, potato salad and a mac-and-cheese pie.

Eataly’s cooking school started offering its virtual classes with pre-selected ingredients last summer, and it’s been a hit for the still-new Toronto location of the Italian gourmet chain.

Some of the students in my virtual cohort teamed up for the occasion with family or friends in other households so they could cook the same meal at the same time; one of the amateur chefs had returned to the virtual school for her third time, after previously tackling homemade pasta and pizza.

The classes are deftly hosted by chef Mattia Pagliara, who demonstrates charm and patience as he waits for students, watching on two pages of Zoom grids, to catch up to his directions.

I know my way around the kitchen, but it always helps to have a pro chef underscore, say, the necessity of slowly heating the frying oil, testing its temperature with a drop of egg batter.

He even finds time to interact with guests a little, discussing wine varietals and Italian food trivia as he, and the rest of us, peer into strangers’ kitchens.

There’s a hint of camaraderie here, and I only wish there could be more. A pre-dinner Zoom “cocktail hour,” perhaps, for anyone who cares to mingle? An after-school gathering where we can show off our kitchen creations? After all, in these groundhog days, it’s not often we get to meet new people. It’s not like we’re going to actual restaurants anymore.

Lai Wah Heen

108 Chestnut St.

Meals made: three-cup chicken ($18.50); beef in black pepper sauce ($24.50)

Time required: 10 minutes for both.

Difficulty: 🟢 (novice)

Verdict: 🥡🥡🥡

Eataly

55 Bloor St. W.

Meal made: eggplant parmigiana for two ($65 including virtual cooking class)

Time required: 90 minutes

Difficulty: 🟡 (amateur)

Verdict: 🥫🥫🥫

Patois

794 Dundas St. W.

Meals made: Trini doubles with chickpea masala ($18); juicy jerk chicken for two ($35).

Time required: 5 minutes for the doubles; 45 for the chicken.

Difficulty: 🟢 (novice)

Verdict: 🍗🍗🍗

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See you soon.

*Special thanks this week to Lai Wah Heen and Eataly for providing the meal kits.