LOS ANGELES - On the counter in Jill Donenfeld's Malibu kitchen, just across Pacific Coast Highway from David Geffen's sprawling compound: leafy cilantro; wild arugula; portobello, shiitake and cremini mushrooms; a deep purple eggplant; silken organic tofu; gourmet olive oil; sea salt and a food processor. Donenfeld certainly knows her way around the kitchen - she's been a recipe tester, a sous-chef for a catering company and a cookbook author - but on this sunny afternoon she's not doing the cooking. Her "culinista" is.
Four years ago, 26-year-old Donenfeld founded a weekly home chef service called the Dish's Dish, which employs a stable of trained chefs, called culinistas (she's trademarked the word) to shop for, plan and prepare a variety of store-and-serve, mix-and-match meals for busy families and professionals in Los Angeles and New York City. (The service made its bicoastal leap to L.A. a year ago.)
There are other similar services, such as Rawvolution, Vegin' Out, Freshology, Sunfare and Susan's Healthy Gourmet, that will prepare this kind of food in advance and deliver it to your door. What sets Dish's Dish apart is its level of personalization. It doesn't just send food; it sends a chef who will create a menu based on your personal taste and health requirements, cook a week's worth of food for you, store it in Tupperware and leave it for you along with reheating instructions and nutritional information.
The cost is $300 per week, plus groceries, which, depending on the size of your family, generally adds an additional $70 to $170 per week. That's to say, this kind of attention to detail doesn't come cheap. And considering that the median weekly household income for residents living in Los Angeles County is just more than $1,000, according to the U.S. census, using a service like the Dish's Dish is, by any stretch of the imagination, a luxury.
But those who can afford to use the service (who might otherwise find themselves eating out and regularly dropping between $50 and $100 on meals for two) say it balances out nicely.
It just so happens that this week Donenfeld needs her own company's assistance, in the form of culinista Linda Wong. Donenfeld is preparing for a trip to New York and laboring over testing recipes for her new cookbook on healthful party food, which will be published next year by Lake Isle Press (she cheerfully points out, "They were Rachael Ray's first publisher.")
Donenfeld, tall and willowy with long limbs, bright blond hair and a self-effacing smile, dips a carrot stick into freshly made white bean hummus. "Oh my gosh, this is so good," she gushes. "Can I try the tempeh?"
She has asked Wong to prepare only vegan food for her this week, since she is emerging from what she describes as a deliciously difficult period of time doing nothing but eating the same cake over and over again while she tested it.
"If there are eight cakes in my house, I will eat them," she giggles.
That's true of most people, but most people don't have the resources to hire a personal chef in the traditional sense to help them eat better.
"Jill's service makes something that's really luxurious - having a personal chef - affordable," says 32-year-old Molly Schoneveld, who works in celebrity and lifestyle public relations and uses the service every time she feels her life is getting too busy. "Awards season is super crazy, so I think I'm going to have to call her again then."
Schoneveld raises another salient point: It's good for busy people but only those who make the time to come home and eat. "I don't want to do this on a week that I have a ton of work lunches or dinners scheduled, so I wouldn't use it on a weekly basis because it's not cheap and it wouldn't make sense," she says. "You have to pick a week when you're really going to be home to enjoy it."
Still, particularly in this sour economy, plenty of people who may have - at one point - been able to afford to buy relief in the form of time saved can no longer do so. It's an issue that Donenfeld has found a way to address using the Internet.
She recently expanded the company to include a series of DVDs and downloadable videos that teach people how to prepare and store food for themselves in much the same way her chefs do. The DVDs cost $36 for three, but the downloadable videos are pay-as-you-wish.
"It's about accessibility," says Donenfeld. "If you can't pay $300 a week, we still want you to learn how to cook better food for yourself and your family."
Donenfeld, a Columbia graduate, majored in urban studies and wrote her thesis on how Whole Foods' arrival in New York altered the culture of grocery shopping in the city. And before looking into the business opportunities presented by the yoga-and-yogurt-fueled culture of West L.A. or the recycled-grocery-bag-and-baguette culture of Manhattan's wealthiest enclaves, she traveled to Madagascar for a school project in order to document the food there in an "ethnographic sort of way."
From this experience she penned her first cookbook, a little niche number about food in Madagascar called "Mankafy Sakafo," which translates from Malagasy as "Delicious Meal."
Donenfeld mixes such serious-minded pursuits with a lighthearted warmth and vivacity that she says has already scored her several meetings with reality TV producers interested in making a show out of following the Dish's Dish culinistas. With celebrity clients including Neil Patrick Harris, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Kardashians, this seems like an appropriate fit, but Donenfeld (who admits that she'd love to host a travel show about food) says that she's not sure if it's a good idea.
"The assumption in L.A. is that you want to be on TV. But I e-mailed all my chefs to see if it was something they'd be interested in and about half said yes," she says, adding perhaps her service isn't capable of conjuring the high-tension super-drama that is required of the modern-day reality machine. "I want the service to be represented in the right light. Do I need to hire other chefs with big personalities? We're viable because I hire low-key, calm, receptive chefs."
That's certainly true of Wong, who left a career in marketing to attend culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute, which places an emphasis on organic, seasonal food that tastes good, much like the Dish's Dish.
"Food is such a big part of your overall health. Everything goes through your digestive system, and it has everything to do with how you feel," Wong says, blending tofu with cocoa powder and maple syrup to make vegan mocha mousse while Donenfeld looks on.
Still, Donenfeld admits that the service isn't always about health, it's about what a customer with money wants.
"I had a client in New York who loved frozen desserts, so she approved the culinista to get an ice cream maker, and all summer long they were experimenting together," she says.