Matthew Wadiak hardly comes off as a simple home cook. He throws around terms like mise en place, béchamel, and commis assuming those of us better versed in Hamburger Helper than haute cuisine will understand. Having trained at the Culinary Institute of America and perfected his trade in Milan and Paris, he can chop onions into perfect cubes with his eyes closed.
But with Blue Apron, the company he cofounded with former venture capitalist and CEO Matt Salzberg and CTO Ilia Papas, Wadiak brings his formidable skill to your home for just $9.99 per person, per meal. For $60 a week, the subscription dinner kit service sends a box filled with fresh ingredients, all measured out in the exact amounts to make three specific recipes. This week's options, for example, are chicken pot pie, sauteed flounder with baby root vegetables, and chorizo tostadas, which includes the 2 teaspoons of agave and 3 tablespoons chicken demi-glace you probably don't keep in the pantry. Also inside is a card featuring step-by-step cooking instructions with photographs of how to prepare and cook the meals. Each recipe serves two.
Wadiak, unfortunately, doesn't come with the box, leaving the dicing to your less-skilled hands. But even so, dinner will likely be tastier than whatever the unaccomplished home cooks among us might have thrown together. "It’s important for someone who has a lot of cooking experience to test recipes," he said, not too long after placing a fennel fronds garnish on top of the ciopinno inspired pasta with bay scallops, a Blue Apron recipe he just made. (For the less foodie inclined: ciopinno is a seafood stew; fronds are the fuzzy part of fennel.)
As the in-house chef and chief product officer, Wadiak takes every dish from concept to kitchen. First, the recipe team brainstorms culinary ideas, culling inspiration from restaurants, friends' cookbooks, and anywhere food is served. Then they source ingredients, which mostly come from family-run businesses, local companies, and sustainable-practice businesses. Blue Apron has also made deals with certain growers, who wholesale ingredients.
If the food takes more than 35 minutes on average to prepare or requires advanced skills or special tools beyond salt, pepper, a knife, and pans, the meal gets cut from the roster. For each recipe, the germination process can take as little as week; the test kitchen team repeats the cycle 12-15 times a week. Very rarely does Blue Apron repeat a recipe, so Wadiak's constantly testing new ideas with inventive ingredients.
"Our product is about introducing people to new things," Salzberg, the CEO, told Fast Company.
Continual learning is inherent in the DNA of the company, whose name is an homage to that pursuit. In the culinary world, beginner cooks traditionally wear a blue apron, whereas the executive chefs sport black and white stripes. However, over the years, icons like Julia Child and Charlie Trotter—both idols of Wadiak's—did away with the hierarchy and donned the blue apron instead. "It's a symbol of the lifelong pursuit in learning for food," he explained. "It's a modest way of reminding yourself that you are never done learning in the kitchen and for us, we want our customers to think like that."
Wadiak also wears a blue apron when he cooks. Then again, he never reached executive chef status. Making $10 an hour working under Paul Bertolli in Oakland's Olivetto, Wadiak began to gravitate toward the business side of the food industry. His first venture was dealing truffles. He flew back and forth from Italy, selling the expensive mushrooms for a markup to chefs in the U.S. That's how he made connections in restaurant scenes outside of the Bay Area, especially in New York.
In 2001, he moved across the country and started Cook's Venture, a New York-based private catering and events business with a focus on local ingredients. A little over a year ago, Salzberg approached Wadiak with his idea. Now, instead of limiting his reach to the exclusive patrons of his restaurant or catering business, Wadiak helps thousands of people cook for themselves every single week. With distribution centers in New York and the Bay Area, Blue Apron ships 300,000 meals a month. It recently closed a round of funding to bring its total to $8 million and announced it is expanding to reach 39 states. Wadiak has become a chef of the masses.
"I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what people like and don’t like," he said. "There's something about having intuition into the kind of foods that people like to eat. I guess it's not very modest, but I think I’m good at that."
Indeed, the tagliatelle pasta we prepared in Wadiak's Lower East Side kitchen was cooked al dente, the scallops seared with a golden crust, and the croutons very tasty (thanks to the olive oil I spilled on the bread before popping it into the oven). The process was fairly easy, too, taking only around 40 minutes, including washing, chopping, and cooking.
But that was with Wadiak's supervision. What happens when the gourmet chef isn't there?
Having received two Blue Apron boxes and cooked six separate meals, I can say that even without Wadiak's mincing abilities, the meals taste better than anything I cook on a regular basis. The stuffed peppers didn't look quite as pretty as pictured on the cards and the chopped vegetables in the pork larb didn't come out perfectly symmetrical. But with instructions and exact measurements in hand, it's hard to mess up.
Of course, it would be nice to have Wadiak cooking with me every night. But, the idea is that with each Blue Apron box, novices improve their cooking skills. "One hundred percent, our philosophy is to always learn, always grow with food," Wadiak says.