Alex Blinn was finishing up his med school applications in 2010 when he had an epiphany. That degree in economics he’d just earned from Boston’s Northeastern University? Well, he’d really rather be a chef.
The McCandless native had taught himself to cook while he was in college. So at age 22, he enrolled at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, where he’d go on to earn an associates degree in culinary arts. Stints at the venerable Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass., and Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod followed, reaffirming cooking school was the smartest decision he’d ever made.
“I knew it would be scary and a lot of hard work,” he says, “but I get to spend the rest of my life doing what I love every day.”
Yet who could have guessed he’d end up cooking for two former classmates at North Allegheny High School when he boomeranged back to Pittsburgh two years ago, to work as executive sous chef at the former Root 174 in Regent Square?
Like many Pittsburgh millennials, Mr. Blinn’s friend Francesco DeSensi struggled with his workday lunch options. Dining out was expensive and time-consuming; office vending machines were cheap but kind of disgusting. Impressed by the chef’s culinary skills, the software engineer got to thinking: why not adapt Blue Apron’s wildly successful business model of providing cooks with simple, gourmet dinner kits to restaurant-caliber lunches — only without the cooking?
As it happened, their good buddy Aaron Marks, who studied business and entrepreneurial marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, was mulling over a startup. He decided to join Mr. DeSensi in investing in a venture.
“I have a passion for entrepreneurship,” says Mr. Marks, who works in digital marketing, “and wanted to support my friend.”
The result was Gourmade, a food delivery service that offers chef-prepared lunches.
Geared toward those who don’t want to leave the office for lunch, a weekly plan costs $30 and includes three meals designed to be eaten within four days of delivery. Unlike with other meal services, there’s no recipe card or need for kitchen skills — each lunch takes just minutes to heat up in the microwave.
Ten bucks might seem like a lot for lunch when a Subway sandwich costs just $5. “But our goal is not to be the least expensive option,” Mr. Marks says. “We’re going for quality.”
Mr. Blinn prepares the meals, which tend toward classic comfort food, in the former Crested Duck in Beechview. He sources as many of the ingredients locally as possible, and cooks to the season. Delivered on Monday, recent offerings include beef chili with chipotle crema, cider-braised pork with date gastrique and beer-braised beef with pureed cauliflower.
With no budget for advertising, Gourmade’s customers have come mostly from word-of-mouth since its August launch. Many are young professionals, and they’re especially popular with those who work in office parks, where restaurants are few and far between. But the meals would appeal to anyone who’s hungry for a convenient, high-quality meal, any time of day, Mr. Marks says.
Maggie Wei of Blawnox, an attorney, typically eats the meals for lunch at her Downtown law offices. But she and her husband, Nick, sometimes enjoy them for dinner. “It’s really nice not to have to cook and know there’s a good meal waiting for you,” she says. “And I love the quality and variety.”
Mr. Marks hopes to scale the business at a reasonable pace to where it serves not just Pittsburghers but reaches lunch-eaters across the U.S.
“No one else is doing exactly what we’re doing, so there’s a huge opportunity to build,” he says.
To get the word out, Gourmade is offering a complimentary box with the code “FIRSTWEEKFREE” on its website, gourmade.info. Then it’s $30 a week, plus $2.10 tax. You can cancel your subscription at any time before the weekly renewal fee occurs.
As the business grows, Mr. Blinn and his staff of four hope to add vegetarian and gluten-free options to the menu, and also source more organic ingredients.
With new recipes offered each week, and limited time to cook them, it’s a hectic schedule for the 29-year-old chef. But it’s also the most fun he’s had in a long time. “You’ve got to want to be surrounded by chaos,” he says.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
Beef Chili with Chipotle Crema
2 cups dried kidney beans
3 pounds ground beef
6 dried ancho chilies
3 dried Arbil chilies
3 tablespoons cornmeal
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons cumin
2 cups beef stock, divided
2 onions, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces beer
1 (16-ounce) can of tomatoes
2 teaspoons molasses
Salt to taste
Add beans and 4 cups of cold water to a pot. Simmer for two hours.
Brown beef in a Dutch oven over medium heat, working in batches if necessary. Remove beef with a slotted spoon when finished. Pour out the excess fat and lower the heat to medium.
Remove stems and seeds from the dried chiles. Tear the ancho chiles into quarter-sized pieces. Add chilies to a skillet and toast on low heat for 1 minute.
In a food processor, add chilies, cornmeal, cocoa, oregano and cumin. Turn the processor on and slowly add 1 cup of the stock. Run the processor until a paste has formed. Add onions and jalapenos to the Dutch oven on medium heat and sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
Add beer to the Dutch oven and scrape the bottom of the pan. Cook the beer until its volume has reduced by ¾. Add all remaining ingredients to the pot, cover and put in the oven for 1½ hours.
Remove the lid and bake for another 30 minutes. Season with salt, as desired. Serve hot in bowls topped with Chipotle Crema (recipe follows).
— Alex Blinn, Gourmade
1½ cups sour cream
2 tablespoons canned chipotle peppers in adobo
Salt to taste
Add all ingredients to the food processor and blend until smooth. Season with salt to your liking.