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Gathering steam

This is what we want in 2017: We want our food to be delivered to us. We want it to be gourmet. We want to know all of the ingredients and where they come from, so we can be sure they are healthful. We want to be able to order it with our phones and use them to cook it, too. We want to make restaurant-quality meals without needing restaurant-quality skills. We want dinner to take less than 15 minutes to make, and we want it to be easy, almost brainless. But not too easy – we still want to put the final touches on it, so it feels homemade.

One start-up thinks it has cracked the code of all of our conflicting culinary desires. Tovala – the name is a mashup of the Italian word for table, “tavola,” and the Hebrew word for good, “tov” – is a smart steam oven and meal subscription service that launched Tuesday; thanks to a Kickstarter and other pre-release efforts, it already has 700 of its $399 ovens in homes and connected to the internet. And by mid-July, CEO David Rabie estimates they will have shipped more than 10,000 meals.

Tovala meals have a bar code that the oven scans to determine the temperature and cook time.

Tovala meals have a bar code that the oven scans to determine the temperature and cook time.

The microwave-sized device is a steam convection oven, an appliance that has long been more popular in Europe, but is gaining ground in the US It has a chamber of water inside the oven that creates steam, which can cook food more quickly – “Heat moves faster through wet air than dry air,” said Rabie – and also produces moist, juicy food.

“I think chicken is a great example. There was this funny moment with our chef, he was trying to push the limits to see how hot it could get without drying it out,” said Rabie. “He got it to 198 degrees. It blew his mind that chicken at 198 degrees could still be juicy.” The recommended internal temperature for chicken, by the way, is much less – typically between 165 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can use the Tovala, which is controlled through an app, for your own recipes, but Rabie says it’s best when paired with the meal delivery service. It costs $36 for three meals a week for one person, or $72 for three meals a week for two, including shipping. That’s a few dollars more than Blue Apron, which charges $59.94 for two – but the difference is that with Tovala, there’s no cooking required. The meals are delivered to customers pre-assembled in metal trays, just like the dreaded airplane meal. But they’re a practical necessity, because all you have to do is pop them directly in the oven, and scan a barcode that communicates the cook time and temperature to the device (for some dishes, you might also be instructed to add a sauce, first). It’s Blue Apron for people who find Blue Apron to be too cumbersome.

“Anyone who has tried Blue Apron and stopped using it is our target customer,” said Rabie. “The meal kits, they pitch themselves as convenient, but at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t want to spend 45 minutes cooking.”

Heating up a Tovala meal takes about 15 minutes, typically. Some of the meals come in multiple trays – salmon in one, broccoli and brown rice in the other – and part of the charm of Tovala is that you can put them both in at once, and they’ll finish at exactly the same time. A few components are pre- or par-cooked, like the rice, but just as many are whole, raw ingredients. Almost all of them are cooked using Tovala’s three capabilities – steaming, then convection cooking, and then finishing the meal off with a few minutes of broiling, to add a little crispness.

Alexander Plotkin, the company’s chief culinary officer, studied at Noma in Copenhagen and Alinea in Chicago, and later developed recipes for corporate clients such as Starbucks, so his meals have mass appeal, but a touch of sophistication. I tried the Thai turkey meatballs with a hoisin glaze, served on cilantro brown rice with roasted asparagus, and was pleasantly surprised: The meatballs, studded with water chestnut, were crunchy and moist, the asparagus wasn’t overcooked, and a sambal sauce finish added a lot of kick. Another meal, miso salmon with roasted broccoli, delivered a velvety-soft piece of perfectly-done salmon. The food is prepped and packaged in a commercial commissary in Chicago.

Some foods work better than others for the meal service.

“We’re limited by our packaging right now. If you were to put steak in one of those trays, it would cook within its juices, it would come out too tough,” said Rabie. “We can solve that by putting a rack within the tray, to elevate it,” something they plan to introduce on a future menu. Their menu changes every week, and there are about five choices available now, with more to come. Dietary preferences, like vegetarianism and the paleo diet, are accommodated. There’s no minimum required commitment for the meal subscription. And they plan to introduce breakfasts and desserts in the coming months – baked egg dishes, breakfast sandwiches, and even a souffle. Like other delivery services, there is a lot of packaging, but at least it’s all recyclable.

You can program your own recipes into the Tovala, too, via its app – and after some experimentation, you can also do multi-step recipes where you steam some veggies and then broil them, for example. The device’s culinary team has already programmed some of these methods in for you: chicken wings, sausage, sweet potatoes, broccoli and shrimp are among the simple recipes Tovala can cook on autopilot. It doesn’t have as many pre-programmed foods as the June oven, but Rabie says they plan to add more recipes in the coming months, as well as community features that will allow users to share recipes.

As food cooks, a vent in the back of the Tovala puffs out little clouds of steam. It made broccoli perfectly – just sprinkle it with some olive oil and choose the broccoli setting in your phone – though its settings for shrimp made them a little firmer than our preference, and its sweet potato setting burned our spuds. And not everything is faster – it took six minutes to make a piece of toast. But it was a sad-looking piece of bread we fished out of a plastic bag in the deepest freezer drawer, and the Tovala brought it back to life, giving it moisture and eliminating all the telltale signs of freezer burn. Still, it seems like the device, unsurprisingly, works best with the delivered meals.

Tovala says it’s going after Blue Apron, but the meals work on another level too: They’re a much-tastier upgrade for people who supplement their cooking with frozen pizzas and skillet pastas, microwave dinners, and other convenience fare. It’s just one of the tech companies that is working to give convenience food a serious upgrade in both style and health: Nomiku, a company that makes a sous-vide circulator, a device for cooking food in a hot water bath, debuted a line of sous vide convenience foods in May. Customers only have to wave their foods over the device to automatically set the cook time and temperature, which is communicated through radio frequency identification.

As for the meal kit delivery business, the competition is growing ever steeper. Blue Apron had a particularly bad week, having priced its shares lower than expected for its initial public offering, and then watched that price dip even further. “Putting stuff that can be bought at the grocery store in a box and selling it at a premium just doesn’t seem like a great business model to me,” wrote Timothy Green for the Motley Fool. “Blue Apron’s financials appear to agree.” But if people are abandoning meal kits because they’re too much work, as Green speculates, they might be attracted to a service like Tovala. It could work well in a small office, too, as a company lunch perk.

“The challenge is that the early adopter demographic. Most of those people have tried [a meal kit] and the novelty has worn off,” said Rabie. “I think the reason they stopped using the service is that they don’t want to cook three meals a week.”

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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