Dream Dinners is to cooking as:
a) Tom Cruise is to Godliness.
b) "Burgundy cooking wine" is to French premier cru.
c) Abu Ghraib is to romance.
d) All of the above.
You don't go to Dream Dinners, the newly opened franchise in Sunrise, to learn anything about the culinary arts. Yes, you're going to be making "dinner," but that's like saying your tot at her coloring book is making "art." You're going to be cooking inside the lines. You go to Dream Dinners to throw together 12 meals in record time. You do it because you're a stressed-out working mother of four or a clueless single on a budget or an aging granny with limited mobility for grocery shopping and meal planning. You go because you figure if you can prepare a freezer full of ready-to-go meals in two hours, you are so far ahead of the game that you hardly know what you'll do with the extra 24-plus hours of leisure time you've just earned (Learn Italian! Take up sky-diving!). You go because you've ordered from every fast-food counter in a 40-mile radius, and if you have to eat one more Happy Meal, you're going to throw yourself under a passing Tri-Rail.
Invented by a 40-ish caterer from Seattle named Stephanie Allen, the Dream Dinners concept is relatively simple. In sum: You pay $200 and choose 12 meals from a menu on their website, or six meals if you're doing the short version (which costs $120). Each of these meals will feed four to six people, so you're figuring about $4 per serving. You're going to put these meals together at the store, cart them home and toss them in the freezer, and then pop them in the oven whenever.
I chose the six-meal plan and immediately degenerated into the customer from hell. Not only could I not work the website properly (totally my fault) but I got lost twice on my way to the store, necessitating frantic phone calls. And when I arrived a half-hour late for the 3 p.m. session, I'd forgotten to bring my cooler. But Sally Grant and Nicole Marefka, bubbly women in their 30s who own the franchise, greeted me with such enthusiasm that I felt like I'd just scaled the Matterhorn. As it happened, a reporter from Newsweek and her photo crew were there too ("That's right, a little closer together please... lift that measuring cup just a fraction... perfect!"), but Grant and Marefka were as cool as pre-diced cucumbers. They dressed me in an apron and surgical gloves, handed me a printout of my order, and showed me how to label the freezer bags and pans with cooking instructions. Then I shoved off to my first station, my maiden voyage.
If you're preparing, say, Dream Dinners' "signature dish," chicken Mirabella, or beef sirloin with mushroom sauce, you read from a printed recipe at each station and spoon the listed ingredients into a plastic bag with your meat. The Dream Dinners operation is as sterile as a quarantine lab. You wear gloves. You wash your hands between entrées. Everything is prepped and laid out for you, and those prep containers are at subzero temps. Each bottle of dehydrated onions or concentrated beef flavoring or low-fat sour cream already contains the appropriately sized measuring spoon or cup. Vials of ingredients are labeled in big, bold letters. To fuck this up, you'd have to be either a complete moron or stoned out of your gills.
I thought about this while I missed the half-bottle of wine I usually consume when I'm cooking a meal at home. I thought about the smell of onions sautéing and the pleasures of chopping up a perfect aromatic brunoise, and I missed that too. But honestly, at Dream Dinners, even if you do screw up, it's not going to be such a big deal. If you forget to add the two tablespoons of bottled garlic or you pour too much fat-free Italian dressing into your Ziploc freezer bag, your kids are still going to swill it all down when it comes out of the oven, and hubby will be so thrilled about the reprieve from Hamburger Helper that he won't dare whine about the missing parsley flakes. And you, no doubt, are going to experience that exhilarating sense of freedom and accomplishment that comes from having a "home-cooked" meal (as the delicious scent of bubbling reconstituted mushroom soup mix emanates from the kitchen) without having had to wash one single blasted measuring cup, mop up spilled flour, or scour the burnt crust from the bottom of a pan. You will be, my dear, a truly liberated woman.
Grant and Marefka put around $70,000 into opening the Sunrise franchise. And they got in "on the ground floor," Grant says to open a franchise today, you'll need twice that, and you'll pay 8 percent of your gross to the mother ship. Grant happened to be leafing through a copy of Working Mother at the doctor's office one afternoon when she stumbled across an article about the founders of the original store in Seattle, Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna. "They weren't even doing franchises at the time," Grant remembers, "but I kept an eye on the company because I thought it was interesting." It took two years to get their franchise in Sunrise open, and even that was delayed by Hurricane Wilma. Now Grant says she's working 12-hour to 15-hour days to get the franchise off the ground. Marefka has kept her full-time job with Wildcard Systems in Sunrise and handles most of Dream Dinners' paperwork and accounting.
They expect to gross a million dollars in their first year, Grant says optimistically. The Seattle store reportedly generates around $75,000 a month. I tried to figure out how many customers that meant while I was scooping crumbled potato chips into a plastic bag for my "potato-crusted salmon" dish. Something like 350? If they're doing 32 sessions a month, that would mean 10.9 customers per session. It sounded reasonable. But maybe my numbers were off: I'd dumped four tablespoons of pepper into my black canister while I was doing the math, and the Newsweek photographer was glaring daggers at me because I was blocking his set-up. On to the next station.
During my Saturday session, I "made" a holiday pork roast, preslit for stuffing with apricots, cranberries, prunes, dried apples, mustard, and raisins. At first, I was so nervous that my hands were literally shaking, and I had to press my nose flat to the printed instructions because I'd forgotten my glasses. I ignored the advice to read through the whole recipe before starting. I confused parsley flakes with dried thyme. But eventually I got the hang of it, and I was pretty confident by the time I got to the Smashing Pumpkin Cheesecake. This dish contained ingredients I hope I'll never see again: liquid margarine, liquid egg substitute, low-fat sour cream, Sysco cooking spray, something called "cheesecake filling" (I have no idea), a very, very generous amount of sugar, and one or two spices I recognized, like cinnamon and nutmeg.
I also made the sirloin with mushrooms, where I found my only fresh vegetable of the day: a metal container of real, honest-to-God, raw diced mushrooms. (And come to think of it, I don't know if fungus really counts as a vegetable.) I made a chicken "Cordon Bleu" that would have Auguste Escoffier falling on his knife were the poor man alive to see it six rock-hard, frozen, skinless chicken breasts topped with minuscule rounds of Canadian bacon, a frightening phony white sauce, slices of Swiss cheese, and a dusting of canned parmesan. I made the chicken Mirabella, which Grant told me is one of her favorite dishes. This recipe, actually, was recognizable from the original Silver Palate cookbook green olives, capers, brown sugar, prunes, white "wine" adapted for the freezer-to-oven regimen. I took this one over to test on my parents and my girlfriend Amy. We poured it into a baking dish and cooked it for one hour; the four of us took turns basting it every 15 minutes as instructed.
"Better than I expected," my mother pronounced as she scraped up the last drops of prune/sugar/olive sauce. "But I still think it's a dumb idea. If you want an easy dinner, just go to Costco and buy a tray of pork chops and make some tomato sauce. What's the big deal?" This from a woman who hasn't picked up a pot to do anything more complicated than boil an egg since 1964. That was the year she turned over the kitchen to my father. And he thought the chicken Mirabella was too sweet.
Amy, the only person I know who actually reads the directions on the back of a can before taking the plunge ("Open can. Pour soup into pot. Heat. Serve.") was a fan of the chicken Mirabella also. She thought it would be a good idea for me to stock up the freezer for her before I take my next trip out of town.
I think these folks are on to something. If I could just get past the liquid egg substitute, Dream Dinners could change my life. I mean really, with the time I spend half-drunk in my kitchen, roughly 50 percent of my waking life, plus my weekly bill at Whole Foods, plus the hours I spend eating in restaurants, couldn't I be doing something more constructive? I could volunteer. I could walk the dog. I could donate money to the bat conservancy or adopt a manatee. I could even get a real job.
On the Dream Dinners website, you learn that these easy meals come with a little extra baggage. Their statement of purpose reads, in part: "To glorify God." There's also a lot of stuff about gathering once again around the dinner table, bringing families together for home-cooked meals, and fostering a sense of community. The founders believe they're serving up a social, spiritual, and philosophical agenda along with the frozen Salisbury steak Parmesan and the "Happy Family Glazed Meatballs." And maybe they are. I think if they can save working mothers, who still do 80 percent of the housework, a few hours a week, they will have won a second feminist revolution. Dream Dinners has trademarked its slogan, "Life just got easier." For a lot of working women, that still sounds like a pipe dream.
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