Dining

Get a Home-Cooked Meal Without Doing the Work

Umi Kitchen isn't your average meal delivery service
Lamb and Peaches
Photo: Courtesy of Umi Kitchen

The year 2016 will go down in food history: L.A. trumped NYC's dining scene, rainbow bagels filled our Instagram feeds, poke popped up everywhere, pasta and bread stormed back onto menus, heritage birds ruled the roost, and bowls became the new plates. But one of the biggest transformations of all happened not around the restaurant table, but in the home.

Between the explosion in meal kits by everyone from Whole Foods to the New York Times to the rethinking of the restaurant model itself with start-ups like David Chang's Ando and Maple, this year brought a seismic shift in the landscape of dining in.

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Take Umi Kitchen, for example. While Blue Apron and Ando were making headlines, this New York-based meal delivery service was quietly introducing an entirely new model to the delivery category. Instead of offering delivery from a restaurant or a reimagined restaurant model, Umi delivers something far more unique: home-cooked meals.

The young company is the brainchild of former infantry officer Khalil Tawil, avid home cook and food entrepreneur Hallie Meyer (yes, that Meyer), and NYTimes.com and Tumblr vet Derek Gottfrid. The team launched Umi in Brooklyn in April 2016, and in Manhattan in September. The word umi means “mother” in Arabic, and, appropriately, this idea all started with Tawil's mother and his attachment to her cooking. When he was deployed overseas, his mom would send him vacuum-sealed packages of food. "The warmth of a home-cooked meal always brought me home,” Tawil says. When he actually returned home, he teamed up with Meyer and Gottfrid, and the rest is history.

As of now, Umi Kitchen employs about 70 umis, who cook no more than 20 meals a day, anywhere from one to five days a week. The small scale maintains the integrity of the food and the purpose of the service. Umis share their meals on the app and website a week before the delivery date, and customers can order them at any time. Meals come with personalized notes from the cook, and all packaging is compostable. The food ranges from Thai to Italian, but one thing is universal: When you taste it, you know it was made in a home kitchen.

Some umis have developed such a following that their meals sell out in 24 hours. Case in point? Shalini Singh, a Brooklyn Heights-via-Calcutta mother of two whose Indian dishes sell out every week. Singh loves the opportunity to "do what she likes to do—cook" in the flexibility and freedom of her own kitchen. "This is what I needed in my life."

Singh in turn enjoys ordering dishes herself from Umi. "My son loves Lauren's tacos, my daughter loves Emily's summer rolls and we all love Chris’s homemade gnocchi,” she says.

Every umi cook goes through a rigorous inspection by the Umi staff, who visit all of the home kitchens. As a tech platform that connects home cooks, Umi Kitchen isn't actually preparing the meals itself, but it makes sure all of its cooks pass an inspection, undergo food safety training and pass the ServSafe certification test required for restaurant cooks. The founders see their business as a new arm of the sharing economy and "look forward to being a pioneer of the concept for food."

With the year delivery disrupted home cooking drawing to a close, it's as good a time as ever to check out Umi Kitchen. RSVP to its holiday cookout tomorrow, place an order or sign up to be your very own umi. Whether your New Year's resolution is to cook more or order less Seamless, Umi fits the bill. As cofounder Meyer puts it, "It just tastes different."

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