Home » NYC Chefs Deliver With a New ‘Spotify for Food’

NYC Chefs Deliver With a New ‘Spotify for Food’

You probably haven’t heard of chef Chris Ratel. The 53-year-old Brooklyn native has yet to launch his own restaurant or star in a cooking show. But in one corner of the culinary universe, he’s a star. His classic American comfort food is the top-selling cuisine on CookUnity—a meal-delivery service with an unusual business model.

Already offering fare from 32 independent chefs working out of shared kitchens, CookUnity aims to be for food what Spotify is to music—offering an infinite selection of meals from an unlimited number of culinary artists.

Mr. Ratel and his fellow chefs can offer whatever dishes they please to the service’s customers, who order food online, selecting from hundreds of options. Subscribers pay $10.50 to $13.50 for each meal, depending on their weekly plan.

Chef Chris Ratel has worked at Sardi’s, Lundy’s and Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City.

CookUnity provides chefs with the kitchen, ingredients and support services such as dish washing and delivery; chefs get a 20{431c92db2ef93c421a350be785d244bd702e2c73a34f2b6f60cd8fd62b61507d}-25{431c92db2ef93c421a350be785d244bd702e2c73a34f2b6f60cd8fd62b61507d} cut of every meal purchase.

“I can cook what I want, and when I want,” says Mr. Ratel, who has worked at Sardi’s, Lundy’s and Grand Central Oyster Bar. “I can be my own boss.”

CookUnity, which launched in 2018 and is based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has gotten a big boost from the pandemic. Monthly meal sales grew from 35,000 to 200,000; it recently raised $15.5 million for a planned expansion to several cities including Los Angeles, says 35-year-old founder and CEO

Mateo Marietti,

who showed me around the company’s 40,000-square-foot facility last week.

The space has none of the crazy, frantic atmosphere of an urban restaurant kitchen. Chefs relax in a spacious lounge, browse the cookbook library or chat in glass-fronted conference rooms. There’s a small gym, locker room and bathrooms with showers.

In the larger of the facility’s two kitchens, Mr. Ratel, who is selling about 4,000 meals a week, was busy preparing hoisin-glazed short ribs with peanut noodles. He’s mainly known for indulgent dishes—think fried chicken, mac and cheese, brisket—that subscribers order as a treat. “I make killer food, and I know how to get it in a box,” he says.

Mr. Ratel’s top rival, chef

Andres Mendez,

was supervising his own team at a prep table about 10 feet away. The 28-year-old immigrant from Mexico, who got his start in New York City washing dishes, takes the opposite approach to his menu planning—he’s a data nut.

Analyzing sales information generated by the CookUnity platform, Mr. Mendez constantly creates new dishes calculated to capitalize on trends. A typical recipe is his salmon with avocado sauce, aimed at the Whole 30 diet crowd.

Prepared meals await packaging at CookUnity.

Chef Andres Mendez, 28 years old, whipping up a meal at CookUnity.

“And I’m over here, slicing up steak and mashing up potatoes with butter and cream,” Mr. Ratel says. “That’s the beautiful thing. Every counter has a different chef and different culinary style.”

Mr. Ratel showed me the CookUnity chef app he uses to submit new recipes, which the system analyzes for nutritional content and ingredient costs. Assuming it doesn’t exceed the threshold—roughly $5—the meal is automatically approved.

CookUnity orders ingredients in bulk to distribute among the chefs. Because subscribers order meals in advance, it only buys ingredients for meals that are pre-sold. There’s no risk and little waste.

As restaurants struggle to survive during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chef-Owner of Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson spoke with WSJ’s Lorie Hirose about change, history and hope. Photo: Lev Radin/Zuma Press

Mr. Ratel next checked the app for customer reviews, of which he has more than 8,000, averaging 4.2 out of five stars.

“Eggplant too thick,” admonished a subscriber named Cathy.

Mr. Ratel shook his head. “Everyone’s a critic!”

But the hundreds of reviews generated every week help him adjust recipes to suit customer tastes. The next time his team makes eggplant parm, he says, the comment will be on their mind—they meet every Tuesday to assess each review.

While top CookUnity chefs like Mr. Ratel can earn six figures and employ a small team, others have left the platform after failing to gain a following or improve bad reviews.

And some are just getting started. Among the many chefs who joined last year is

Emily Peck,

a 36-year-old Brooklyn nutritionist who specializes in plant-based food such as her organic Delicata squash with lentils, mushrooms and cashew basil sauce.

She’s currently dishing up about 600 meals a week but still working as a private chef on the side. If she wants to go full-time on CookUnity, she says, she’ll need to increase weekly sales to at least 1,500, which she aims to do with the help of two new hires.

Meanwhile, she enjoys the camaraderie after years working solo and is learning to navigate a shared kitchen. The easiest way to get on everyone’s bad side? “If you hoard the coveted items,” she says. “The immersion blender!”

So how’s the food? I subscribed for a week and sampled four meals from three chefs. The fare ranged from super tasty and satisfying—in the case of a turkey meatloaf with mushroom gravy—to a bland and disappointing, in the case of a beef ragu with zucchini noodles. I had to dress it up with fresh scallions and red pepper flakes.

Mr. Marietti notes the ragu dish is averaging 4.5 stars, with hundreds of ratings, “So it goes to show that a meal loved by many may not be a match for everyone.” He says over time, the platform’s algorithm would recommend more suitable meals.

Or perhaps I should ditch the healthy keto fare I’d ordered and try some of Mr. Ratel’s lobster mac and cheese. Mr. Marietti says I wouldn’t be alone.

“Here, you know what people say they want, and what they really want,” he says. “They say they want gluten-free, low carb. But it’s the dish called ‘mom’s brisket’ that gets hundreds of orders.”

Packaged food in storage at CookUnity.

Write to Anne Kadet at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8