It’s late morning at the Union Square offices of the Culinistas in Manhattan, which means a fruit platter has been freshly arranged from the morning’s run to Eataly and is holding center stage in the sitting room space of the lofty offices. By afternoon it’ll be popcorn time, and come 5 p.m., cheese and wine will enter the rotation.
So, yes, food is a big deal around here.
Tiana Tenet and Jill Donenfeld, cofounders of the Culinistas, sit around this morning’s selection of figs, raspberries and blood oranges discussing the business venture they launched in January which they hope will revolutionize the in-home cooking experience.
The Culinistas brings a chef to clients’ homes to prepare dishes in their own kitchens, using high-quality, market fresh ingredients. Since they launched their first menu on Sept. 11, they’ve become a hit among the fashion set, working with designers and executives alike, as well as men and women looking both to entertain or just have their day-to-day meal prep be one less thing to think about.
Donenfeld’s background is in the culinary world, while Tenet comes from finance. Having worked in various spaces of the food world, from front-of-house at restaurants to writing cookbooks and restaurant reviews, Donenfeld began working as a private chef more than 10 years ago. A few years in, she found her enthusiasm for doing it herself waning, but an interest in the private cooking world stuck.
“I started finding chefs and staffing them in peoples’ homes, and I really ran the business as the most extreme New York side hustle you could possibly imagine,” she says. “I was doing it all myself, and doing it in a very, very mom and pop way. In January, Tiana and I met, and she really saw the need for the service that I was providing to my clients, but saw much farther beyond that in a way to be able to service more than 15 clients, which was really my max.”
Tenet adds, “I grew up with a love and passion for food, but I never really trained in culinary. When I was at Georgetown, I spent all three of my summers in food. And when it came time to figure out what my full-time job was going to be after college, I decided to go into finance and learn the business side, knowing that eventually I’d somehow get back into food and combine both worlds.”
Her own experience working at J.P. Morgan highlighted to her the need for a little help in the kitchen. “I had zero time to cook but I also had zero time to work out and focus on my own health and wellness,” she says. “So if I could just open up the fridge and have healthy, delicious meals, that would’ve been amazing.”
“As a working mom, I honestly believe you can’t do it all,” says interior designer Andie Kully, a client. “Knowing that Jill and Tiana have vetted all the chefs gives me the peace of mind to feel comfortable having a Culinistas chef cook in my home while I’m not there, which makes the service all the more convenient. Meals are made with love in my kitchen, just not by me, and I’m totally fine with that.”
Recipe development, which happens Monday through Wednesday, takes place in their home kitchen at their offices (it helps that the unit is a former apartment space with an open kitchen layout). Every Monday a new menu of 20 dishes is posted to their website. This week’s menu, for example, offers the likes of horseradish-spiced beets and fennel, a rapini pipette salad, and Indonesian squid and black lentils, which are fully cooked in by the chef in the home with only reheating left to the client. “Just like you do when you’re in a restaurant, you’re picking from a menu,” Tenet says. Chef interviews take place Thursday and Friday.
“We’re testing them not only if they’re a great cook, but do we trust them in our client’s home, are they professional?” Tenet says. “It’s important to us that all of our chefs are not just fantastic technicians, but that if you walk into your house and smell that the chef is cooking, you’re going to have a conversation with a really wonderful person,” Donenfeld adds.
The other benefit is that the chef is able to more accurately personalize dishes. “The chef and client are building a relationship together, so we want that client to feel really comfortable asking questions like, ‘Can you reduce the spices in my dishes? I don’t really like spice in food.’ Or ‘can you make a little extra quinoa plain for my son, who is four, and doesn’t really like greens in his food?’” says Tenet.
The food itself is far from a diet, but orients toward the healthy and seasonal. “Balanced and veg-forward but we do like cheese, we do like meat, we do like our sweets,” Donenfeld says. “And there’s pasta on the menu,” Tenet adds.
Unlike other home delivery food services, the Culinistas is not a subscription model. “We really understand our clientele. Our clients have multiple homes, they have busy schedules between family, and their child’s activities and their work obligations and social obligations,” Tenet says. “We’re flexible with the schedule. If they want to use it every week, great; for others who have more hectic, bicoastal lifestyles, they’re using it whenever they’re home. We have 20 chefs on the platform.”
Their business has been growing naturally by word of mouth, as several clients have hosted dinner parties with a Culinistas chef in the kitchen.
“We did one on Thursday, it was 12 women and five of them signed up already,” Donenfeld says. “Before we even got back from the event to our office,” Tenet says.
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