Home-Cooked Meals with Shef
Somewhere in your neighborhood there is a sweet, kind person who enjoys cooking and would love to make dinner for you. Most likely, she’s a dear old lady who spent a lifetime honing her home cooking craft on family and friends who no longer live with her, and she misses that feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing somebody enjoyed her food. Meanwhile, there are hungry people next door who would happily pay for her ingredients and time, if they only knew she was out there. I’ve long wished there could be an app to solve this problem: introduce home cooks to people who would like something to eat, and now I found it: https://shef.com/
Shef is a Y-Combinator (W19) startup based in San Francisco and when they recently expanded to the Seattle area, I signed up immediately. They’re just getting started, so the selection is more limited than what you’d find on other meal delivery services like Uber Eats of Caviar. You also have to order in advance, at least a day or two, but sometimes up to a week ahead. (What did you expect? She needs time for shopping and preparing her kitchen, not to mention the cooking itself, which might take all day if it’s a special sauce or something requiring advanced preparation).
The best home cooks are often specialists in a few categories, so don’t look for a wide menu from each “shef”, but what you do find is often a highly specific cuisine rarely found in a regular restaurant. In my area there are foods from Pakistani, Bangladesh, and very specific geographical regions of China, India, and Latin America. For “US” food, I found Cajun as well as somebody who makes BBQ.
After a culinary trip to Mexico a few years ago, I’ve been on the lookout for Oaxacan food, and sure enough here is Shef Ofelia:
Hello! My name is Ofelia, and I am a traditional Mexican cook. I was born and raised in Guerrero, Mexico, where my mom taught me how to cook from scratch with delicious, fresh ingredients. I met my husband in Mexico City, who taught me how to cook traditional Oaxacan food. Now as owner of Mama Tila, I make traditional food from all across Mexico, making sure to include recipes that are gluten‑free, vegetarian, and vegan. To me, food is a way of sharing a little bit of my culture with the world and I always take my time to prepare each dish with love.
We placed our order on Tuesday, for Sunday delivery at a fairly wide time window: we chose 5-7pm, but we could have chosen 3-5pm or 6-8pm. I suppose the home chef needs to space the meals, especially if her home kitchen has a limited number of pots and pans.
The food, delivered by Doordash, arrived around the middle of our time window. It came in a hefty insulated bag that, while nice enough to be reusable, seemed overkill for our order. Our meal was intended to be reheated, with instructions for microwave or stovetop.
We specifically wanted to try the Oaxacan-style mole, which came in a 12-oz plastic container with a printed label showing reheating instructions and an expiration date.
The tamales were incredible: extremely fresh and flavorful, like the kind you’d get from a street vendor in Mexico. The Oaxacan mole was even better than I expected: creamy, infused with tangy flavors and just the right amount of spice. Highly recommended.
Our order, two mole sauces, two tamales, and some Mexican rice was plenty of food for two people. The cost was about $35 total for the food and taxes. Delivery is free, though we were charged a $3 “service” charge, and of course you should generously tip the driver.
If you’re used to the extra large portions you’d get at a family-style Mexican restaurant, you might need to order more than we did. Although it was plenty for us – we had leftovers – those 12-oz packages can seem tiny if you start out hungry. Ordering a week in advance, rather than last-minute on an empty stomach, is better for you anyway.
When you are a guest in somebody’s home, or if you eat food at a neighborhood potluck, you don’t typically expect a health inspector to examine everything in the kitchen, but that’s one of the first things people ask when I tell them about my experience. Yes, all the cooks on Shef need to go through an inspection process. I have no idea how thorough it is, but I hope it’s not too onerous for the cook. Our food looked plenty clean, and it was as tasty and as well-made as anything I’d expect from a neighbor. Shef has a review system (I gave Ofelia five stars), and I frankly feel safer eating something cooked by a real person than I do from many restaurants, where who knows what happens in the kitchen when nobody’s looking.
For future Shef meals, I look forward to making the rounds of the various geographies of India that are represented by our local immigrant community. I know too little about authentic Indian cooking, and I recognize that ethnic restaurants are under financial pressure to offer a menu that is understandable to the local population, a constraint that may not be compatible with a menu from their home country. I’m betting that a meal created in somebody’s home will be as close to “traditional” as it’s possible to get without a plane ticket.
I wish there were more apps like Shef that intermediate between neighborhood people who have the skills to do something, and those who’d like to benefit from those skills. How many afternoons have I wasted on household jobs that one of my neighbors could have finished effortlessly in a few minutes? Likewise there are, say, techie problems that I’m happy to solve if somebody just knew me enough to ask. In a small town, where you know everybody, those introductions happen naturally, and everyone helps everyone else. I’m looking forward to a time, hopefully soon, when those of us in bigger cities can benefit from that exchange.
P.S. I’m not affiliated with the company, but apparently they’ll give you $10 off your first order if you use this referral code: https://shef.com/refer/richards5