"Food is everything we are," the late, great Anthony Bourdain once said. "It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Those words still ring true today. Eating can be an elemental and transporting experience—and trying foods from different cultures is one of the few ways we have right now of experiencing the rush, surprise, and pleasure of travel.
An online service named Shef, founded in 2018, has a pandemic-safe plan to bring that type of culinary adventure to customers' homes.
The site is trying to reengineer the food delivery experience by personalizing the transaction, offering users the chance to select a trained chef and dishes from a wide variety of global cuisines that are then brought to diners' homes. It's like a bespoke Seamless—but at affordable prices.
Users go to the Shef website to learn about the culinary experts and their offerings. After entering your zip code to view menus available in your area, you'll see mouth-watering photos and descriptions of dishes as well as brief bios and photos of chefs.
"Unlike restaurants," the site points out, "you know exactly who is preparing your food."
Once you've selected the dishes you'd like to try, chefs get to work, shopping for ingredients and preparing your meal.
That means the food can't be ordered at the last minute; in most cases, you'll need to place your order a couple days before it will be delivered.
But what's lost in convenience is made up by the excellence of the food, according to the many rave reviews posted by customers on the site. Shef also promises that all cooks have been trained in food safety measures.
Globe-trotting cuisines range from Italian, Chinese, and Indian standbys to specialties not easily found in restaurants, such as Bangladeshi mutton, Nepalese dumplings, Turkish yogurt soup, and Algerian olive tagine.
Dishes are delivered cold, with instructions for heating and serving.
The prices are as tempting as the food. The average entree on the site costs between $7 and $12. I've seen main course portions of vegetarian Caribbean bean stews for a mere $4.99 apiece.
The site has thrived during the pandemic—probably because the people offering their services aren't faring nearly as well. Most are former restaurant workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
"Millions of restaurant workers were laid off this year and are struggling to make ends meet," Shef cofounder Alvin Salehi told me. "We're committed to doing everything we can to help them land back on their feet."
So when you order one of those affordable entrees—maybe don't hold back on adding other courses.
In many states, only licensed vendors are allowed to deliver food in this way, which means that Shef is currently available only in California and New York.
The company raised $8.8 million in seed money this summer, however, so Shef could soon expand into other states where its business model is legal—and start lobbying to change the laws in others.
The service seems like a smart stop-gap measure for food industry workers—and for grounded travelers craving a taste of other places.