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From Gray Lady To Purple Carrot: Bittman Adds Spice To Vegan Meal Startup

Pad kee mao, one of the plant-based offerings from The Purple Carrot.
Aya Bracket
Purple Carrot
Pad kee mao, one of the plant-based offerings from The Purple Carrot.

Lots of you have told us that the dinner scramble is tough.

As a culture, we aspire to sit-down, home-cooked meals. But we often don't have the time or energy to pull them off.

Maybe this explains the buzz over meal-kit delivery companies, such as Plated or Blue Apron. The model? You subscribe online, and a box of fresh food is delivered to your doorstep filled with everything you need to make a meal — or several meals.

Investors have been pouring money into the concept. And as we've reported, grocery stores know they're at risk of losing us. Or at least some of us.

Former <em>New York Times</em> food writer Mark Bittman (right) with Andy Levitt, the founder and CEO of The Purple Carrot.
Eric Tanner / Purple Carrot
Purple Carrot
Former New York Times food writer Mark Bittman (right) with Andy Levitt, the founder and CEO of The Purple Carrot.

As the competition heats up, Mark Bittman — yes, the guy whose cookbook How To Cook Everything may have served as the basic instruction manual in your kitchen — has announced he's joining The Purple Carrot, a plant-based, meal-kit delivery company, as its chief innovation officer. The company was launched a year ago, with a goal of promoting a diet that its founders call a "New American Diet — one that is healthy, honest and humane."

I spoke to Bittman about his leap from writing about food for The New York Times to this new gig. Interview highlights are below, edited for length and clarity.

So, you just gave up a big platform as an op-ed columnist. You were known for, among other things, slicing through the food issue or controversy of the day. You doled out pithy advice such as: "Just abandon fake food for real food." Lots of people seemed to be paying attention.

Why'd you make the jump? What's the appeal?

The idea is that I'm going to get people to eat the stuff I've been writing about.

I didn't give up the platform in exchange for opening a small restaurant. I gave it up in exchange for getting plant-based foods into the hands of many, many more people.

And I was tired of the weekly grind of the opinion column. Yes, it was a total privilege, an amazing gig. But it was really, really hard.

There are lots of meal-kit and food delivery companies popping up. It's a crowded space. How can The Purple Carrot stand out?

We are the only people doing plant-based meal kits. So we have a different position.

It is a crowded space, but it's a growing space. I think there's a lot of room.

Are you a vegan? A part-time vegan? I know you've written a book about eating vegan before 6 p.m.?

I'm not vegan. I am a part-time vegan. The vegan-before-6 thing is still my thing!

Is it harder - or does it take more time- to put together a plant-based meal?

You can make spaghetti and tomato sauce. That doesn't take long. But if you want to get into [creating] meals that have more satisfaction and variety, it does take more thought. So, I'm thinking through these options.

Have you started creating recipes?

Yes, I'm working with test cooks. We [just] had a three-day, nonstop [session] here in Berkeley to get things off on the right foot. We're shipping four recipes a week, and we're trying to develop eight recipes a week so we can have a library of things to select from.

This sounds like a lot of work. And you're also out trying to raise money? I see from the PR materials that the company has raised $1 million from angel investors and is closing out a $3 million round of seed investment.

I'm meeting with a potential investor today and another tomorrow. So that's a crazy kind of thing I've never done before.

As a serious cook, it sounds as if, several years back, you may have been skeptical of the the meal-kit model.

Yes, I would say things like: 'Why can't people just go shop and cook?' But now I see that was sort of naive or even snobbish of me.

So, did you have a moment when you realized that, hey, most Americans aren't cooking, so a meal-kit service makes sense? It could save people time?

Realistically, cooking means planning. First, you go to the store, you buy stuff and figure out what you're going to make with it. That's a time-suck!

Right, and that's just the beginning.

Then you unpack the groceries. You put them in the refrigerator. Then, you take them back out. You cook, you eat.

By eliminating half of that process, you really are saving people a lot of time ... and they're still getting the fun part and beneficial part of cooking.

How long does it take to prepare a meal from a meal kit?

At this point, I'd say, 30 to 60 minutes. We have some that are very fast. There are a lot of 45-minute recipes that I wish were a little faster. It also depends on skill. If someone has never peeled and chopped, the recipe will take longer.

The saag paneer recipe is a good example. It uses tofu instead of paneer [a fresh cheese common in Indian cuisine]. There's also a penne with cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. Those are both fast recipes.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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