Takeaways may be convenient, affordable and tasty (greasy), but they also often lead to remorse (the calories), indigestion (the carbs, processed meat and spices) and concern (where did the meat come from?). And given how often we order out, why is the food delivered to our door in those plastic pots or cardboard boxes so limited and more often than not, slightly disappointing? And furthermore, why is it sod’s law that the only decent takeaway outlets around never seem to deliver to one’s own postcode?
These are all questions pondered by Simon Prockter, an internet entrepreneur and the man behind Housebites, a chef-based online takeaway. Prockter noticed a while back that despite our increasing obsession with high-quality food, and our concern about its provenance, the takeaway market was stuck somewhere in the 1980s.
Housebites, set up a year ago, now has a network of 35 trained professional chefs working in London and Brighton. Each chef, registered as a business, cooks from their own home (kitchens are vetted regularly). Some Housebites chefs are alumni of prestigious restaurants, others are just starting up; they hail from all over the world, from Spain to Eastern Europe, and many specialise in a particular type of cuisine. For the chefs, it is a great opportunity to combine flexible working with a chance often to pocket more cash than in the average restaurant, with its massive overheads.
To order, you log into Housebites’ website and type in your postcode, and hey presto, a selection of chefs working in your area is presented to you, along with a little biog and the dishes they are preparing that night. You are advised how many portions of each particular dish are left and invited to key what you would like, pay online and specify a delivery time, when either the chef himself or his personal courier will bring it to your home, piping hot in biodegradable containers. The range of food is wide – from duck ragoût tortellini to Moroccan chicken. But apparently not wide enough.
Perhaps mindful of the “French invasion” – the apparently inevitable exodus of French people decamping to London for tax reasons following the recent election of François Hollande – Housebites is this month launching a “French Takeaway”. This selection of classic French recipes with a twist is designed, as Prockter puts it, “to make good French food accessible, rather than something associated with high-end restaurants”. And, if up to scratch, it will surely keep our new Gallic neighbours happy, too.
Sponsored by mustard-maker Maille, this new string to Housebites’ bow has been masterminded by superchef Bruno Loubet, who devised five dishes (four mains and one dessert) and ran a one-day workshop to train up the chefs. Loubet, famed for his popular Bistro Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell, is all in favour of lending his name and culinary prowess to the project. He is also keen to spread the word that French food isn’t just about rich cream sauces: “What’s annoying is that some people think French food is very heavy – but it doesn’t have to be, if you do things properly.”
Doing things properly could be Housebites’ strapline. When my French Takeaway turned up at my door, bang on 8pm as I had specified, it was in the arms of the man who had cooked it himself, Wesley Thomas, a former chef at the Groucho Club and Soho House. The food was perfectly hot – but not in a mouth-scalding microwave way – and ready to go on to the plate. I had greedily ordered four out of five of the dishes, which proved ample for two of us, including leftovers (for once, the sort you actually quite fancy the next day).
Everything was slightly more rustique than I had expected – the fancier plated-up strand of French cuisine being, I imagine, somewhat less suited for express delivery. The star of the show was the vinegar and tarragon chicken fricassée, enlivened by grapes, cherry tomatoes and button mushrooms. While rich in flavour, the cream content was minimal, so it felt almost healthy. A succulent tranche of pork belly came with a wonderfully fresh crunchy salsa of mustard, walnuts and herbs. On the side was a naughtily rich dish of roasted vegetables with béchamel and emmental, oh and a particularly nice touch – a free side salad of rocket and parmesan. And then to the pudding: a delicious modern take on a traditional pain perdu with apples caramelised in vinegar, brown sugar and rosemary.
This isn’t diet fare, but nor did it leave us with a typical post-curry/pizza bloat that has you groaning on your sofa. Perhaps the highest praise came from my French boyfriend, who in Proustian reverie, suggested we order it all again.
Bruno Loubet’s Gourmet French Takeaway menu in partnership with Maille is available as a “Specials Board” on Housebites.com, mains from £9.95