New York City chef takes Tecumseh experience at Evans Street Station into new culinary venture
When 2001 Tecumseh graduate Chef John Stevenson relocated to New York City from Michigan, the way he cooked at home with his family changed dramatically. Gone were long trips to the grocery store and loading up a cart with staples to use throughout the week. That is not the way people shop in the big city.“It’s just not a pleasant experience grocery shopping here,” Stevenson said.Not to mention long work hours made it hard to be enthusiastic for all the prep and clean-up time involved in fixing the nightly meal. “Going through the process of cooking dinner at home was excruciating,” Stevenson said.In talking with other people, he realized that for most New Yorkers, meal preparation was an overwhelming chore. Often there isn’t enough time, and for many people, cooking is a mystery difficult to understand.He decided the city needed a dinner option that was more home-cooked than Chinese or pizza takeout meals and cheaper than going out to a restaurant. After much thought and research, Cookit was born.New Yorkers too busy or unskilled in the kitchen can select a dinner which is prepared by Stevenson and his staff, then delivered directly to their customers who cook the meals in their homes.“It makes sense for a business like this here,” Stevenson said. “People want to do it, and it just gives them some better options.”Already operating a catering business, Stevenson Culinary Works, he began testing his Cookit idea with friends and family about a year ago. He committed to the idea last summer and found a work space in September.“We just went through our first inspection,” said Stevenson, who hopes to begin deliveries early in March.The plan is to start slow and steady to work through all the kinks and unanticipated set-backs. Rather than go big and not be able to properly take care of customers, Cookit will start small, with no advertising.“I’m literally going the word of mouth route,” Stevenson said. “It’s going to be a very controlled environment.”Customers will receive a newsletter via email with the available menu choices and an order form. Meals will be prepared and delivered directly to customers on Saturday morning or Sunday evening. Each meal comes with a recipe card and a YouTube video to help those who need guidance.Once business is established with repeat customers, Cookit will add delivery days to meet the need. Eventually, Stevenson plans to have daily dinner delivery to customers.“The ideal scenario is that people can get to a website and place the order and then in two hours the order is at a person’s door,” Stevenson said.Delivery logistics are expected to be a challenge, but Stevenson is confident his staff can work through them. The menu is limited but the goal is to provide simple sides and dinners that appeal to single people as well as offer more elaborate meal choices for family meals. With his experience as a chef, Stevenson has a good idea of what people like to eat, but he also expects the menu to adapt to what people want. “The menu itself is going to evolve in the first few weeks,” he said. “I’m always looking at this from a chef’s perspective.”Stevenson knows his customers will be considering Cookit as an alternative to eating out or ordering takeout meals, and he set the prices accordingly. Meals ordered through Cookit cost between $12 and $18, which may be more than ordering takeout, but it’s definitely less than dining out in NYC.“We know we’re going to be more expensive than ordering Chinese or pizza,” said Stevenson. “We want to hit that big market. I think we’ll quickly beat out the pizza and Chinese guy.”Stevenson is a strong believer in cooking with seasonal and regional foods popular with the farm to table movement, and something he learned during his time working at Evans Street Station. Although NYC doesn’t have the farms just around the corner, finding fresh local food is not hard, according to Stevenson.“We are very fortunate that farmers come into the city, so you can tap into a network,” he said. “We’ve got some great butchers out in Long Island.” Stevenson added that artisan products are also easy to find, as the recession has inspired many people in their 20s and 30s living all over NYC to make things from cheese to specialty bread as well as have things like fresh honey and eggs.With years of working in restaurants perfecting his culinary skills, Stevenson was drawn to the idea of Cookit not just as a way to provide good food to hungry New Yorkers, but because the hours would be better and he would have more control of the process. “I’ve done the restaurants,” he said. “I’ve done the catering.”The idea of working fewer late hours and being able to spend time with his three children was very appealing to Stevenson. Family is very important, something he absorbed growing up on the Stevenson farm in Tecumseh. He is still close with his parents, Paul and Brenda, who proudly support Stevenson’s work in the big city, even coming in to NYC to help when he needs it.Until Cookit becomes an established part of life in NYC, Stevenson will continue his catering business and working as Executive Chef for popular private event spaces such as 583 Park Avenue and Guastavinos. To keep up with all that Stevenson is doing, visit stevensonculinaryworks.com and chefjohnstevenson.com.