The Post asked star chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella to try Blue Apron, the meal-kit service that delivers ingredients and recipes to aspiring home chefs. (The Washington Post)
Mike Isabella's restaurants include Graffiato, Kapnos and G in Washington and Kapnos Taverna and Pepita in Arlington, Va. He appeared on Season 6 of "Top Chef" and on "Top Chef: All-Stars."

Blue Apron, a meal-kit delivery service, says it will help people “learn how to cook like a pro.” Yet I felt out of my element as I used a ceramic paring knife to pry open the cardboard box. I’d said yes when The Washington Post asked me to try the service, which is how I ended up laying out plastic bags of pre-measured ingredients on the counter of my kitchen island and skimming the week’s recipes, printed on glossy cardstock. But I was skeptical. This is not how I cook. At all.

I spend most of my waking hours in or between restaurant kitchens. I rarely cook just for myself or my family, and when I do, I don’t follow recipes. I have various dishes and flavor profiles bouncing around in my head, a huge range of ingredients at my fingertips (want Aleppo pepper? Vadouvan? I’ve got you covered), and serious tools at my disposal — commercial deep fryers and salamanders, sous vide equipment and Robot Coupes.

Blue Apron, by extreme contrast, made all the decisions for me: what I was going to cook, what ingredients I’d be using and, step by step, how I’d prepare each dish. The company doesn’t assume you have anything more in your kitchen than salt, pepper, olive oil, a knife, a cutting board, and some pots and pans. (One recipe required lemon zest but provided instructions for using a knife rather than a zester or a Microplane.) In that sense, it’s as much like my cooking process as assembling an Ikea kitchenette resembles what the master woodworkers on my restaurant design team do.

At the same time, after trying it, I think critics have been too quick to dismiss Blue Apron (along with Plated, HelloFresh and similar companies) for turning cooking into a paint-by-numbers exercise that discourages improvisation. I had worried that the recipes would dumb down the cooking process and produce results that played to the lowest common denominator. I was surprised that the two shipments of meals I got had real chef-driven flavors. And as good as food TV has become, these meals seem like a better way to get people comfortable in the kitchen.

For me, the hardest part of meal-kit cooking was following the directions. Not that they were complicated — the kits are designed for beginners and busy people. Each new ingredient in a recipe is highlighted in bold, so components won’t be overlooked in the heat-of-the-cooking moment. The photos complement, rather than replace, traditional recipe text. Home cooks can see exactly what a large floret looks like if they’ve never taken apart a head of cauliflower before.

Mike Isabella prepares Blue Apron’s quick kimchi slaw in his home kitchen. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The challenge for me had to do with rhythm. My cooking is very active. I move from process to process without a lot of stopping to consider. I rely on muscle memory — I’ve internalized all the movements through years and years of repetition. With Blue Apron, though, all the pausing to read the next step in the recipe threatened to throw me off my game.

I’ve also been the big dog in my restaurants for so long that I could hardly remember the last time I was supposed to execute someone else’s dish. But here I was, prepping a quick kimchi slaw, wondering why the recipe called for salt and vinegar but no oil. I thought the starch component was over-portioned in several meals — a cup of couscous is twice as much as my wife, Stacy, and I need. And I hesitated at the addition of honey in a ginger, curry and coconut-milk braise, which I felt added an unnecessary sweetness to a cauliflower dish already dressed with golden raisins. Several times I had to resist the urge to detour from the directions and cook the thing my own way. But, ultimately, I followed the recipes as written.

The finished meals were unexpectedly good. Stacy, whose palate may be even more sophisticated than mine, disagreed with me about the cauliflower. She thought the honey worked well. And disagreement on the sweetness, saltiness or spiciness of a dish is better than agreement that it’s bland.

I was impressed with the sophistication of the flavor profiles in the kits we received. There was clearly a chef behind each recipe. A healthy dose of Ras el Hanout was the engine running a dish of North African-spiced shrimp and couscous. The Moroccan spice blend is the sort of thing you’d find in well-stocked restaurant kitchens. My company’s beverage director, Casablanca-born Taha Ismail, has used it to rim the glass of an ambitious cocktail. For my part, as someone who makes his living feeding people, and who relies on their attention to new and interesting flavors, I’d be happy to see meal kits open more people up to bold ingredients like that.

One of the most common criticisms of Blue Apron and its competitors is that they limit creativity and improvisation. I’m certainly a believer in cooking as a form of personal expression. Restaurant chefs — and home cooks, too — should have their own flavors, their own methods, their own perspectives.

But, you know, sometimes energy and improv just aren’t what’s called for. Sometimes (particularly after an eight- or 10- or 12-hour workday) you want a tasty meal with fresh ingredients that you can cook while keeping an eye on your kids or your dogs. Ordering Blue Apron cuts down on meal planning and shopping. It’s quite an upgrade from what you’d get by going to a fast-food restaurant or microwaving a frozen dinner. And at $10 a serving, it’s a pretty good value.

Additionally, that ability to improvise, to infuse your own flavors into a classic dish, naturally follows the know-how and confidence that come from rolling up your sleeves and cooking — again and again and again. There’s just no substitute for time spent in front of the burners.

Delivered by Blue Apron, cooked by Mike Isabella: chili-rubbed steak, tomato rice and quick kimchi slaw. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

I learned to cook from my grandmother. I was a bit of a problem child, but I found my place in her kitchen. She knew that whenever I was looking lost, she could put me to work. Not everyone has that privilege. And although food television has helped the American public become more knowledgeable about food and better ways to eat, learning to cook from those shows can be a production. Before you can even fire up the stove, you have to watch a dish come together on television, find and download the recipe, head to the market, maybe even hit a butcher or specialty spice shop. That all takes time that a lot of people don’t have. But meal kits, because they skip straight to the cooking, make home cooking more manageable.

Blue Apron may not teach people to cook quite like the pros do. But it can help them get more comfortable with cooking. It can help them figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. And then, once they’ve built up some confidence, they’ll develop an instinct for how far they can deviate from the directions and still end up with something delicious.

Twitter: @MikeIsabellaDC

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