The first time I tried Ayaz Adiguzelli’s cooking was when he started Graze and Braise, his paleo, gluten-free, organic, dairy-free on-demand delivery service in Jersey City. Although I consider myself relatively health-centric when it comes to what I eat, I’ll admit, even I wasn’t exactly salivating the moment I heard all the healthy adjectives associated with his menu. This is largely due to the stigma healthy food has, being connected to everything from “bland” to “boring.” But Adiguzelli garnered so much praise from my peers and neighbors, I felt obliged to give it a shot. Not only was the meal I’d ordered healthy, but it was one of the best takeout meals I’d ever had.
The intention of Adiguzelli’s business model was to bring gourmet paleo lunch options to locals in Hudson County, paleo being short for the Paleolithic diet which is based on the consumption of foods presumed to have been eaten by Paleolithic humans (vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots and meats). But Adiguzelli wasn’t just cooking paleo, he was crafting gourmet meals for people who wanted to eat right without selling their inner foodie soul. He explained, “My philosophy hasn’t always been paleo, and me personally, I’m not always eating paleo. I like everything. Yes, there’s some limitations with paleo, you can’t use grains or refined sugar for instance, but I don’t see it as a limitation—I see it as a challenge.”
As time passed, he noticed that what he’d created was more than just an option for young professionals to order by demand a couple times a week, he’d filled a void in the market and customers wanted to order on a more consistent basis. “I think there’s a need for it, and I feel the way I fundamentally cook isn’t too different. I did have to make some adjustments but I don’t think it compromised the flavor of the food or the cooking techniques,” Adiguzelli said.
In the past decade, we’ve seen the food industry go through unprecedented change, and this is especially true on a local level. But a more recent change has been the emergence of meal prep businesses, seemingly popping up everywhere from home kitchens to storefronts. What began as fitness fanatics preparing their weekly meals to optimize eating on the go, has turned into a micro industry in its own right. It has become so trendy that even the not-so-active folks are catching on, realizing its convenience if nothing else.
But the issue with meal prep businesses comes not from its disconnection from cooking and taking a minute to enjoy a meal, but in taking some of the fun out of eating, reducing us foodies to a mundane life of dry chicken and Tupperware. It was this idea that sparked Adiguzelli’s interest further when he saw a demand for his meals. Looking back, it made sense that he would take his business model from on-demand delivery to weekly meal prep delivery. “Even though these are healthy meals, my goal is to make everything come together. I want people to say, ‘this isn’t just a healthy meal that I’m going to eat just to fulfill [my] daily nutrients, I can actually enjoy this.’ With meal prep, a lot of the time, it’s just about getting nutrients with rice, steamed vegetables and grilled protein. That’s just no fun,” Adiguzelli said. And it was his devotion to quality and flavor that would ultimately propel him to shift his business model to meal prep in 2016. “Good cooking takes time. These meals are catered towards young professionals that maybe want healthy options to bring to the office that they can just heat or they’ve just come home from a long day of work and they can just heat on the stove top instead of spending two hours cooking.”
The first time I officially met Adiguzelli was at his home in Jersey City, where he was kind enough to show me first hand how much thought goes into each meal. I found him amongst all of the ingredients which he would use to create his two newest menu items for Graze and Braise: chicken tikka masala with cauliflower rice and asparagus, and kofta with harissa sweet potato.
Adiguzelli’s love for food and cooking stems from his childhood. Growing up in Sussex County NJ, on what he called “30 acres of woods,” Adiguzelli’s family has been in the meat business for over 30 years, running a USDA slaughterhouse which handles halal meat distribution for Manhattan and Brooklyn, among other places. After high school, Adiguzelli attended a semester at Brooklyn College before realizing that he’d made a grave mistake. “I knew college wasn’t my calling. As a kid I was always in the kitchen; trying to do my own things even though they sucked because I didn’t know what I was doing. But I always had that passion for cooking, and I had easy access to meat and ingredients so I was always experimenting on my own, grilling proteins and such,” he said. After the semester, he attended the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC and eventually found his way back into the meat business managing distribution at a retail store in Brooklyn for six years. But ultimately, Adiguzelli’s path would lead him to Jersey City, which would foster his love for creativity and cooking even further.
Adiguzelli and I spoke while he went to work on the spice rub for his chicken tikka masala, a dish I never knew one could possibly make without things like dairy. But even while working within the constraints of paleo, Adiguzelli still created a meal that was full of unique flavor, his own personal spin on the classic dish. We live in a time and place where people want to know what’s in the food they’re eating, and the key to dishes like this one is both technique and superior ingredients. The root of it all starts with fresh, locally sourced meal components, and this includes organic dried herbs and spices which Adiguzelli claims is a good way to get consistency with your cooking. “It’s especially good with meals that aren’t eaten right away because with something like extra moisture, dried cilantro for instance will soak it up. It’s a way to balance and keep all of the flavors in the meal. But I do use lots of fresh herbs in my meals as well.”
In this particular dish, Adiguzelli added turmeric, coriander, garam masala, partanen, paprika, dried cilantro, garlic powder and ginger powder to his spice rub. Chicken tikka masala usually calls for a yogurt and heavy cream base, but in this case, working within the boundaries of paleo/dairy-free, he used an organic coconut cream, which believe it or not worked incredibly well as a substitute.
Things can get quite limiting when it comes to paleo though, especially when it comes to side dishes. You can’t use pasta, grains or rice, but Adiguzelli finds a way to make his meals interesting and satisfying using what he can, opting for items like sweet potatoes, cabbage rice and cauliflower rice, the latter of which he makes in a food processor at his commercial kitchen. “I’m not a nutritionist, I like to be full when I eat. I want people to be satisfied. If they don’t want to finish they can just save it for later.”
Since shifting Graze and Braise’s focus, Adiguzelli has expanded the service’s reach from Hoboken and Jersey City to West New York, Weehawken and Union City. He is also in the process of getting his menus Whole30 approved, which is similar to paleo but calls for no sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. Ordering is currently available through the Graze and Braise website, where customers can order up to 14 meals. Options are for a five-day or seven-day lunch or dinner (or both). Orders must be in by 10 p.m. on Friday for Sunday or Monday delivery.