The Story of Cook Smarts

Hello and welcome! I'm Jess Dang, the Founder of Cook Smarts.

As a mom of 3, I completely understand the mental energy it takes to figure out what to cook every. single. day. Seriously, who knew that would be one of the hardest parts of being an adult? But it is!

Having a meal plan in place can mean a week of home-cooked meals instead of a week of takeout or processed foods but it doesn’t mean you have to do the meal planning yourself. One of the lessons I learned early on as a business owner is that I cannot do it all, and if I did try to do it all, I literally would lose my sanity!

Our team loves solving the weekly meal planning puzzle for you. With a lightened to-do list, you can focus more on the things you love, whether it’s spending more time with family, fitting in a yoga class, or even bingeing the latest show on Netflix (no judgment here). So if you’re like me and don’t want to do it all anymore (especially tedious tasks like meal planning and grocery list making), save your personal sanity here with a free trial to our meal plan service.

The Origin Story

Now you might be wondering, how exactly does one end up as a professional meal planner? It’s definitely not the career I was expecting as an undergraduate History major, but I somehow ended up with my dream job.

Though I started Cook Smarts back in 2012, its origin story actually started long ago. At the age of 17, I was diagnosed with Hepatitis-C a virus that attacks the liver and can be life threatening (yes, we are leaving the world of meal planning behind for a bit). I got it through a blood transfusion I received when I was born, and back in 1981, donated blood wasn’t yet tested for the virus. By 1998 when I was giving blood at my high school’s blood drive, donation samples were being screened. As a result, I found out that I could have a life-threatening virus in a generic form letter from the organization that ran the blood drive.

The months that followed were full of tests that culminated in a liver biopsy. Unfortunately, the news wasn’t good, and my hepatologist recommended that I start a yearlong course of chemotherapy-like treatment. I decided I wanted to complete my freshman year at Stanford before starting treatment. I had worked incredibly hard throughout high school to get into a good school, and I thought if my life was going to get cut short, at least I would have experienced a year of fun in college!

As you can imagine, treatment wasn’t a lot of fun. There were pills and shots, both with lots of side effects — fatigue, nausea, hair loss, depression — but I took it one day at a time and made it through the year. When they tested me at the very end, the virus levels were undetectable, and I was considered cured.

However, I wasn’t quite ready to celebrate. Treatment options for Hepatitis-C were still relatively new, and there wasn’t a lot of data on outcomes. Plus, after going through the traumatic surprise of my diagnosis, I just wasn’t ready to have faith that the good news would stay.

It took me awhile to get out of the treatment funk both mentally and physically. I had to train my mind and body to feel like a healthy, able 20 year old and not worry if illness and death were always lurking around the corner.

I tried to live in the moment and promised myself that if I lived to see 30, I would do something to help others lead a healthier life because I knew how much it totally sucked to feel not in control of your health and your body. Until then I would live life as normally as I could. Every year I anxiously went to my medical check-ups, but luckily my results remained positive. Birthdays were celebrated, and then I turned 30 in 2011. I had made it, and to keep my promise, I resigned from my job at Visa one month later to start Cook Smarts.

The Beginning of Cook Smarts

When I started Cook Smarts, I didn’t have a clear idea of what the company would grow up to be. I knew that I wanted to help others live healthier but I wasn’t sure of “the how” just yet. However, I did know that I wanted the focus to be around education and home cooking, something I have been passionate about for some time (so passionate it even landed me on the Food Network Star when I was 24 — more on that in the links below).

I decided to spend a year doing some market research to figure out what my business would be about, so I started giving cooking lessons all around the Bay Area to answer my big question: What prevented people from cooking more at home?

My lessons led me to a wide array of people — lots of moms (and a whole class of teenage moms that I taught for an entire year), newlyweds, widowers, people who had just been diagnosed with an illness. I learned a ton from spending time in their kitchens but the biggest insight I got during this time was that regardless of gender, age, or income, just about everyone lacked the same 3 things: time, knife skills, and kitchen confidence.

People wanted to cook and knew that it was the healthier choice but just didn’t feel like they had the time to do it. Plus without proper knife skills, everything took longer than it needed to, which made them feel pretty unsure of themselves in the kitchen. Sound familiar? If yes, know that you’re completely not alone! I saw this pattern with every single one of my students!

It then became clear to me that whatever I built would have to save people time while also improving their skills too. My answer? A meal plan service where people wouldn’t have to spend time stressing out about what to make for dinner that also had an educational component to it. With short knife skills videos integrated right into the recipe steps, they would basically be getting a mini cooking lesson while cooking up a dinner that they didn’t have to plan.

It seemed like the perfect solution, but now the big challenge was how the heck was I gonna build this?

Looking for a Technical Co-Founder

I had a vision for the product and the content, but I had no idea how to code and no money to hire a developer. Living in Silicon Valley though, my answer was to find a technical co-founder. After all there were startups literally all around me. How hard could it be?

So I found myself at the age of 30 going on founder dates with 20-something year old engineers who had no idea how I could be so excited to build a meal plan service. It wasn’t sexy. It felt like a “mom product” (so what if it was?). It wasn’t the next Instagram or Snapchat (no, it was actually going to be useful to people — no offense to social media!).

After months of rejection, I finally decided that I would just have to learn to code and make it happen myself. And then at Railsbridge a women’s coding conference, I met Jen Gilbert.

Two 30-Something Year Old Women Learn to Code

Jen and I were both at similar points in our lives. We had both recently turned 30 and made huge career changes. She was leaving the world of writing advertorials for a world of writing code. Jen was looking for a portfolio project, basically a real product that she could code to get a real coding job. I had a product that needed to be coded, ideally for free. We were a perfect match — 2 ladies who had no idea what they were getting themselves into (this fortunately ended up being a strength).

Over the course of 6 months from December 2012 to May 2013, we buried ourselves in learning to code. She mainly focused on the backend (i.e., all the information that is stored and then gets called up), and I focused on the frontend (i.e., how the site looks).

While this was all happening, I also had to come up with the meal plans which meant developing, testing, photographing, and writing up the recipes. At this time, I was sending out a free spreadsheet-based meal plan every week to email subscribers, hoping enough of them would follow me to the paid site when it launched.

I had picked May 1st, 2013 as the official launch date for our meal plan web-app, and during the last 2 weeks of April, Jen and I basically didn’t sleep or eat very well, ironic because we were creating a product to help others eat better. At 2AM on May 1st we encountered a payment glitch (another irony considering my previous career was in payments) but after some middle-of-the-night rescuing from a few software developer friends, we were live and ready for our first members at 3:30AM. I went to bed, bone-tired, but also excited that two thirty-something year old women who had no idea what they were doing had miraculously launched a web-app.

The Grand Finale

Because of my email list, we had paying members from day one (a few weren’t even related to me!). There was a part of me that couldn’t believe I had done it, but of course, the hard work was far from done. The first year of our meal plan service was slow, and there were many times I wondered if we would survive as a business. I wore every hat — customer service, recipe development, proofreading, fixing bugs, marketing — worked nonstop and was always stressed. It wasn’t until I started bringing other people on to help me did the business really start to grow because I actually had the mental energy to grow it.

Over the last few years, we’ve built out a great team, and several of my hires have actually been Cook Smarts customers. Between 2015 and 2019, I had 3 kids, and the to-do list has just grown longer and longer, but Cook Smarts remains my first child. I am so grateful that I get to do a job that I love so much for a community that I admire so much. I hope to keep doing this for a long, long time because the question of, “What’s for dinner?” is not going anywhere and neither am I.

If you want to see the product that I built with my blood, sweat and tears, take a peek here.

And if you want to hear even more about my story, here are a few more links:

  1. 3 Lessons Learned from being on The Next Food Network Star
  2. Turning 38 and the Story of Cook Smarts
  3. 7 Cooking Tips for the Reluctant Beginner
  4. A chat with Jen Gilbert [podcast interview]
  5. A chat with team member Jess Smith [podcast interview]
  6. A chat with team member Sarah Byun [podcast interview]

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