Anna Lee’s life accelerated after 9/11. The chef who had spent her entire life in New York City decided to escape for Philadelphia after the tragedy, where she got married, had a kid, watched her mother pass away and was diagnosed with Graves’ disease.
“You have to avoid gluten, dairy, soy and corn to lessen some of the symptoms,” said the Somerton resident while sitting at a bench outside the Associated Polish Home, 9150 Academy Road.
“I found there was really nothing out there where I could go and buy these types of meals,” she said.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes hyperthyroidism. The body’s immune system attacks the thyroid, which produces a hormone that affects nearly every organ in your body. With such a serious condition, Lee had to reshape much of her diet, something she was fortunate enough to know how to do with her culinary experience.
Now, she’s spreading her knowledge and passion of healthy eating to others. In April this year she launched Healthy Meals by Anna, a delivery service for health-conscious individuals and families. The foods avoid using gluten, soy, corn, grains, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and a lot more to ensure healthy meals for all customers.
The menu allows customers to peruse selections with specific conditions, such as being vegan, paleo or keto-friendly and avoiding ingredients like nuts, soy and gluten. Lee prepares her meals in the kitchen at the Associated Polish Home, where last Friday she packaged about a dozen ribeye steak meals complete with customizable sides such as mashed sweet potatoes, cauliflower or mixed vegetables.
“It’s chef-prepared meals that are a little bit more upscale than the regular meal delivery service,” Lee said. She said her meals contain 5.5 to 6 ounces of protein, whereas other meal delivery services she’s tried have provided half that amount.
The cycling menu contains entrees such as shrimp and bay scallops over dairy-free almond grits, a personal favorite of Lee’s. There are options for meat eaters, including grilled chicken, salmon and shrimp served with vegetables sides, or you can filter out meat selections and fill up on items like quinoa bowls or vegan japchae noodles.
There is also a specialized kids menu that includes parmesan-crusted chicken tenders or quesadillas with gluten-free tortillas made of rice and lentils cradling chicken, cheese and veggies.
“I’m building the business and customer loyalty. Customers are really appreciative, they taste the meals and they can taste the difference,” she said.
Lee’s recipes are largely her own, curated from her extensive experience in the kitchen. Growing up in Little Italy in New York City, she worked for a caterer in high school as a server when she was asked to fill in at the kitchen. She impressed her employers with the cooking skills her grandmother had imparted to her to feed her family.
“The first thing my grandmother taught me was to make rice when I was 8 years old,” she said.
Lee’s parents encouraged her to go to business school after graduating, but she wanted to study fashion design. She dropped out after her parents stopped supporting her education and found a job at St. Regis Hotel, where she gained experience plating food. She had entered the hotel without an appointment and asked for an interview, receiving one only after she showed a dismissive HR rep a portfolio of her previous work.
“I had no professional experience at that time – I was just lucky,” she said.
The chef at the hotel was very particular about the way he ran his kitchen, making Lee acquire her own professional knife set. Not having the funds for a case, she crafted her own out of an aluminum case with Styrofoam cut out to hold the knives.
Lee worked in kitchens for many years then decided to go back to school when she was getting ready one day and the building she was in shook “like a truck hit a pothole.” She turned on the news to see the smoke billowing out of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“They said they were looking for blood donations, so I went out,” Lee said. She recalled the blank stares of other people walking in the street on her way there.
They were out of materials to donate when she arrived, but decided to stay on the site to help serve food on Ground Zero while the site was still smoking. Stouffer donated frozen meals to heat up for rescue workers. Lee said she worked from midnight to 9 a.m. the next day.
It was that experienced that spurred her move to Philadelphia, where she first lived in Manayunk before finally settling in the Northeast after meeting her husband.
Now raising a family, Lee decided a meal delivery service was the smarter option than opening a restaurant because it gave her schedule more flexibility and delivery services are becoming more popular time-saving options.
Meals are delivered all across Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Customers can purchase meals a la carte or select specific plans, with increasing discounts the higher the number of meals purchased. To learn more about the menu and pricing options, head to healthymealsbyanna.com.