Chef Sunshine Dunning Reinvents The TV Dinner

Photo: Jon Meyer

This skeleton crew uses local ingredients to create satisfying, pre-packaged meals.

It’s both a simple and complex question: What does it take to follow a desired career path? One that brings joy, creativity and, of course, very little money? For Sunshine Dunning — Culinary Institute of America alum, former executive sous chef at the Mayflower Hotel and private chef for years — fulfilling these goals amounted to a very bleak period in her life.

Photo: Jon Meyer

“It took about nine months to realize I was unhappy everyday,” Dunning said. “I hadn’t read a cook book in months, tried a new recipe nor had any desire to taste my surroundings. I created the home delivery company the next day while taking a shower.”

Determined (and exfoliated), she quit her job and embarked on what is now her blossoming pre-packed meal business, Sunshine’s All Naturals. As expected, the leap of faith wasn’t easy — but certainly doable, thanks to buoyant family support.

“I never wanted to be someone who borrowed a load of money from family and friends to launch the latest of crazy ideas,” Dunning said. “So I had to figure out how to make it work and make it a little profitable from the beginning. Keeping the business small and personal has really helped.”

Without exceptional food, Sunshine’s All Naturals would have never gotten off the ground. Dunning focuses on sourcing local product, and each week’s menu is derived through constant communication with the gatekeepers of her ingredients.

Photo: Jon Meyer

“I receive fresh sheets from the farmers I work with that tell me what they are harvesting that week,” she said. “All my dishes are solely based on the vegetables, fruits and meats available here and now.  It’s really great, I get to go ‘oh, sun chokes, what can I do with sun chokes? ‘”

“Having been a private chef,” she added, “I’m used to constantly creating different menus, so I do have an arsenal of dishes that can be molded depending on what is available to use. It keeps the creative process really interesting.”

Sometimes Dunning checks out the goods firsthand — and she revels in the personal relationships she’s developed with farmers, ranchers and clients.

“You don’t usually know the guy growing your apples,” she said, “not to mention that he tells sassy jokes, wears hand warmers in his pants at farmers markets and is practicing his own home brew. This past Thanksgiving I bought 16 pasture-raised turkeys in Mount Vernon. I showed up and there were literally a couple hundred naked turkeys on this lady’s table, counters, window sills, top of chairs, everywhere.  It was crazy. And wonderful.”

Somehow, all these ingredients must be assembled. Dunning currently leases her workspace in an International District kitchen, where she and her crew create the week’s orders. Out of this madness comes refined food that breaks sales records every week. Of course, the fact that Dunning loves to create the meals doesn’t hurt.

“One of my favorite dishes to cook is Duck Confit with Parsnip Puree and Ginger Grape Jus.,” she says. “It seems to be satisfying and a little messy, and guests always look longingly at the bone with meat and sauce still clinging to it. I have to tell them ‘go ahead and use your hands.'”

I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch Dunning’s team in action (and steal some food), and I was surprised by the skeleton crew that included her boyfriend, Tim, and sous chef-in-training, Heidi. The surroundings were a bit barren, as the team’s actual workspace only took up an eighth of their allotted lease. Thankfully, humorous banter filled the void.

Twice a week, the crew works throughout the day — and sometimes deep into the night. The evening I visited, they prepped a couple of their best-sellers, and I obliged the chef’s request to dig in with them.  They didn’t seem to mind the break in work.

First, two pies — shepherd’s and chicken, respectively — came out the oven. Both were topped with a fluffy crust that I’m told only gets better after days in the refrigerator. The shepherd’s pie nicely blended vegetable and lamb flavors, while sherry made a fine complement for the chicken pie.

Photo by Jon Meyer.

Next came crab-stuffed sole. Simple in presentation, the crab meat was hidden in the filet with only butter to keep it company. It was light, fluffy, light and finally fluffy — and that was my last bite because it was gone in four swoops.

For dessert, the butterscotch pudding was rich and thick while the apple caramel cake was exceptionally moist. Despite full mouths that nodded in approval, Chef Dunning wasn’t satisfied with the end product, so she poked and prodded Heidi with ideas for improvement.

Sunshine’s All Naturals definitely beat other pre-packaged dinners we lazily throw in the microwave during a lunch break pinch. To put the whole operation simply, Sunshine’s All Naturals is an effective fusion of exercised talent, determination and a funky kitchen — and the crew is ready for growth.

“Right now, we are discussing the possibility of school lunches with a couple of institutions,” Dunning said. “I love the idea of getting our food in front of kids. They are such savvy eaters and I think the younger we teach them how to eat, the better for all of us — and I don’t just mean nutritiously but to develop their palates and to enjoy food without a pound of salt and sugar. I’m also going to be working with a few personal health professionals that want to pair their clients/patients with our service.”

To stay updated on the latest menus or begin a relationship filled with enjoyment, check out Sunshine’s All Naturals online. Otherwise, continue living a life devoid of the best chicken pie on the market — it’s your choice.