Would you eat in a stranger's home?
Last week I attended a lovely dinner party in Lower Manhattan. With great food, warm ambiance and lively conversation it might have passed for any other memorable social outing I've had over the years, except that I paid $46 to attend this home-cooked meal – and I arrived not knowing a single person, including the host.
A few days earlier, I browsed through the listings on EatWith, a website that connects diners with home-cooked meals inside private homes. The range of possible venues was small but promising, with about 18 hosts throwing open dinner parties over the upcoming month. At apartments across New York City, there were budding chefs offering options like Japanese pub grub, Russian comfort fare, South Asian fusion and a Sunday brunch with pancakes and mimosas. I opted for a night of creative Indian tapas.
That evening's meal – one great leap into the unknown – is just one part of the so-called global collaborative economy. Sites like Airbnb blazed its trail, creating a platform for locals to rent out spare rooms or entire apartments to visitors seeking something more personal and immersive than a traditional hotel or B&B can offer. This created vast new opportunities in the sharing economy, while helping to change the nature of travel in its own way.
EatWith, an Israeli start-up launched in 2012, similarly promises to reconfigure traditional notions of eating out. You can feast on arròs negre (seafood and rice with squid ink) in Barcelona, Anatolian mezes (small plates) in Istanbul or seasonally inspired Modern Australian dishes in Sydney. With hosts in more than 30 countries (and growing), the opportunities for travellers and locals to bond over a meal are almost limitless. Some countries have only a handful of hosts – Ireland and Slovenia have a mere two hosts between them – while Spain and Israel have a wealth of offerings, with scores of welcoming home cooks nationwide. (Barcelona, surely the EatWith capital, had more than 50 options for a recent Friday night.)
"The best way to break away from the tourist experience and enrich your connection to a place is to interact with real people in their own private spaces," said Guy Michlin, co-founder of EatWith. Michlin was on vacation in Crete in 2010 when by chance he received an invitation to dine in the home of a local Greek family. That event inspired him, and after returning home to Tel Aviv, he and his business partner strategized a way to make the home-dining experience accessible to every traveller. "We began to envision a global community of passionate hosts and guests," he said.
Like Airbnb, EatWith and other dinner-hosting start-ups operate in a grey area of the law. A New York City Health Department representative stated in Bloomberg Businessweek that, “in New York City, people who offer meals to the public for money are considered food service establishments and need permits. The city does not allow meals to be served to members of the public in someone’s home.”
To help avoid those restrictions in New York, the price for the meal is labelled a “suggested donation”, which may help keep regulators at bay. And Michlin, a former attorney in Israel, seems well aware of the legal issues which vary from country to country. In Israel, the tourism ministry has helped train prospective hosts; while in Spain, health inspectors have examined host kitchens.
However, the haze of legal issues surrounding EatWith has not stifled interest by prospective hosts. In the last several months, EatWith has received thousands of applications from hopeful cooks, who range from kitchen dabblers to professionally trained chefs. Shuchi Mittal Naidoo, who hosted the event I attended, is the author of the cookbook 29. Indian Tapas. She staged the evening of tapas in her apartment high up in a residential tower near City Hall. The sun was just setting when I arrived, and after introductions, I joined the seven other guests at the apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the lights of the Woolworth Building and One World Trade Centre slowly flicker on as an amber glow spread beyond the Hudson River. As twilight arrived, Mittal Naidoo laid out dainty hors d'oeuvres (eggplant toasts and cauliflower fritadas), poured everyone a glass of wine and got down to cooking.