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The home-chefs causing panic in restaurants

Dinner table scene Image copyright My Photo Agency

Restaurant owners in Paris are furious with chefs who have started catering for diners in their own homes - traditional eateries say they could be put out of business as websites put customers directly in touch with cooks.

In a small flat not far from the Pompidou Centre, a young Italian couple is cooking up an exquisite meal for four people they have never met before.

There are aubergine pancakes, a kind of Neapolitan potato pie, and meatballs - and then three kinds of pasta. The wine has been carefully selected.

A dinner of this quality - everything handmade according to traditional recipes - would cost upwards of 80 euros in a regular Paris restaurant. The four guests are paying 25 euros each.

Welcome to the world of "shared economy" dining. Or as its detractors call them, "underground restaurants".

Following on from the successes of Airbnb for hotels and Uber for taxis, web entrepreneurs are putting home-chefs directly in contact with diners - and saving everyone vast amounts of money.

Image copyright Thinkstock

So now it's the turn of the restaurateurs to join the hoteliers and taxi drivers in getting furious with what they see as upstart competitors.

The main Paris restaurateurs' union Synhorcat has appealed to the French government to take steps to curb the phenomenon, arguing that bistros and brasseries risk being put out of business.

"In the space of three years Airbnb has tripled its presence in Paris - to the point that there are now 50,000 flats advertised on its website," Synhorcat's president Didier Chenet tells me. He says small and medium-sized hotels have been hit hard and over the summer they had to drop their prices. "If the government doesn't do something to stop the underground restaurants, it will be the same disaster."

Synhorcat estimates there are 3,000 home-chefs in France. It has two arguments against them: first, that home-restaurants are part of the black economy; and second, that hygiene and safety rules are being flouted.

Image copyright Stephanie Regnier
Image caption "People can search out a more authentic experience," says Camille Rumani

"There are people out there offering a service which is identical to restaurants: a choice of starters, main courses, desserts, wine, the works. But they pay no rent, no staff, no taxes - it is completely illegal," says Chenet.

"And if you want to set up a real restaurant, you need qualifications: how to deal with allergens; how to deal with alcohol. Do these people realise that if a customer drink-drives after a meal, they - the chefs - are partly responsible?

"Today many restaurants in France are on a knife-edge because of the economic crisis. Losing just half a dozen customers can spell disaster."

But the letter of the law is unclear and many of these new chefs are cooking for people at home as a hobby rather than running a full-scale business.

And at the website Vizeat - which is the market-leader in meal-sharing (their preferred term) - they reject claims that restaurants are under threat.

"Our chefs are amateurs, and when they sign up they undertake to do this on an occasional basis," says Camille Rumani, Vizeat's co-founder.

"The idea is that people visiting a city - or indeed people living there - can search out a more authentic experience, one in which they can have a proper exchange with local people and make new friends.

Image copyright Joe Schillio

"It is not competition for restaurants. It is a new market we are opening up."

It is indeed hard to imagine meal-sharing posing a serious threat to the established restaurant trade - not least because most Paris flats are so tiny.

But there is also no doubting the appeal for many young people of the "shared economy" - and its opportunities for doing things that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Maura Foglia, the Italian host near the Pompidou Centre, says she cooks twice a month for guests. She charges the cost of the ingredients, plus a little extra for labour.

"Mainly it is for the love of the food. I adore cooking, but I cannot always rely on friends coming over - so we decided to invite in strangers," she says.

Her guests tonight are an Italian, an Australian, a Mexican and a German. They are not tourists, but people who have lived in Paris for varying periods.

All agree that the attraction of meal-sharing is the chance to enjoy top-quality food, but also to meet new people and - in the words of Mia, the German - "have a fuller experience" than in a regular restaurant.

All agree too that part of the explanation for Vizeat's success is the disappointment that too often accompanies eating out in Paris. Quality of food, price and service can be out of line with what visitors have been led to expect, and the well-travelled young are increasingly discerning.

According to Jaime, the Mexican, there are growing numbers of "secret restaurants" in Paris - by which he means food lovers cooking at home and entertaining paying diners who are put in touch via word of mouth. Internet sites like Vizeat are a logical extension.

Once again, established ways of doing business are being challenged by new habits of consumption - in the literal sense of the word.

Photographs courtesy of Vizeat unless otherwise indicated.


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