Dining Web Site EatWith Invites You to Share a Home-Cooked Meal With Strangers
A few weeks ago, I went online, found a stranger who can make North African food, and paid her and her husband to make dinner for me and a few friends.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg Alice and Carlos (right) invited James and Angela (left) and me to their home for a north African dinner.
It's not as weird as it sounds.
Alice and Carlos had created a profile on EatWith.com, a Web site that invites people to connect through dinner parties all over the world. The site started in Israel and Spain in 2011 after co-founder Guy Michlin found himself eating at the home of locals on a vacation in Crete. He spent four hours with the family and some friends they invited for the occasion, downing Cretan food and liquor and talking about everything from the Greek economy to where the locals eat. When the evening was over, he began thinking about how much the experience of traveling is enriched by interactions with people in their own privates spaces.
"When I returned home [to Israel], I shared my experience with my friend Shemer, and we began to envision a global community of enthusiastic guests and passionate hosts." Michlin writes. "We imagined a website where users could discover amazing hosts around the world, delicious homemade cuisine, and recount their stories of unforgettable experiences."
And so EatWith was born. In August of this year, the site expanded to the U.S., after becoming popular across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Most of the EatWith hosts in America are in New York City, but there are several other home cooks spread out across the country, including a couple right here in Houston.
And that's how I ended up arriving at the apartment of people I'd never met, ready for a feast.
Arranging a dinner through the Web site is simple. Currently, Alice and Carlos are the only people in Texas signed up to host dinner parties, so I sent Alice a message requesting a date. Alice responded immediately, and we arranged to join her and Carlos for dinner on a specific evening. The Web site then sends you a link where you can pay via PayPal. Fifteen percent of the payment goes to EatWith; the rest goes to the hosts to fund the meal.
Carlos and Alice prepare dinner, which included lamb tagine.
"I don't think that most people make money off of it, though," Alice said when explaining her role as a host. "When you create your profile, you have to say why you're doing it, and most people say they are doing it to meet people."
That's exactly why Alice and Carlos created a profile and two meal options (North African or French) a few weeks before I contacted them. Alice is originally from France, and Carlos is from Brazil. The two met in Barcelona and spent a lot of time in Spain connecting with friends over shared meals at home. They also used the Web site Couch Surfing to host guests and to find hosts in other cities when they traveled.
"I always had a stressful time when I was living in Barcelona working on my PhD," Carlos said. "So hosting people through Couch Surfing was a way that I didn't have to go out to meet nice people. The difference with EatWith is it's organized for the cooking part. And you don't stay and sleep."
In fact, that's the only difference between Couch Surfing and EatWith for the couple, who always cooked a nice dinner for the Couch Surfing guests who spent time with them anyway. EatWith has also been called the Airbnb of food, a reference to the popular Web site that allows travelers to rent rooms in people's homes (or entire homes).
Alice shows off her favorite cookbook.
EatWith was designed with travelers in mind, but, as I discovered when I dined with Alice and Carlos, it's also a great way to meet new people in your own city.
"It's not appealing only for travelers, but also for locals," says Naama Shefi, the marketing director for EatWith in New York. "I think people are yearning for old-fashioned gatherings where they can meet other people instead of always Tweeting and talking to people online."
Shefi cites the growing number of hosts who have signed up since the Web site launched in the U.S. a few months ago. She says that people have been registering nonstop, which makes a lot of work for the growing company. Every applicant is thoroughly vetted before being allowed to post his or her information online. In cities where EatWith has ambassadors, they arrange to have a test meal with applicants in order to verify their interest and skills. In Houston there is no ambassador yet, but I can say with certainty that Alice and Carlos are the real deal. And the food was awesome.