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.
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.
"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).
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.
When I arrived at their chic apartment, they invited me in and greeted me as if I were an old friend. They were still finishing the prep work, but by the time the other guests arrived, we were ready for the appetizers. We gathered around the coffee table in the living room, some of us on sofas and some on leather cushions on the floor, for homemade hummus, baba ghanoush and pita, paired with sparking white wine.
The conversation immediately turned to travel and our shared or differing experiences in eating around the world.
"What I like about food is that it connects humanity," Alice said. "I mean, think about pita bread. You can find something similar across all cultures. Tortillas, crepes, naan. If you're already interested in eating something and you ask how to make it, you can start learning about the culture."
Eventually we moved to the dining room for the main event. We started with a light Belgian endive salad with lots of bright yellow turmeric and small pieces of cheese. The main course -- couscous with lamb and vegetables cooked in a Moroccan tagine -- was then served. The lamb was tender and juicy, with exotic north African flavors from cumin, turmeric and coriander, but Alice said it was easy to make. She purposefully cooks in a tagine for guests because she can leave it in the oven and walk away to be social. A bottle and a half of Australian shiraz later, we moved on to dessert -- baklava from Phoenicia ("They make it so much better than I could!") and sliced oranges with brown sugar and mint, a very traditional Moroccan dish.
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Throughout dinner and dessert, we talked about dining traditions around the world, word origins, work and family. Alice explained that her family's primary means of interacting is gathering together around the table, and Carlos told us about accidentally drinking too much the first time he met Alice's parents, the result of cultural differences in drinking etiquette. By the time we got around to a digestif, my friends and I felt like we'd known Alice and Carlos for years. I sincerely hope that feeling will become a reality.
We ended the night with some special Calvados, a type of apple brandy, that Carlos seeks out whenever he's in France. It made us all feel incredibly special that he and Alice were willing not only to share their limited supply of Calvados with us, but also their kitchen, their home and their stories.
"I think it's equal parts delicious food and social exchange," EatWith's Shefi says. "I truly think it's a very unique experience in a very unique setting. It's an intimate opportunity for a deeper experience. And I think about 60 to 70 percent of the people stay in touch after their first meal. It's pretty amazing. It's a window into someone's culture."
Alice and Carlos are still the only Houston-area people signed up on EatWith, and because there's no EatWith ambassador here in Houston, allow me to vouch for the food, the wine, the space and the delightful hosts. They're looking forward to meeting you soon.