Think of it like the Airbnb of food.
Picture it: you’re a food journalist-turned trained chef and cookbook author—so naturally, when you throw your first party through the social dining platform EatWith, anyone who is anyone shows up: food writers, publicists and photographers. No pressure, though.
That’s what Christina Xenos, who is now a veteran EatWith host, faced for her very first event.
“Not only was I setting out on my maiden dinner, but also everything from the food prep to cooking to set-up—and, of course, the actual dinner—was being documented along the way,” Xenos recalls. “There was absolutely no room for meltdowns.”
Six of her eight guests were friends, but two were strangers. “One woman had just had a baby, and this was her first outing since,” Xenos says. “And the woman she came with was her labor and delivery nurse. I was honored they chose my event for the occasion.”
Xenos spread the appetizers around her kitchen—melitzanosalata, an eggplant salad dip; taramasalata, the Greek version of caviar; and a smattering of feta, olives and pita bread. The main dish that night—chicken kebabs—is no longer served at Xenos’ dinners. “It was cumbersome for me to play host and actively grill kebabs when my guests were here,” she explains. “But that night, while they were noshing, I was grilling while my husband played host.” Later, she served spanakopita with tzatziki, a traditional Greek village salad, and dessert—her signature baklava cupcakes with homemade olive oil gelato—on her patio.
“My favorite part of the night was when I was grabbing coffee for the table and at one moment—all together—everybody erupted in laughter,” Xenos says. “Although many of these people were my friends, most didn’t know one another; but by the end of the night, they were engrossed in lively conversation. There’s nothing more fulfilling as a chef host.”
And it’s that—the feeling of bonding people, of bringing strangers together over a shared meal—that motivates most, if not all, hosts on the EatWith Platform. Why else would someone invite strangers into their home, where knick-knacks and medicine cabinets are on display?
If you’re not familiar with the platform, EatWith, which recently joined forces with VizEat, is like the Airbnb of food. Chef hosts in various cities around the world offer up in-home dining experiences to anyone with an Internet connection and a few dollars to spend. In L.A., for example, you might log in to find Xenos’ dinner—A Sweet Greek Feast—appealing, and $74 later, you—and several others—could be signed up to visit her house on an upcoming date.
Guests get an authentic meal and the chance to make new friends around the chef’s table. But what do the hosts themselves experience—beyond a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of bringing people together? We set out to find out, and here’s what we learned.
It’s an alternative to opening a restaurant
New York City EatWith host Dina Manganaris grew up in a family that owned restaurants in her home country of Yugoslavia. But, “I never wanted to be a chef in the restaurant because I saw the other side of it—when it’s not pleasurable anymore,” Manganaris says. So instead, Manganaris became an actress, a career that satisfied her until she moved to New York and she and her husband began toying with the idea of opening what she describes as a “small, cozy thing” somewhere in the city. When she stumbled on EatWith, however, she found an alternative she could live with—the small, cozy thing could be her expansive dining room.
“I thought, ‘it’s so convenient. I have a great kitchen—this will be kind of easy,’” she says.
They do worry about safety—but only so much
Emilio Mesa, an EatWith host in San Francisco, admits that when he began hosting events two years ago, he was a little nervous. “The only thing that I did kind of ponder was, oh my god, this is my home,” Mesa says. “But I am a planner—I plan everything down to the last detail—and I’m also a New Yorker, so safety is of the utmost importance to me. I just said, ‘I got this. Should something happen, I have my phone with me, and I know how to take care of myself.’ Plus, I always leave a window open. I did take precautions, but other than that, it’s kind of like managing a restaurant—it’s just more personal because it’s your home.”
Hosts actually like talking to guests
In many situations, you don’t want to talk to strangers. (Think: on a long flight with a seatmate who can’t take a hint, or at a bar, when you really did just come to chat with friends.) Xenos thought she might be in one of those situations when strangers came to her table.
“I thought the experience would be more impersonal, like a restaurant: I’m the chef, you’re my diner,” Xenos describes. “And while some people might be apprehensive about having people they don’t know over to dinner in their home, I love it. After focusing on only being the chef for the first few dinners, I didn’t think that my guests would actually care if I sat at the table with them, but they always asked. So now, after I serve the main course, I always sit down and join them. [I’ve realized that] my dinners are very personal experiences.”
Manganaris says she is happy to talk to guests until they warm up enough to do the talking themselves. “I talk with my guests a lot,” she says. “I talk about every single dish: its history, its background, the recipe itself. In addition to my food, you’re getting a lecture in history.”