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When the Best Meal of Your Life Is in a Stranger's Tiny Kitchen

When the Best Meal of Your Life Is in a Stranger's Tiny Kitchen

Mark E. Hay

Photo by Louie Preciado; illustration and concept by Eli Miller

Photo by Louie Preciado; illustration and concept by Eli Miller

When my friend and I arrived at the Brooklyn home of Damira Inatullaeva, a talented chef from Uzbekistan, we expected a modest sampler of Central Asian foods. Instead, we found our small table creaking under three types of fried dumplings, four plates stacked with cakes and halvas, a basket of fluffy non bread, and a pot of piping green tea. Each dish held enough to feed a hungry adult. And that was just the appetizer. Over two hours, Inatullaeva periodically emerged from her kitchen with bowls of chickpea soup, piles of boiled meat and vegetables, salads galore, and platters of dumplings swimming in butter sauce and topped with sour yogurt.

I left the table impressed, all the more so because Inatullaeva is not a professional chef with a kitchen and staff to aid her—until she came to New York from Samarkand three years ago, she was a doctor. But there was no special bond between us, we’d never even met before I downed a plate of her fluffy cumin-spiced pumpkin sambusas that evening. She prepared this Hogwarts-caliber feast in the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment.

I found Inatullaeva through VizEat, one of many web-based platforms connecting eaters with cooks to share bespoke meals in private homes. Some of these apps and sites feature amateurs cooking meals at-cost for the love of entertaining. Some feature professional chefs whipping up $100 spreads to strut their stuff or pad their wallets. Most feature something in between, like Inatullaeva, a skilled amateur putting on feasts for $35 to share her culture, meet people, and earn some extra cash. Together these outlets constitute the peer-to-peer dining space, a nascent facet of the sharing economy.

Peer-to-peer dining hasn’t grown as rapidly as sharing platforms like Airbnb or Uber in recent years. But the constellation of apps serving this niche has attracted an increasing amount of scrutiny from American regulators and culinary critics, especially over the past few months.

Counterbalancing the pushback from industry groups and food-safety authorities are chefs and eaters who believe peer-to-peer dining brings something new to the world: a uniquely open yet intimate culinary space. Chefs using these apps feel a heightened flexibility to experiment and freedom from the pressures of mainstream kitchens. Diners can take advantage of these experiences to build community, learn about new foods and cultures, and generally engage more meaningfully than they might be able to at a restaurant.

These platforms aren’t set up to disrupt the restaurant industry or change the way everyone eats. The limited scale, convenience, and user-base for these apps make it unlikely they’d ever rival, or even be able to directly compete with, your local eatery. But by adding accessible, exciting new eating experiences into the mix, peer-to-peer dining has built a devoted coalition of users and sharing-economy advocates determined to keep the space afloat no matter what regulatory challenges come its way.  

*****

As with most services offered in the sharing economy, peer-to-peer meal sharing is far from novel. Just as in the pre-Uber world you might be able to find a cheap ride via a flyer in an apartment building lobby, people have always found their way into the kitchens of strangers for a few bucks. Most of these new platforms have their origins in their founders’ low-tech experiences.

“I was actually backpacking in Cambodia with my cousin and a friend,” says Jay Savsani, a co-founder of Meal Sharing, a platform started in 2012. “After a couple days of going through TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet to find the most authentic meal we were like, ‘Wait a second, we’re just eating next to locals … not with locals.’”

Through a hotel concierge, Savsani met a local and shared “this awesome, awesome meal with his [family]. … It was really special.” On returning to Chicago, Savsani decided to facilitate this warmth, immersion, and culinary exploration for others. Facilitation is key, says Jean-Michel Petit, who co-founded VizEat in Paris in 2013, because many people are a bit anxious meeting strangers, much less inviting themselves over for chow. Susan Kim, CEO of EatWith, founded in Tel Aviv in 2012, says the platforms wind up “using technology to connect people, while bringing us back to the basics of breaking bread with others.” 

Some critics of the apps, like Sirena Bergman or Tove Danovich, both of whom picked apart the trend last year in Alphr and Eater respectively, note there are only so many good chefs willing to let strangers into their homes. They’re right: Even in cities with high app traffic, like London or Paris, peer-to-peer dining isn’t as convenient as stopping by a neighborhood restaurant on a whim.

But for those willing to plan for a unique experience, there’s more than enough sustained choice across the various platforms. (There could theoretically be events in your area you could just drop in on, but it’s generally a good idea to check out your choices and set things up at least a few days in advance on most of these apps.) In one week in New York, which is not an especially active meal-sharing city, I found about a dozen planned dinners on EatWith, from a Balkan feast in Harlem to a seven-course Sri Lankan dinner in Astoria, and a couple dozen ask-and-let’s-set-something-up offerings by chefs on VizEat. Savsani says that at one point he and his team were even able to plan a road trip through America fueled only by offerings available on the Meal Sharing app.

“We’ve realized that community is the underlying ingredient.”

Founders and users of such apps say that planning is a small price to pay for a chance to explore new foods in an immersive setting. A recent review of that Harlem Balkan feast by a user named Joelle raves: “The best part was we were introduced to a delicious new cuisine and the history behind it!”

Users also appreciate the connections with their hosts and with fellow guests. Listening to user stories, says EatWith’s Kim, “we’ve realized that community is the underlying ingredient. There’s something serendipitous about the connections that people experience at EatWith events.”

Or as VizEat’s Petit puts it: “It’s not that they have had good pasta … but that they have met good people.”

Critics rightfully point out that there are—for now—only so many people willing to jump into a stranger’s kitchen for a meal. “People are close-minded to buy food from complete strangers,” Bar Segal, a founder of the defunct London-based Eatro app, lamented to Bergman last year.

Despite what might be a natural cap on the market, there’s still enough traffic to make hosting meals a regular source of income, explains Reda Stare, co-founder of PlateCulture, launched in Southeast Asia in 2013. A few even make solid livings at it. Hobbyists or amateur chefs get an audience with which to freely experiment, hone their skills, or share their cultural sensibilities without paying rent on a storefront, or fitting into a restaurant’s broad, audience-pleasing menu restrictions. Pros appreciate the freedom to escape the long hours, poor job security, and high overhead of brick-and-mortar shops.

“I really didn’t want to open up a restaurant,” says Don Peavy (also known professionally as Chef PV), a chef who’s bounced around a few platforms in recent years—and who caught my eye with an insect-heavy experimental menu last year on Feastly.

But for all they offer, these apps face a serious a problem in the United States: Hosting such meals, says Christina Oatfield of the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, California, is “sort of illegal, for the most part.”

*****

At first, this sounds crazy. Common sense dictates that consenting adults in private homes should be able to eat and serve whatever they want. And if peer-to-peer homemade meals are illegal, then it seems like we’re all committing a misdemeanor every time we ask dinner party guests to chip in $5 for ingredients.

According to Oatfield and Sarah Schindler, a University of Maine law professor and specialist on the legality of underground dinners, most American food regulations, while designed long ago for brick-and-mortar joints and agro-industry, cast a wide net. Truly private dinners are exempt from oversight, even if a few bucks are exchanged to cover costs—and even if a tiny profit is made. And there’s leeway in some jurisdictions (whose individual food safety regulations vary) for small events like church dinners and foods with little risk of spoilage prepared in home kitchens for public consumption. But generally, if you’re cooking for a large enough number of people or making enough profit on the venture, then you require the same permits as a commercial venue.

There’s never been a direct ruling on peer-to-peer dining platforms in the U.S. Until apps aggregated them and enhanced their visibility, these quasi-amateur dinners usually flew under the radar of many behind-the-times regulators. Yet this current lack of clarity and light touch doesn’t make peer-to-peer dining kosher by omission.

“Most of [the app companies] are very aware that what they’re doing is illegal. And they’re specifically recruiting home cooks to sell food on their platform.”

In 2013 the New York State Department of Health issued a statement indicating that peer-to-peer platform-organized meals would likely face fines from regulators if caught. Last spring, Fast Company detailed a series of stings aiming to shutter the Bay Area home take-out service Josephine for food safety violations. And in November, a 37-year-old woman in Stockton, California, facing jail time after selling ceviche out of her home, made national news. The details of that case are fairly nuanced and she likely won’t go to prison, but the aggressive work of regulators and prosecutors suggests a harsh approach in the app-happy state.

Platforms like Josephine have stepped up to support their chefs. That app made industry news in 2015 by trying to write compromise legislation and conference with regulators. They even got a bill introduced into the California state Legislature by Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown of San Bernardino last February, to cover peer-to-peer meals. But regulators looked at Josephine more like a flagrant rule violator than a party with which to negotiate. And Brown ended up shelving the bill—before losing her seat in one of the highest-profile state upsets of the 2016 elections.

Josephine’s failure to legitimize itself in regulators’ eyes, and the small margins many of these platforms work on, may explain why these businesses try to skirt culpability. EatWith and others claim they’ve vetted chefs and food for quality and that reviews ensure safety. They also label themselves marketplaces rather than food providers. This makes strategic business sense—it minimizes exposure to liability. But it also ultimately offloads most legal responsibility for any regulatory issues onto chefs. “Which is a load of crap,” says Oatfield, “because most of [the app companies] are very aware that what they’re doing is illegal. And they’re specifically recruiting home cooks to sell food on their platform.” 

*****

For all the threats leveled against the peer-to-peer dining space, the app scene seems (from a user perspective) to be stable, if not growing. That’s likely a testament to the value diners find in the unique meal experiences—and an indication that user devotion will be key to sustaining the field.

When I ask Savsani what he’d do if regulators came after Meal Sharing, he shrugs it off. “It’s a matter of bringing your community together,” he says. “Letting the government know that this is something that needs to exist and that they need to work around it.”

That’s the sharing economy playbook: Do something legally muddy. Then, when challenged, legitimize your model by agitating for legal accommodation.

This tactic doesn’t sit well with authorities. Two tech-focused law professors, Frank Pasquale of the University of Maryland and Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia, argued persuasively in a 2015 op-ed in The Guardian that it effectively flouts the rule of law, creates a two-tiered justice system, and generally undermines vital American business norms. On the other hand, University of Maine’s Schindler argues you can just as easily read sharing economy transgressions as a sign that the public thinks old laws just don’t serve its interests anymore.

“The general public has a great deal of sympathy for food regulations—no one wants listeria.”

Despite determination from tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasm on the part of users, food apps face a particularly high regulatory barrier because foodborne illness is a legitimate and widespread problem. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicate that every year more than 100,000 Americans are hospitalized and thousands die after eating something nasty. The general public has a great deal of sympathy for regulations that protect it from this fate—no one wants listeria. There isn’t a lot of incentive to change the system so that a few strangers can chat about sushi culture over raw fish in a Manhattan kitchen.

Sharing economy advocate Chelsea Rustrum says she uses food apps herself, but she suspects peer-to-peer dining supporters may not have the incentives that motivated Airbnb or Uber proponents in the past. “People love to share and connect with one another,” she says. “But in a world where many can barely afford housing, shared meals are not as top-of-the-mind as accommodation and transport, which happen to be the two largest expenses in most peoples’ lives.”

But at least one platform, BonAppetour, founded in Singapore in 2013, has managed to successfully leverage its members, who pushed for and obtained regulatory accommodations in Italy. Experts like Alli Condra, a food issues lawyer at the national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, believe there is room for accommodation within the U.S. system as well, even if apps haven’t had success thus far. Folks like Oatfield, who authored a white paper including model legislation in November, have ideas on how to achieve this. Plans generally involve food handling training, regularized kitchen inspections, and event size and earnings limits for chefs to keep things safe and manageable. 

Of course, more regulations may scare away less formal chefs, like the film student in the East Village who offered to cook an arepa dinner with me, and perhaps ground the free-spirited appeal of the whole endeavor. But serious amateurs like Inatullaeva, who’s doubled down on her cooking activities, or pros like Don Peavy may not be troubled by these kinds of precautions if it allows them to retain the freedom, intimacy, and flexibility they and their guests love. With a safer framework, maybe they could even attract more diners, cautious folks who now sit on the sidelines, worried about eating gray-market food. 

Even if legal accommodation doesn’t materialize in the near future, the peer-to-peer food world isn’t going away anytime soon. While its user base is still small, the scene is by now established, and would be difficult to dislodge or dismantle. As Schindler says, “people want this freedom to ingest what they want to ingest.” In other words, if enough people want to eat pumpkin sambusas in a random middle-aged Uzbek lady’s living room and are willing to pay for it, regulators will have a hard time stopping them.

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