I found myself buzzing with excitement and nervousness sitting at a long wooden dining table with eight other strangers, in a stranger’s apartment, as we each went around introducing ourselves and where we were from. None of us had done this before and we all looked expectantly at one another wondering how the evening would go. But the apartment we were in was beautiful, plants hanging from the ceiling with winding leafy vines wrapped around the eclectic wall decorations. Our host, Ai, paused what she was doing in the kitchen just long enough to welcome each guest, ask our names, and introduce herself. We had come together in this space through EatWith, a service that partners amateur cooks and their kitchens with people looking for “the real taste of their city.”
Founded in 2012, EatWith is a culinarily focused startup offering users a choice of booking three experiences: dinner parties, food tours, and cooking classes in more than 130 countries. Users can filter potential dinners by location, price range, cuisine, dietary accommodations, event type, and available dates either through the service’s app or website. Potential guests essentially pay for their seat at a host's dinner table or spot in a class with options costing anywhere from $40 to as high as $114 — the dinner I attended cost $87. Reviews, photos, and host profiles illuminate the people behind the dinners in order for diners to decide which one to attend.
The platform sets itself apart from other food-centric startups like Seamless, Resy, or Blue Apron by inviting people back to the communal table rather than having them send the usual OpenTable invite or wait for their dinner to arrive in a box. I booked my dinner through EatWith on the recommendation of a friend, because I was looking for a chance to step out of the traditional restaurant experience; I also just wanted to see what sort of people opted into an event like this.
Ai hosts one of the most reviewed dinners in the city and we all quickly realized why. She lives in a gem of a loft apartment: the sort of space that just screams Williamsburg, but in a way that was equal parts comforting, homey, and impressive. I heard someone whisper “How did she find this place?” at least twice when we first settled down for our meal. Ai informed us her roof garden produced some of the ingredients she would use that evening, alongside locally sourced produce.
Ai served 10 courses, including two desserts, under the waning brightness of her skylight. Before serving the first course she explained that cooking was something distinctly tied to her relationship with her mother and upbringing — she was originally from Japan, but told us not to hold any expectations of what her Japanese food would be like. “Please don’t expect sushi or sashimi,” she said. We ate sesame tofu and turnips on buckwheat crostini; mackerel with yuzu pepper sauce and homemade ricotta; seared scallop tartare and almond dashi foam; her own homemade kombucha.
As we filled up on the subtle, often nutty and smoky flavors of each course, we passed around the bottles of wine and sake that a few of the guests had brought to share. I disclosed my plans to take a trip to Japan this summer and Charlie, a guest from Brownsville, launched into a tangent of all the places I ought to try to visit and restaurants I should eat at. We shared travel stories and swapped local restaurant suggestions.
My friend and I were among the youngest of those in attendance while everyone else were older parents or grandparents. Two other young guests were friends and not native New Yorkers (one, named Madison, was originally from Florida and the other, Kit, was Canadian) but had lived in the city since graduating college. This dinner was a belated birthday gift for Madison, being that she’s a bit of a foodie. “But I can’t cook,” she quickly admitted, to the amusement of everyone at the table.
Another older pair of guests were native New Yorkers, both retired, from Brownsville, Brooklyn — the same neighborhood I’m originally from. They responded knowingly when I mentioned my grandma and mother’s intense nervousness anytime I was out playing as it grew dark, violence being one of the neighborhood’s defining characteristics. Brownsville remains largely unchanged, untouched by many of the markers of gentrification that have reached into seemingly every other part of the borough has.
Given the nature of the platform, EatWith hosts have to entice potential guests to choose their experiences among a crowd of other options usually by having a wealth of positive reviews and captivating photos. The company was acquired by a similar Paris-based startup, VizEat, two years ago and has since moved to expand into more communities globally. This means hosts who focus on non-Western cuisines like Ai or Linda Sebisaho, who puts on dinners in Harlem, experience a bit of added pressure. Sebisaho, a Congolese immigrant who spent most of her teenage years in upper Manhattan, even chose to label her dinners “pan-African” to mitigate her guest’s expectations, but still has even encountered criticism from a guest who were anticipating a “big African experience.” Sebisaho said she feels pressure to strike a balance between catering to a largely Western audience and serving food the way she wants.
“Unless you are presenting your food in a Western style people are very afraid to try it,” Sebisaho explained. “You still have to filter in order for people to want to try it — I feel it happens a lot on the platform. Sometimes if I make this [dish] the same way I would make it back home then it will not look presentable. You end up putting a lot of effort into filtering the food, putting it through a Western lens.”
By the time Ai served a crisp Fuji apple granita and bean cake with jello matcha to close out the meal, I’d forgotten the nervousness that had marked the beginning of the experience, and that I’d simply scheduled it through a website. It felt like the group had happened to have all been in town at just the right time and decided to meet and catch up. Rather than manufacturing the experience I had down to the last detail, EatWith felt like it created an opportunity for new communal connections I don’t normally encounter in my everyday life.
After presenting the last course, Ai crouched at one end of the table and told us a little more about her experience hosting — that she did this once a week, typically, or more if there was enough demand. She was self-taught, having built up a culinary repertoire from a foundation of traditional techniques and recipes from her mother, and had no interest in working in a restaurant because this experience allowed her more freedom to just have fun with her cooking and experimentation.
I couldn’t help but feel wildly lucky to be in her home; her words connected in my mind to those of my own mother, who I’m convinced is the greatest cook to ever grace this earth, and who has always told me the greatest gift she could ever give someone is a little salt and rice. In her view, food was the quickest way to welcome someone into a friendship. As I hugged each of the guests and Ai goodbye for the evening, I felt that spark of simple, friendly connection. I felt more at home in Brooklyn than I had in a while.