How important is the food that a restaurant serves? For Guy Michlin, the Israeli founder of EatWith, the food is less important than the company: the social aspect of dining is the key to creating a memorable experience.
Three years ago, on holiday in Crete with his wife Michal and his baby Alma, Michlin endured a week of less-than-rewarding meals in over-priced tourist traps. Through a half-remembered connection he ended up having a meal in the suburban home of the hospitable Papadakis family. His wife was nervous and reluctant to try something unusual, but for all his family, it turned out to be a highlight of the holiday.
“Everyone has memories of lousy meals,” he explains, “but if you’re abroad how do you find an alternative which you can trust?”
As soon as Michlin returned home he began establishing a network of amateur chefs who were prepared to throw open their doors and offer authentic dinners in their own homes. His website EatWith.com has quickly become the restaurant industry version of Airbnb — which enables home owners to rent out spare rooms to tourists.
Originally Michlin’s intention was limited: he wished to create authentic experiences for travellers, meeting local people and breaking bread with like-minded travellers. “When we travel we spend too much time looking at people like they are in an aquarium: I wanted to lift the cover and give people the chance to go deeper.”
But as the idea began to spread — more people wanting to host diners and more travellers wanting less formal, home-cooked meals — something unexpected happened. It wasn’t just tourists who wanted an alternative to restaurants: locals began booking meals in other people’s homes in their own towns.
“By offering anyone a meal in a private home we were offering a unique personal experience. People don’t like sitting in a restaurant and being asked to leave for the next sitting after two hours: they want to talk and relax.
“In a restaurant, you fight for the waiter’s attention but in someone’s home, you are the centre of the experience, you can be king of the castle. The combination of home-cooked food, a genuine home and the undivided attention of your host makes for a magical meal.”
Beyond an unconventional night out, something deeper lies beyond. “People can connect with any other person around the world. But the connection is only virtual — it is not a face-to-face encounter. That’s what’s missing from modern life.”
EatWith — and an emerging set of rival home-cooking networks — provides an innovative opportunity to engage with like-minded people over food. Visitors can select hosts who are able to provide vegetarian or kosher menus. In Israel two popular experiences include a challah-baking workshop in Ein Kerem cooking class in Jerusalem.
There is no shortage of cooks applying to be new hosts for Michlin’s network. Some hosts need extra income, others relish the idea of an opportunity to test out new dishes, but the majority are simply keen cooks who love food and their enthusiasm and talents are not satisfied by their day jobs.
The hosts decide the prices for the meals and there is a huge range: for £8 you can try Greta’s homemade pizza and beer night in Barcelona — or for £180 you can sign up for gourmet private dining in Israel. The price advertised on the site includes a 15 per cent commission for EatWith.
Each host is vetted for food quality, their venue and interpersonal skills before they are able to invite guests. The company has a $1 million insurance plan in case anything goes wrong.
The company has a beautifully simple and noble mission statement: “Bring the world together one meal at a time”. Since 2010 EatWith has set up 300 passionate hosts in 20 countries across Europe, the US and the world.
And global domination is on the cards.
“You need to get a critical mass so that wherever people travel they have an option; if people tell their friends about a great dining experience they had with us in Barcelona it’s worthless unless their friends are travelling to Spain.”
By his own admission Michlin is a lousy cook. “It’s embarrassing to admit, but I can’t cook anything. People on the team can but not me.
“Sorry, but I won’t be hosting.”