Like a dutiful guest, I arrive with a bottle of wine. While I chat with the host, Kieran, a few others arrive. Over glasses of wine and beer, small talk evolves into fluid conversation, and before long it's time to head to the table. It is in nearly every way a typical dinner party, except for one thing. Every other person there is a complete stranger to me – including the host. I came to this meal by way of a social meal sharing service, EatWith (www.eatwith.com), one of several that allow individuals to organize and host meals in their homes, for a fee. In Sharing Economy-speak, think of them as the AirBnB of dinner. They're a way for both professional chefs and amateur cooking enthusiasts to flex their culinary muscles, build community, and of course make some money. Kieran is himself a professional chef with experience at high-end restaurants like Gary Danko, now a freelance private chef (www.chefkieranthornton.com). He's hosted about ten dinners with EatWith. This kind of entrepreneurial entertaining is hardly new. Rural villas in Italy have hosted agriturismi for years, where guests can be a part of the process of making traditional food and then enjoying the fruits of their labor at a communal table. Cuba's paladares are one of the few sanctioned ways locals can make money directly from tourists, and in Argentina, restaurantes a puertas cerradas, "closed-door restaurants," are trendy outings. Even locally, underground dinners such as those put on by James Stolich of CookWithJames (www.cookwithjames.com) have been happening for years. Until now, finding these meals has been largely a matter of word of mouth, though some have managed to garner some press. EatWith and its competitors provide a one-stop shop for hosts across the city and around the world. At first pale, there's little to differentiate these sites, but each exists in its own niche. One site, CozyMeal (www.cozymeal.com), features only professional chefs, and includes both meals and hands-on cooking classes; chef Stolich sees his best results through them. Meal Sharing (www.mealsharing.com) concerns itself more with community, encouraging hosts to focus on sharing, even if it's just to put out a cheese plate. EatWith and its more immediate competitors, Feastly (www.eatfeastly.com) and CookApp (www.cookapp.com), strive for authenticity, highlighting local, ethnic or regional cuisines. One popular Feastly host, Tracy, is a Malaysian native in San Francisco whose periodic Malaysian brunches have gotten almost as much buzz as some restaurant openings. Not bad for a self-taught cook. On EatWith, hosts include a professional chocolatier making chocolate-inspired tapas, a fishmonger highlighting local seafood, and a "bacchanalian yogi" serving up a hedonist feast contrasting her daily habit of 6 A.M. Ashtanga yoga. The common thread among the sites is how they enable the meals. Hosts can list meals for free, and the sites process reservations and payment, charging a fee to the host. Pricing is discretionary on the host's part. These meals sit in the nebulous gap between home-based hospitality and actual fine dining, a space where boundaries have not yet been clearly drawn. For starters, there's the question of the legality. Jonathan Kauffman of the San Francisco Chronicle was told by the S.F. Health Department that running a restaurant out of a private home is flatly illegal. By not calling them restaurants, these services seem to sidestep the rules semantically, though it remains to be seen how the city reacts. Legal status aside, there are still unknowns. When you go to a restaurant or to a friend's house, you have certain expectations around the quality of the experience. Between strangers, it's a leap of faith. Both EatWith and Feastly insure their hosts for $1 million against potential damages stemming from the dinner, including food-borne illness. According to Naama Shefi at EatWith, all their hosts go through a vetting process, evaluating the cleanliness of the home as well as the character of the host; fewer than five percent are accepted. Conversely, hosts have the opportunity to connect with guests ahead, and confirm or deny them as they see fit. Even so, there's a fair bit of reading between the lines. "You can find some really good chefs and home cooks on some of these meal sharing services," says Marcia Gagliardi of the local dining scene e-column Tablehopper (www.tablehopper.com), "and while the companies claim to vet all their cooks, there can be some duds too. The difference is this is not about a restaurant meal—it's a more communal dining experience, and a chance for strangers to come together over a meal. It's great for folks traveling here, or singles, or people looking to make new friends. And it's fun to be in people's homes too." At my party, I continue to get acquainted at the table with a young tech entrepreneur, his friend who is a student at UC Berkeley, and a marketing professional. Kieran bustles in the kitchen, turning out elegant dishes like figs wrapped in prosciutto with arugula, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic with a dusting of fennel pollen. It's only after he serves his deconstructed beef wellington, a medallion of filet mignon criss-crossed with strips of golden puff pastry served alongside a potato gratin and plum puree, that he's able to sit with us and chat a bit. By then, those of us at the table are as comfortable with each other as if we'd known each other for years. "I liked that the ages varied, and we all got along really well," she said. "[The hosts] later came to dinner at our house outside the Feastly framework and we still keep in touch with them."
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