The newest way to try creative local cuisine is to dine at the chef's kitchen table

By Marnie Soman Schwartz
June 10, 2016

On a recent Friday evening, my husband and I walked around Brooklyn, killing time before we were expected at a dinner party. We didn't want to be those guests-you know, the ones who show up too early-especially because we had never met our host. In fact, besides each other, we didn't know any of the people we'd be dining with that evening.

As we approached the front door to an apartment building, I searched my email to find the directions I'd been sent, pressed the appropriate buzzer number, and took a deep breath. I always give myself a little mental pep talk before events where I don't know anyone and will have to make small talk. Smile. Have fun. This is going to be great.

A woman appeared at the door, welcomed us in, and showed us to the apartment, asking us to leave our shoes in the cubby in the hall. We entered a warm loft-oak floors, lots of plants-and met four of our fellow diners, who were getting to know each other over a shared bottle of wine. We also met Ai, our host for the evening, who has been cooking dinners through EatWith for about three years. The online platform connects cooks and food lovers; chefs (who are very carefully vetted by EatWith's team, and range from home cooks to professionals) set up events in their homes, restaurants, or other event spaces, and people can buy seats at their tables. Everyone at our table came in pairs, but you can also book the whole room for, say, your birthday party.

Over the next twenty minutes or so, as the rest of the group filed in (there were 10 of us total), we chatted over wine and homemade kombucha (check out 3 New Kombucha Drinks We Love) as Ai and her assistant plated our first course in the open kitchen. She told us about her rooftop garden, where she grows many of the vegetables, greens, and herbs she uses in her cooking (talk about farm-err, roof-to table). When I spoke with the company's CEO Susan Kim, she explained that a focus on local and sustainable ingredients is pretty typical for an EatWith event, and is often a big draw for diners.

Ai explained her Japanese tasting menu-seven courses, locally sourced and inspired-and we all oohed and aahed over the first plate, which was as gorgeous as it was delicious. (Find out how to eat healthy and lose weight with Japanese cooking.) Over the next few courses, which included the most delicious, pillow-like handmade tofu I'd ever tasted and an incredible miso risotto, the conversation shifted from small talk to real talk; we found ourselves discussing everything from the new co-living spaces in New York City to the best summer art and music festivals to subway ads for period underwear (seriously). Our group, which included one of the first-ever employees at Pinterest and a former Alvin Ailey dancer-people I'd likely never have met in more traditional ways-started to gel.

"One of our investors talks about how the table was the original social network," Kim explains. "People are drawn initially by the food, but they love the serendipitous connections they make with other people through their common love of food." It's no wonder that while many people use EatWith to tap into an underground food scene in their own cities, others love it as a way to connect when they travel. (EatWith has 500 hosts in 150 cities in 30 different countries.) Nothing makes you feel more at home in a place than meeting locals and, well, dining in someone's actual home. (Here's how to plan your best and healthiest vacation ever.)

After seven inventive, tasty courses and three lively hours, we all thanked Ai profusely, put our shoes back on in the hallway, and said our goodbyes. As I walked to the subway, I tingled with the joy of colliding with such a unique group of people and experiencing something so different than my usual Friday night routine. I also felt a tiny bit sad that the connection was fleeting-none of us had exchanged contact info, and I knew that even if we had, we wouldn't have ever used it. But the evening was certainly a success. I'd smiled. We had a lot of fun. And the food was definitely great.