While Airbnb may be the most well-known "social sharing" platform, encouraging travellers to book rooms in stranger's homes or entire properties owned by local hosts instead of hotels, global app VizEat is determined to do the same for dining.
Calling itself the "Airbnb of food," the platform, which was founded in July 2014 and now exists in 110 countries, enables its 80,000 users to "eat like a local" by booking meals, cooking classes, or food tours hosted by 20,000 approved VizEat hosts all over the world.
While it has competitors in Feastly, which so far only exists in the US, and EatWith, a nearly identical app and website that so far exists in 50 countries, VizEat appears to be getting the most international attention.
In September, the startup raised €3.8 million (£3.4 million) in a funding round as part of its effort to bring the service to even more countries, including the UK and Germany.
In order to try out an authentic food experience firsthand, I headed to London Fields where VizEat host Fenny cooked an Indonesian meal for myself and a few members of the VizEat team inside her flat.
I documented my experience below.
After signing up on the site (a quick and easy process that simply involves uploading a photo and entering some basic info), the VizEat website (or app) allows you to search for experiences by location.
You can also filter by date, number of guests, and how much you're willing to spend.
Still, when I arrived at the London Fields flat for the meal on the date I had booked in for, I was slightly apprehensive, despite the fact that both hosts and guests are vetted in a similar way to Airbnb — a community team contacts them to help them fill in their profile, upload photographs, submit their bank details, and provide valid ID to the website.
What's more, VizEat provides a guarantee, or insurance, throughout the experience, protecting against food poisoning or damage, something the team says they have never had to use.
I had already read about my host, an Indonesian woman named Fenny.
I was greeted with a warm welcome by Fenny, who lives with her British husband in London Fields.
Although she has a full-time job working for a local hospice, she hosts VizEat dinners when she can, having stumbled upon the app after being disappointed by Indonesian restaurants in London.
"You have to go to Chinatown to get really authentic ingredients," she said. "There are some Indonesian restaurants in central London, but they're selling the Indonesian name — the taste and texture aren't really Indonesian cooking, so I thought I'd start cooking on my own and see how it goes."
The meal was ready as soon as we arrived, a common occurrence with a VizEat experience, according to cofounder and COO Camille Rumani who joined me for the meal from Paris.
"Everything is fresh and the host pays a lot of attention to what they're cooking," she said. "In some restaurants you don't know how long your food has been sitting there. With VizEat, the host cooks with you then sits with you and has the meal with you — it's a lot of attention and love."
Fenny chose to cook Indonesian fried rice called Nasi Goreng served with a fried egg, chicken satay skewers with peanut sauce, and two types of crackers – prawn, and a type made from a flattened Indonesian fruit.
"Nasi goreng is usually a test of a chef because it's very simple, but if you don't get the texture, ingredients and balance right then it's a disaster," she said. "If you want to judge how good a restaurant is, order the nasi goreng."
Despite running the business alongside her cousin, CEO Jean-Michel Petit, and sharing meals with countless hosts around the world, this was self-confessed foodie and travel addict Rumani's first time eating Indonesian food.
"It's not the worst part of the job, meeting a host and tasting their amazing food," Rumani said. Rumani and her cousin came up with the idea after both having great travel experiences, hers with friends and colleagues while working in Beijing and his after spending time with locals in Peru. "We were talking about our best travel memories, and we found that they're all around meeting people and sharing a meal."
While I loved the idea, I had wondered how hosts like Fenny would feel about welcoming strangers into their homes.
"For me it's not a problem at all," Fenny said, adding that she's struggled to make friends in London. "I like meeting new people." She said that her husband, a professional wrestler who was out for the evening, was hesitant in the beginning, but after hosting a few times he changed his mind. "He's really open to the idea now — he's even hosted with me twice by helping me pour the wine!"
As far as guests are concerned, Rumani said that a survey the company did with the Market Research Institute showed that 55% of British people said they would be willing to book a meal at a local’s home while traveling abroad, while this number was 76% in France.
"It shows that there is a market behind it and people are really looking for new traveling experiences, even within their own city," she said. "There was no simple platform to do it, so we decided to launch the company."
She added the the average review so far, which the site encourage both hosts and guests to write, had been 4.9 out of 5.
For dessert, Fenny served plantain, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash cooked in coconut milk and palm sugar. "It’s a really typical meal of something sweet and quite fattening,” she said.
From a host in Crete who has guests help her pick vegetables from an organic garden and make Greek bread in an outdoor oven, to a host in Louisiana who makes fried chicken with real bourbon, VizEat is all about true, authentic cooking.
However, while Fenny likes to cook, she said: "In Indonesia food is very cheap. You can come home from work and just go out to eat. Here, you can’t do that. That’s what I miss.”
The app is also popular in Rumani's hometown of Paris, another expensive place to go out to eat. "We have a beekeeper with a beautiful flat in central Paris who has beehives on her terrace where you can taste the honey," she said.
Other popular hosts in the city include a woman who shows guests how to make Chantilly cream from her beautiful house at the foot of Montmartre and a magician who makes cocktails for groups of friends while performing magic tricks. "We started with 50 hosts and now we have more than 20,000 in 110 countries," she said.
With offices already in London, Paris, and Barcelona, Rumani said VizEat is about to launch an office in Berlin and an experiential shop in Lisbon.
"We wanted to be an international company from the very beginning," she said. "We have local competitors, but we know for our business having hosts in every big city will be key."