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Photo by Nit Victorio Segura
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Photo by Nit Victorio Segura
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Photo by Noa Le Gouellec
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Photo by Nit Victorio Segura
Every weekend, my Facebook feed floods with events around Barcelona that offer plentiful food, drink and fun. So many, in fact, that residents who might normally flee the city on Saturday mornings find themselves tempted to stick around and sample the never-ending flow of new and exciting ways that the city’s community is making eating social. Don’t get me wrong, eating has always been social here, but the paradigm of coveted dining experiences in Barcelona is shifting. The local culture is rooted in the pleasure of eating out (or at least meeting out), but more and more people are choosing to share their gastronomic exploration with larger groups of diners, including people they hardly know. This new ‘social dining’ landscape has many curators, but EatWith is one company whose brush is painting especially wide and colourful swaths across Barcelona’s gourmand canvas.
“EatWith is not the AirBnB of dining,” asserted Joel Serra Bevin, Head of the Global Community for EatWith and a well-recognised face in the local Barcelona foodie world. “Not just anyone can host.” For the uninitiated, EatWith is an online platform founded three and a half years ago in Barcelona (after making it to the final round of the famous TechCrunch Disrupt ‘Startup Battlefield’ in San Francisco, 2013). The platform aims to put those who are hungry for something different together with hosts who are ready and able to offer up unique gastronomic experiences in anything-but-traditional settings. Having recently whittled down the dining experiences on offer in homes across Barcelona to just 50 (with names like ‘Epic Fish’, ‘Smuggling Truffles’, ‘A Journey to Italy’, and ‘Dining with Marco Polo’), the admissions process has become quite selective. Serra explained, “We had over 100 experiences about a year ago, but sharpened our focus to higher-quality and uniqueness.”
Potential hosts go through interviews (in person or via video chat) before organising a test dinner attended by trusted food bloggers and local food professionals collaborating with EatWith. These testers evaluate the food and report back. Finally, a photographer is sent (for free) to take photos of the food and dining area to help the host sell their experience on the EatWith platform. Hosts are even given menu and pricing consultations to make sure that they are offering good value, competitive prices to their guests. You pay nothing to sign up as a host, but EatWith takes 15 percent of the host’s earnings from each event. All in all, it takes about six weeks from the moment when a host decides to apply, to the point when their offer goes live on the website. “Soon we will be offering free wine training and knife skills classes to hosts in Barcelona,” Joel told me excitedly. “We want to give them all the tools to offer the best experiences possible.”
“Competitive platforms pop up all the time,” noted Serra. EatWith survives by maintaining a reputation for the highest quality and by fostering a community that keeps hosts happy and loyal. Over the past three and a half years, EatWith has been constantly evolving. Initially started as a way for visitors to eat with locals in Barcelona (as well as San Francisco, New York City and Tel Aviv), EatWith users are now 65 percent local, meaning that, while tourists still represent 35 percent of business, the majority of users are those looking for something new in a city they already call home. This user base shift is in line with the explosion of alternative eating events that are entering Barcelona from every corner, and as EatWith nears its fourth birthday, a major internal shift has also been underway.
As a response to a dining public that is becoming evermore social and experimental, chefs and restaurant professionals are turning towards alternative platforms to showcase their talents, build their personal brands, and foster passion and creativity in a field that is often far less exciting and glamorous than television would lead us to believe. Running a restaurant—or just working in one—is rigorous, and when your eye is always on the bottom line, quality and creativity can get lost in the shuffle.
Now, 50 percent of EatWith’s business worldwide comes in the form of organising elaborate private events in fabulous settings with recognisable local chefs; a big change for a company that was first founded as a platform to facilitate meal sharing and cross-cultural foodie bonding in living rooms throughout Barcelona. Nonetheless, this shift is exciting for diners and food professionals alike, as EatWith is now essentially matching talented chefs with cool venues, sometimes even paying to fly a chef to a different city in order to fulfill requests from clients. “We have always known,” said Serra, “that not all hosts are great chefs, and not all chefs live in beautiful homes fit for hosting.”
This matchmaking enables someone with a great flat and a desire to host to be connected with a local chef looking for exposure and a change of pace. In addition to being a great way for chefs to exercise their creative muscles, they can now enjoy cooking in a setting that does not conform to the rules and norms of a restaurant kitchen.
“A restaurant is a business, so it’s harder to be aesthetic,” Serra explained. “A true ‘pop-up’ is a one-off event. It’s a marketing tool and it’s not about profit.” Independent from EatWith, Serra has partnered with the Toronto-based ‘eat up’ app, Food Shootr, to throw ten, one-night pop-up dining events over the course of ten months in different cities across Europe. “Our hope is to break even,” said Serra. Without the operation costs of a traditional restaurant and investors to please, there is a lot of flexibility and room for creativity when trying to organise a dining event that can truly be deemed different. “It’s important to get people out of what feels like a traditional restaurant setting,” Joel continues. “When you host an event in an existing restaurant, people’s expectations are already affected. The whole goal of a true ‘pop-up’ is to give people a sensory experience in a setting that they have never seen and may never see again.” Private homes, hidden gardens, transformed galleries, converted warehouses, and nomadic yachts are all fair game.
“Sometimes,” Serra admitted, “a private dinner at a person’s dining room table with only five other guests can make certain people feel forced to socialise.” Everyone is different, and often, a larger, one-night, set menu, unique experience can take some of the pressure off the diners to interact. “If you want to chat and make friends, great! But if you want to enjoy your food, listen to music, and leave without obligation, these new types of events are ideal.” In addition to customising events for birthdays, bachelorette parties, office team building and more, the EatWith team is also throwing larger monthly events that are open for public sign-up and are often more casual and spontaneous than a traditional EatWith experience, or even a pop-up. In March, Serra and the EatWith team hosted a 300-person calçotada at a masia outside of Barcelona in Gallecs, which was a huge success. In April, EatWith helped organise the Vermut Solidario at the Antiga Fàbrica Estrella Damm, an all-day Sunday vermut with seven food trucks, nine hours of music and 4,000 attendees, all to raise money for the medical research of the ASDENT association.
It’s good to see EatWith—an established component of the food-culture scene in Barcelona—continuing to evolve, and it is no surprise that the dining public of Barcelona is game for something new and bold. As virtually always happens when a community springs up around cultural exchange and creative expression, the willingness to settle for average is unthinkable.Planning a pop-up event can be taxing, and running the kitchen of such an event is even more challenging, regardless of how well you cook in your own home for friends. EatWith is doing a great thing in helping to carry part of that social and organisational load while fostering some of the most vibrant and extraordinary alternative dining scenes across the globe. I can’t wait to see what pops up next.
Q & A with Peter Vivant
I had the pleasure of eating in the home of one of top-rated Eatwith hosts in Barcelona, the witty and talented Peter Vivant. Between mouthfuls of spicy fried prawn heads, sardine sashimi with radish, and crisp sauvignon blanc, Vivant shared a bit about his background and EatWith inspirations.
Sam Zucker: So, where are you from, Peter?
Peter Vivant: I was born in New York, but grew up in Australia and Hong Kong. My father is from Shanghai, and my mother is Cantonese.
SZ: When and how did you learn to cook so well?
PV: It feels like I’ve always cooked. My father did a lot of business with hotels when we lived in Hong Kong, and from when I was around seven years old I spent all my free time around the restaurants. My father would always take me out to eat, and the chefs of the hotels would feed me from the kitchens.
SZ: Why did you decide to start hosting people via EatWith?
PV: I had always hosted friends for dinner, so EatWith seemed like a good fit. Also, there was a major lack of Chinese food being offered. I was instantly hostings four-to-five dinners per week, but now I only host two or three times per week at the most.
SZ: What are your favourite things about hosting these experiences?
PV: It’s great to see guests relax over the course of the meal. By the end, everyone is like old friends. It’s also fun to see how different cultures interact. Often when you eat with friends, you are chatting with like minded individuals, but when such diverse backgrounds meet, you never know where three hours of conversation will take you.