Plate of the Union: Guess who’s coming to dinner

September 13, 2012

I probably should have followed my mother’s advice: never take food from strangers. But that’s exactly what I did last week, as I rang the doorbell of a Dupont apartment and made my way up a flight of tiled stairs. A woman I had never met before welcomed me into her dining room and offered me a glass of water as the smell of grilled halloumi cheese wafted in from the kitchen.

I wasn’t alone in this strange chef’s house—nine other Feasters, as we’re called, stood around the room making small talk and waiting for the meal to start. The dinner was organized by Feastly, a new start-up that bills itself as an online marketplace aimed at connecting cooks with eaters. A kind of foodie Foursquare mashed up with Facebook, Feastly’s beta site still crashes often, flashing a cutesy apology: “Whoops, looks like there are too many cooks in the Feastly kitchen!”

While the website’s interactive features clearly need work, the point of Feastly isn’t to connect cooks and eaters online, but in real life. Danny Harris and Noah Karesh, self-proclaimed foodies who go by the job title of “Serial Entrepreneurs” on Feastly’s website, launched the company in 2011 during D.C.’s Startup Weekend.

The founders aim to turn Feastly into a movement, hoping that home-cooked meals served in chefs’ own living rooms will offer a radical new alternative to restaurant dining. Though their goal of transforming the way we eat out is grand, the marketplace has started out small. For now, only invited members receive Feastly’s emails, granting them access to a world of underground D.C. cooking.

A friend got me onto to Feastly’s listserv this summer, and for months I drooled at the emails flooding my inbox. Chefs offering meals through Feastly boasted everything from four-course Chilean dinners featuring marinated olives, fried cheese empanadas, and spice-rubbed roasted pork to quirky sushi buffets with names like “Memoirs of a Gyoza.” With each succeeding email and missed meal, I felt more and more left out of some secret foodie club. Nowhere to be seen—yet all around D.C.—people were meeting up in strangers’ homes to eat doughy burek, sip rhubarb cooler, and nibble on cocoa mochi.

Just as school began and the reality of impending exams and papers started to dawn on me, I seized the opportunity to attend the aptly named “Summer’s Last Hurrah.” Once I replied to the email invite and booked my seat through PayPal for $27.50, Feastly sent me the host’s address along with details for the meal.

A group of middle-aged foodies and a few yuppies showed up in hipster semi-formal wear, even though the meal’s description listed the event as “casual.” As we all exchanged names and careers, my friend and I realized we were the youngest ones there—Feastly attracts a crowd that’s already paid off its student loans, not one that’s busy accruing them.

An appetizer of grilled halloumi and cherry tomatoes got an herbal kick from the basil and mint they had basked in, and the dish quickly disappeared as our chef Caetie Ofiesh busied herself in the kitchen with the main course. While I expected the caramelized onion and kale tart to blow me away, the small pickled fennel and green bean salad that accompanied it proved far more exciting. Still, the food generally satisfied.

What the expensive ticket didn’t buy was wine, and my friend and I wished we had brought our own bottle once the conversation turned from names and work to conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. Like an awkward NSO group, we grasped at conversation topics. We didn’t have much in common to talk about except food, and by the time the tart was finished, the Feastly meal had gone meta. As I stared down at my cinnamon-orange gelato, I realized I was caught in a black hole of foodie energy.

Feastly sees D.C. as flooded with “too many impersonal and sterile restaurants,” and invokes Julia Child as its mascot, quoting her in its mission statement: “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”

Unfortunately, Feastly meals aren’t shared with family or friends, but with a group of strangers. While the whole experience of eating at a cook’s own house is novel, relaxation does not lend itself as easily as it would at a restaurant. And while it could be fun to network with other food lovers in D.C., it’s hard to enjoy sparkling horchata when the conversation goes flat. The menus aim to please, but the diners don’t.


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