Like many startups, Kitchensurfing, launched last spring in New York City and Berlin, has lofty aspirations; They aim to change the culinary landscape and create a new kind of dining experience, by doing one very simple thing – connecting diners with obsessively creative local chefs who will come to their homes to cook for them, their families, or however many friends one might care cram into one’s place.
How exactly does this change the culinary landscape, you ask? According to Kitchensurfing co-founder Chris Muscarella (who’s also a partner in the much-loved Boerum Hill restaurant Rucola) it’s all about the hanging out. He believes that bringing someone into your home, and hanging out with them while they cook for you offers an experience of unparalleled substance. The startup-skeptics may scowl, but you know what? He just might be right.
We met with Chris at Kitchensurfing’s Brooklyn headquarters in Gowanus to learn more.
So Chris, tell us about Kitchensurfing – how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been involved in food and technology for a while, and my Kitchensurfing cofounders and I began to see an opportunity to introduce something really new and unique to the experience of dining.
I’m a partner at Rucola in Boreum Hill, and one thing that becomes really apparent in the restaurant business is that you’ve got all these amazingly talented, hard-working people cooking, and they don’t get paid much for the work they do. There are tens of thousands of people cooking for a living in New York City alone. Unless you’re an executive chef at your own restaurant, you’re cooking in somebody else’s kitchen – you’re not getting a chance to be creative and cook your own food.
There’s also a kind of fascination with chefs among diners out there, but there’s very little opportunity to actually talk with a chef – to get an understanding of who they are and what they do and what inspires them in the kitchen. With the rise of celebrity chefs, I think a lot of people forget that people who cook for a living are real, and often really interesting, people.
And the other thought we had was that while I live in Brooklyn and my co-founders live in Berlin, and eating in restaurants in both places is awesome, it can get exhausting after a while. There’s something truly wonderful about eating at home, with family and with friends.
So with those things in mind, we started thinking about ways to could create something new that would bridge that gulf that traditionally exists between chefs and the people who eat their food, and to do it in the context of the home, and in doing so to give all these talented, passionate people who are driven to cook for others a platform to showcase what they like to do, and want to do and to connect with people interested in that, and hopefully to augment their income a little bit.
So that’s how we came up with the idea for Kitchensurfing.
Tell us a little more about how it all actually works.
It’s really pretty simple. We’ve found a group of great local chefs who love the idea of making themselves available to come into your home to cook for you – for your family, for a dinner party, a wedding, an office lunch, anything really. Each of them has pages set up on Kitchensurfing telling their story – who they are, where they’re from, and the kinds of cooking they specialize in. They’ve all got photos, some have videos, and comments from people who have hired them to cook.
So you can browse around and if you find someone you think looks awesome, you just engage them in conversation. It’s very open. You introduce yourself, tell them what you’re interested in doing – whether it be a cooking class for you and a few friends, or cooking for a dinner party for four or for forty friends – and you work it out. They’ll discuss dishes and ingredients with you, tell you how much it’ll cost, and you work something out.
It’s a little bit of a dance. If you want to engage with a chef because they have some sort of amazing knowledge of a cuisine you’re interested in, do that. Hang out with them in the kitchen. Talk with them and learn from them. Or if you’re hosting a really important business meeting at your home to negotiate a peace treaty or something and you want the chef to stay in the kitchen, that’s ok too! [laughter.] We want to keep it all as loose as possible, so people can find a chef and figure out the specifics directly with them.
We have people who’ve used Kitchensurfing to find interesting people to cook for dinner parties. We’ve had people who’ve just had babies hire a chef to come in for a day and cook a week’s worth of meals. We’ve had people bring in a chef for a family cooking lesson, for office lunches, bachelorette parties.We’ve seen a huge variety even in just the few months that we’ve had the doors open.
Tell us about some of the chefs themselves. How do you find them?
Early on, it’s been word of mouth. Friends of friends of friends. Our initial community came to us out of nowhere, and it really shocked us. [laughter.] We thought it would be a lot harder. But this is really the most fun part for us – seeing all the incredible people who have come out of the woodwork or who’ve gotten in touch with us in some crazy way. And the best thing is that these are people who all love to cook. All they want to do is cook for people.
And there’s a huge variety in the backgrounds and interests among these cooks. It’s a really diverse group. We have people that have done the restaurant kitchen thing for five, six, seven years and are burnt out on working eighty hour weeks for minimal pay. We have people who are obsessed with a certain kind of cuisine and want to be ambassadors for it – to share it.
For example, one of the cooks on Kitchensurfing is a guy named Edson. He grew up in Mexico City and all he wants in life is to show people how amazing real Mexican food is. He goes to Oaxaca all the time and comes back with all these wild, exotic ingredients that you never see in Mexican food here, and he just tells you these amazing stories about the ingredients and the dishes, and about Mexican cuisine in general.
We have people who used to be involved in different businesses who at some point realized that food was their passion and are using Kitchensurfing as a way to share their cooking with more people. There’s a really talented Chinese chef named Kian Lam on the site, who used to be a software engineer. He staged in a few kitchens years ago, and now he’s the executive chef at a Chinese restaurant in Tribeca, and every once in a while he likes to do a huge Chinese banquet spread for people in their homes.
There’s another guy, named Charles Disanayake, who used to work in marketing. He does this incredibly original form of fusion food. He’s Sri Lankan, and he came by the office the other day to cook for us and blew everybody’s minds. He made a lasagna with squid ink pasta, a Thai curry Bolognese, and a tiger shrimp on top – all from scratch. When you hear that you’re like, “What the hell is this guy thinking?” And then you try it and you think, “Wow. This is amazing.”
And then we’ve got higher-profile chefs like Walter D’Rozario, who’s from India and was Chef de Cuisine at Junoon and Executive Chef at Devi, both Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in Manhattan. He’s a little older now, and he likes the idea of cooking for people and sharing his food, but not so much in the hustle and grind of a restaurant kitchen every day.
So even really just a couple of months into this we have a lineup of chefs that really reflects the amazing culinary and cultural diversity of New York City. They’re all really interesting, amazing people. And we think that if people open up to inviting them into their homes to cook with them and hang out with them, they’ll find it to be an amazing kind of experience.
I like the idea that if you hire someone on Kitchensurfing, you can get a lot more out of it than just a meal. Even if you like to cook, you can learn a lot by just watching how other people who really know what they’re doing work in a kitchen. Being able to talk about a dish, how it’s made, why it’s done a certain way, and letting the conversation develop with someone who’s an expert in something you’re not…it’s a real learning experience…
Right – talking to them about flavors, and how they layer them to create balance in a dish they’re making…those sorts of things are what we think makes the Kitchensurfing experience really interesting – It’s the conversations that arise when you hang out in the kitchen with people who really know how to cook. That’s what I love.
I like it when restaurants try to tell the story behind a dish, but the problem is that in the context of a restaurant, you’re distancing the people eating the food from the people actually making it, who are the ones who really know the story. The servers are left to bridge that gap, and it can be somewhat awkward having to memorize details which can all too easily become just a rote, rushed listing off of the provenance of ingredients. I think the experience of actually being in the kitchen with the person who has all that firsthand knowledge, who is actually making the food, and having a conversation while they’re making that food has much more substance. And is really fun.
What about cost? It can’t be cheap to hire someone to come to your home to cook…
Our goal is to make this accessible to a lot of people. We don’t want it to be something only a few people can afford. Of course, the chefs have to take time to shop for ingredients, to get to your house to cook, to clean up and get home, so it’s never going to be something that you can do for twenty bucks, unless you find somebody that you want to barter with, and that’s something we hope to encourage.
Each chef chooses what they charge per hour, and the rates currently range anywhere from twenty five to a hundred dollars an hour, regardless of the number of people they’re cooking for. So if you’re doing it with a small group or a family, it might be a bit of a luxury. But if you look at it as an educational experience, which is really what it should be, instead of a substitute to going out to eat, there’s a lot of value in it. Meeting people who are obsessed with cooking a certain type of food, and having a chance to understand who they are, and why they do what they do is really unique and really personal.
As soon as you get into the realm of doing something with ten people or so, and sharing the cost, it becomes noticeably cheaper than eating in a restaurant, and we think it offers a much richer kind of experience.
And because it’s all so open, there are all kinds of directions you can go in with these chefs. Like, weddings. A lot of people want to do something really special for their wedding, but don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars. Why not do a one-pot wedding? Find a chef who will come and do two soups with homemade bread, so you can cater a large party with great food – far better than you’d get through the average catering service – at a great cost. We’re having a lot of fun exploring those kinds of ideas.
Another aspect of Kitchensurfing that we’re really excited about is the opportunity to develop long-term relationships with chefs you like. Chefs are always changing and developing. Their interests and techniques are always evolving, and there’s a kind of magic in being able to watch that happen. If you have a Kitchensurfing chef come in once a year for five years, it’s almost certain that you will see their cooking evolve. And it can be really interesting to experience that with them, and to follow along as their careers progress.
We had this one eighteen year old kid come in the other week. He’s half Thai and half Indian. He came to this country four years ago, and started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen. He’s worked his way up to being a prep cook, and all he wants to do is go to the French Culinary Institute to work on his cuisine. He made us some exquisite food. He is a future star. And it’s kind of awesome to be able to hire someone like that, to help pay for his education by having him come to your home and cook for you, and then to be able to do it again and again and watch what he becomes.
So Kitchensurfing is at a very early stage. You’ve only been around for a few months. Where do you see it going? What are your hopes for this thing?
The reason we’re doing this is because it’s a great thing for everyone involved. The point isn’t to provide an alternative to catering or eating in restaurants. This is something social and personal around food. It’ll evolve into it’s own ecosystem. It’ll be its own thing. I’ve worked on a lot projects that I think are good or important in some way, but this is probably one of the only ones where I can tell my friends, “If you do this once a month with friends, you will be a happier person.” We just have to try to help it grow and get the details right.
We’ve launched in New York City and Berlin, but we’ve had people approach us from all over the place. We’ve gotten fan mail from Istanbul. We had a chef from Montreal tell us he just wants to be able to travel the world and cook for people and with people. That’s all he wants. And if we can help him live that dream through Kitchensurfing, that’s an amazing thing.
In terms of the big picture, we want everybody cooking. We’d like to find a way to have well known chefs involved, have every line cook out there on Kitchensurfing so we can see all the creativity going on, and to preach the message that everyone’s a chef. We’d like to find a way to involve people who even just make one thing really, really well. Maybe it’s one amazing dish that you learned from your grandmother. Kitchensurfing allows that to be one of the things that you share. Sharing that gives it new meaning – telling someone about the dish, where it came from, how you make it, why you make it, all while actually making it with them? There’s a lot more substance in that alone than in anything a critical analysis of a dish can deliver.
Kitchensurfing is live. To browse for your very own personal chef for a night, check out their website at http://www.kitchensurfing.com. And don’t forget to hang out in the kitchen.