Imagine the Airbnb platform. Imagine if Airbnb were applied to the dinner party concept. For those of you who don't know or don't do Airbnb (and frankly I'm not all that keen on it; have never figured out how to work it), this is Greek to you. But this new non-restaurant dining-out concept in Paris can still work for you. If you are a certain kind of world traveler, as in an interested-in-the-world-and-people traveler, then Cedric Giorgi's Paris-based food startup Cookening may be just the thing for you. A friend and I checked it out this past Sunday night. And it just so happened that the BBC was doing a piece that night for a technology show -- and filming us at a Cookening dinner -- about the "cookening" concept.
Cookening, which just launched four weeks ago, is the brainchild of Cedric (and his co-founders). The company, whose name connotes "cook" and "cooking" and "evening," has created a platform for travelers to enjoy a home-cooked meal, in a Parisian person or couple's home, with other guests from other countries. Part of the magic here is the multi-cultural interchange and dialogue that occurs over dinner, including lessons about French gastronomy and the traditions that infuse everyday eating in France. But of course a common language is necessary, or none of that can happen very well. As our BBC friends did not speak French, English was spoken at our dinner.
Signing up for the dinner is easy.
1. Go to the Cookening.com web site.
2. Note the countries and cities in which you may find a host at whose house you may dine. There are possibilities in Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy. Paris is the only city I am familiar with for this procedure, so I will refer only to how this works for Paris.
3. Once you pick the city, then you get to see the selection of various hosts. There are profiles. This is part of the "sharing economy" after all, where trust is important (as in the Airbnb culture), so it is important for folks to feel comfortable about where they will be eating and with whom. There also are costs for certain types of meals at certain hosts' houses listed. The hosts decide what type of meal they want to prepare, and then price it accordingly. I knew I wanted to try out Cookening.com with Cedric and his adorable wife Jennifer, so I did not shop around at all on price. The price for a dinner with him was 36 euros, total, per person (including the 6 euros per person administrative fee).
There are other types of dining options, including brunch, a "tea time," or a simple "apero" (apertif time), with the simpler formats (such as tea time) available for a lower range of prices.
4. Pick a few potential dates that work for you from the ones the host has indicated as available.
5. Wait to hear from the host and whether he/she "accepts" the invitation. It is not a done deal for dinner until the host accepts.
6. Once the host accepts, the payment logistic become relevant. I was able to pay with a credit card, not just PayPal.
7. Contact information for the host will be given upon payment. No binding agreement is reached, however, until you read the fine print and agree to the terms and conditions, of which there are many--not surprising, and for good reasons.
Now the really good part: the meal. Dinner hour in France is more like 8 p.m., and believe me, when in France this seems very ordinary, and on the early side actually for restaurant dining.
We began with an aperitif, a lovely tradition in the French culture of a before-dinner drink and some small tasty items. It is culturally ingrained in the French that you do not drink without something to eat.
Cedric and Jennifer had selected a Loire Valley sparkling wine, of Domaine de Portaille, which allowed for conversation about sparkling wines in various countries, this particular wine, and the beauty of the Loire Valley region.
Cedric had the menu written on a chalkboard and brought it out, post aperitif, to give us some history and context for the dishes.
The first course was lovely, light, elegant - yet rich. A bavarois of salmon and asparagus. The bavarois refers technically to the creamy fluffy interior, but there was a very fresh piece of thinly sliced but still substantial salmon molded over it to form a classic and very "French-looking" presentation. Tasting proved it divine: rich and creamy, yet light and fresh at the same time.
One of my very favorite French foods made it to the menu: confit de canard, or duck confit. (There is an option on the site to select the foods you like and to indicate any food dislikes or food allergies. I mentioned I liked foie gras and confit de canard.)
Cedric makes a beautiful presentation of of the confit and the accompanying potatoes, on this platter that we learn he and Jennifer purchased during a trip to Morocco.
More conversation ensues. Including about the red wine especially selected -- whereupon we discuss the challenges to les Francais when they order wine elsewhere. French wine is organized and named by region (Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Bourgogne). In the US, ordering a wine requires identifying a particular grape (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio).
The topics of conversation ranged from history of food markets in London (I invited a food historian, Robyn, to check out Cookening with me) to the French attitude towards foie gras and the making of a confit.
It is appropriate that portions are moderate because a French dinner has many courses. I could have had more of that tender, tasty, moist duck, but pacing is necessary. I did help myself to a small second helping of steaming hot ratatouille.
Next came the cheese course. This generated a completely new converation, including learning about what types of cheese Cedric and Jennifer like and why, and how they selected the cheese for this cheese plate. From another dinner guest we learn childhood stories about Middle Eastern food traditions and his own cheese-making experiences.
Still not done with the dinner! There is dessert.
Dessert is simple yet heavenly. Strawberries. But not just any stawberries. These are Gariguette strawberries, smaller and with intense sweet flavor. They are prepared simply, with fresh lemon juice and mint. The result is a tart, faintly herbal yet charmingly sweet little sauce over the berries. (If you see these strawberries at a market in France, run, do not walk, and get some. Even if it means being a little pushy and overly assertive at the market. They are really something special.)
Alongside the fresh Gariguette strawberries, a huge bowl piled high with freshly made madeleines. I am reminded I should get out that madeleine bakeware at home.
More conversation, and slowly the evening winds down. The BBC team sets up for some final scenes they need. We start saying goodnight all around. We all promise to catch up and follow up some other time. And I am pretty sure we actually will.