In this post, I am taking time off from “My Mission, as in the neighborhood in which I live, and focusing on a mission: to get people thinking about trends in bespoke dining and the role of the chef. For those of you who aren’t aware, aside from being a food writer, I am also a private chef.
2012-15 TECH MEETS FOOD
A little over a year ago at this time, we witnessed the demise of the now-forgotten Kitchit Chefs Marketplace, which for a time very successfully, at least in SF Bay area and NYC, connected a curated group of qualified chefs to people looking to throw really nice dinner parties. Kitchit received a second round of investor funding, which pressured them to dump the Marketplace and replaced it by Kitchit Tonight, with its $39/person offer, in hopes of faster growth. And predictably, at least by some of us, the entire business succumbed to other lower-priced offers from the likes of Kitchensurfing and Munchery— and then ALL of these players failed, almost all at the same time. This was the evolution, and then devolution, of the “Food Meets Tech” business model, the teams/founding members of which at least had the good sense to at least include someone at the management level with a culinary background.
Well techies, with their facility to develop apps and business platforms, were still eating and still hungry. So came the next wave: the likes of EatWith, Feastly, MiumMium, Cozymeal and a slew of others whose offer is to connect chefs (while the EatWith and Feastly do vet their chefs, many others do not) with diners intrigued by the idea of a community meal, usually at the chef’s own home; but sometimes at a “pop-up” restaurant venue. The entrepreneurs behind these start-ups are usually techies, or maybe they also see themselves as “foodies”, but most have no or little professional cooking experience. Essentially ticket-selling sites, not unlike Eventbrite, the goal is to get people to offer to cook, usually in their homes, and try to sell tickets to those meals. If you sell out, great! If you cook and only a few people show up, those people have already paid, so you have to cook for them anyway. Not so great! My personal experience has been that these sites don’t do much marketing on behalf of the chef, but are great if the chef has a following and strong social media presence. Still other sites offer to bring the meal to you, like Freshly which baits diners with “Are you struggling to eat healthy? Our chefs will cook you 6 dinners for $59. Get fresh, healthy, ready-to-eat dinners delivered to your door.” Guaranteed you are NOT getting a Chef (with a capital “C”) to work for that!
CELEBRITY CHEFS AND CHANGING EXPECTATIONS
Billed to the people doing the cooking as the opportunity to make dreams come true with the pitch that “Opening your own restaurant is just a step away”, Feastly makes dining spaces with well-equipped, and sometimes even professional kitchens available to chefs; and markets their events on the Feastly site. Recently, they have even occasionally featured a contestant or winner from Bravo’s Top Chef. In that same vein, EatWith has teamed up to “bring… you exclusive events hosted by winners and fan favorites from America’s most watched cooking show MasterChef [on FOX]” including Claudia Sandoval, season 6 Master Chef winner, who recently cooked at a sold-out event in San Francisco. While tickets for dinner by Chef Claudia and season 7 MasterChef winner Chef Shaun are listed at $143/person, while other chefs, most notably MasterChef contestants but not winners, have offers on EatWith from $51 and up with most being in the $63-$80 range. Other, lesser-knows chefs listed both on Feastly and EatWith have benefitted from the “celebrity effect”, allowing them to command more for their offerings- which has, in turn, encouraged participation from a more elite tier of private chefs. This upward migration is an indication of the success of this model when it is executed with strong marketing behind it.
America’s obsession with cook-off style TV shows has certainly had its upside, exposing millions of viewers to the pressures of the working chef, making it possible for talented home cooks to become professional chefs and providing a platform for them to create careers from their dreams. It is also starting to have what is, in my opinion, a disturbing effect on the art of the chef. No doubt, there is something wonderful about watching a great chef prepare a great meal, hence the allure of the open kitchen format favored by many top restaurants. The intent, I have to think, on the part of the restaurateur, is to create excitement by letting diners watch an artist at work and feel the buzz of the kitchen. But, somewhere along the way, this has morphed into cooking as entertainment and the chef as the showpiece: maybe not all bad, but definitely not all good. Take these two requests I received recently:
“Hello Chef, we are hosting our company offsite … and would like to incorporate some sort of cooking competition, do you know another chef with whom you could do the event?
Another potential client, as a way of deciding between 3 chefs she was considering for a holiday party, suggested the three of us do a “cook off” with the winner landing the gig, but expecting the chef “contestants” to work for little of no pay for the trail.
On the other hand, some chefs find the “cook off” concept a great way to market their events. Chef Tu David has done a few “battle” events, a Pig Battle vs. Chef Ryan Shelton in August and a Lamb Battle vs. Chef Jose Miguel in July. Now, he is moving more towards “collaborative” events, with the upcoming Holistic AG Farms Angus Tasting: Chef Tu David Phu and Chef Sophina Uong on Sunday, November 27 where the two will work together to create a 7-course Dinner to showcasing Grass Farms beef.
Ultimately, bespoke dining is like any other business. You get what you pay for. Organic ingredients have a cost, years of experience comes with a fitting price tag and a meal for $60-80 per person is very different from one for $29 per person. Yes, some sites have done a great job of migrating the pricing on their sites upwards (and other sites, like IfOnly feature chefs with higher starting price points, usually from $100), but almost daily there’s a new promise of a great home-cooked meal from a real “chef” for a ridiculously low price from some tech entrepreneur looking to take advantage of the fact that there are home cooks looking to make extra cash or turn professional. (You can see above that I not even honor the lowball offer from Freshly with a link.) Since there are no standards, since the term “chef” doesn’t require a degree (unlike the terms “doctor” or “engineer” for example), there is no equivalency. And therein lies the rub, and I don’t mean a great rub for steak!