NEW YORK - With the rise of the sharing economy, the Internet now allows you to rent rooms in strangers' homes using sites like Airbnb, and take rides in strangers' cars using apps like Uber. But what about booking dinner in a stranger's home? That's the idea behind EatWith, a website that enables you to enjoy a home-cooked meal in the company of people you've never met before.
Originally conceived as a way for travelers to sample authentic regional cuisine, EatWith currently is most popular among local residents - especially in New York City, where 75 percent of its clients live in the city. CBS News visited the Manhattan apartment of Shuchi Naidoo, a 31-year-old former banker-turned-private chef, as she prepared an Indian feast for nine strangers.
"It's a great way to meet new people who also share a love of food," Naidoo said, putting the finishing touches on a tray of bite-size appetizers. She inscribed the names of her guests on wine glasses for a welcoming, personal touch. "You don't know who you're going to interact with, who's going to be a romantic interest or a business interest in the future. And I think that's the beauty of it, and I kind of love making that happen."
While growing up in India, Naidoo was inspired by her mother's dinner parties. On the menu this evening: Indian tapas with ingredients you might not expect to find in an Indian meal, like kale and wontons. By incorporating elements of both Eastern and Western cuisine, Naidoo hopes to make homemade Indian cooking more accessible. She introduces each course with an explanation of its cultural influence.
Her guests appreciated the culinary range. "I'm not a great cook," said diner Renee Stroebel. "But here you get someone who has the expertise, has the passion for food, and as we've seen here tonight, she's able to blend so many different ideas and pieces of her past. How would I ever create that in my own kitchen?"
Stroebel and her fiance, like all the guests that night, were trying EatWith for the first time. "It was really great that we were all just comfortable and able to get to know each other and experience this together," Stroebel said. She said she liked the convenience of being able to find a meal nearby, at the push of a button on her smartphone. "Technology makes this possible," Stroebel said.
Other diners said the family-style meal offers a great way to meet new people, especially during the holidays. "I'm far away from family, so I kind of know how it feels," Naidoo said. "So on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, you may as well have a good home-cooked meal and meet other strangers who are, like you, far from family. It's almost like a new family that you can find on a table."
EatWith has grown rapidly since it was founded in Tel Aviv in 2012, with its services now available in more than 160 cities in 32 countries. The company has a strict vetting process for its host applicants: an EatWith employee will visit the person's home to test for food quality, presentation, personality, cleanliness, safety, and other factors. Guests can also post reviews online - good or bad.
The meal price covers little more than the cost of food, plus a 15% company service charge. An average EatWith dinner in the United States costs about $50.
Naidoo's dinner companions stayed long after the last course was served, enjoying animated conversation, swapping phone numbers and planning their next meals together. These former strangers used a high-tech tool to make friends the old fashioned way.
"Food brings people together," Naidoo said, "but it's the conversations that get people to stay together, and that's something that I love."