“It’s Like Airbnb, But For Eating”: Dining With Strangers Via BonAppetour
Eating tofu by candlelight has never been stranger—or riskier
BonAppetour. The name itself is a little clunky, rounding out in the mouth like a generic brand of water cracker. That didn’t stop the Singapore-based startup from raising half a million dollars during a seed round back in May. Their idea is simple: modeled after Airbnb, guests pair up with local chefs for a home-cooked meal and an authentic dining experience. While it’s principally marketed to tourists and travelers, it also offers locals the chance to forge bonds within their own communities. But does it work?
Upon first hearing about the app, I immediately had visions of getting poisoned by a cult leader, or worse, being forced to listen to a Trump supporter. After all, when strangers meet strangers, nerves are bound to run high. But in an interview with Tech In Asia, BonAppetour said they stay ahead of the competition by selectively curating their hosts and upholding rigorous hygiene standards.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Thinking of it that way, this experience could definitely be worse than the worst of blind first dates. [/quote]
Thinking of it that way, this experience could definitely be worse than the worst of blind first dates. And contrary to the Food Network’s dogma, not everyone should be a chef. The fact that I regularly find dog hair in my spice cabinet is a strong indication I shouldn’t cook for anyone, let alone unsuspecting strangers.
Hesitations aside, I booked a homemade dining experience advertised as “Rwandese inspired food with love :)” for a random Tuesday night. So far, in Los Angeles, there are only three participants willing to host, so I knocked out the Mexican and vegan menus right off the bat and picked the cuisine with the best chance of exposing me to something new.
Despite my initial trepidation, I’m also intrigued by the idea of meeting someone new and possibly connecting with other transplants. Los Angeles can be a tough place to crack if you’re looking to build long-lasting, personal connections. Much of the time, we inch from one place to the next, closed off from the arid climate in our air-conditioned car bubbles.
My host’s apartment in Koreatown looks like the kind of space you’d expect any young, independent woman to occupy. An Ikea bookshelf separates her bed from the tidy living room; the linoleum-floored, laminate-countertopped kitchen is tucked away in the corner. That’s where we will spend the majority of our evening slightly timid and sweating, everything sweating. This is L.A., so it’s not uncommon to have the main living area perpetually bathed in the frigid blast of a roaring window unit while the kitchen fosters a swampy 95 degrees from June to November.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I bring wine, water, and weed, but only end up busting out the Perrier. [/quote]
Not sure what to anticipate—considering this town attracts both patent law attorneys and Burning Man disciples—I prepare for anything. I bring wine, water, and weed, but only end up busting out the Perrier. The thing I least expect is to meet a perfectly nice, normal person and have a perfectly nice, normal time.
Which brings me to my gracious host, Vasta. Born and raised in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, Vasta tells me she moved to the U.S. when she was 15. Though she says she’s been cooking all her life, her career as a freelance model began more recently when, as a freshman in college, she was discovered by a fellow student and put in a fashion show. At 24 years old, modeling is how she supports herself, but cooking is her passion. Jet-setting from place to place for work, she rarely has time to cook wholesome meals, and admits she’s only spent a total of three weeks at her L.A. studio since she moved here last October. This nonstop lifestyle means she cherishes the few slow moments she has by preparing intricate meals for herself using all fresh ingredients.
She seems especially concerned for my wellbeing when I tell her my boss suggested I go eat food at a stranger’s house alone. “So, they sent you over here without worrying about your safety?” she asks. I’m not sure how to respond, so I turn up the charm and say, “Eh?”
“But what do they do if something happens to you?” she presses. “Do they have insurance?” I joke that maybe I should show up late to work the next day just to see if they panic (while secretly wondering if they’d cash in on my dead dumpster body). Thankfully, she laughs.
For the first hour I’m there, Vasta toils over a juicer, pressing fresh carrots, oranges, ginger, beets, and lemons into a coral-colored elixir. At first, I think we’re sticking with liquids for dinner—again, this is L.A. But when she finally transfers the mixture to a pitcher, she says, “Now I’ll start cooking real dinner.”
This is how I know I’m in it for the long haul. I pour myself another glass of lukewarm sparkling water and sort through my mental Rolodex of appropriate small talk subjects. At this point, we’ve already covered books, music, our hometowns, and the weather. We dipped our toes in politics only to swiftly retreat with a mutual lack of interest. I panic thinking there isn’t anything left to ask when I remember why I’m here in the first place.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Locals only eat meat if you’re ‘willing to kill it,’ she says. She mimes grabbing a chicken and snapping its neck.[/quote]
I ask her what Rwandese food is. While the ingredients are nearly impossible to come by in the states, she explains, Rwandese inspired cooking is all about using fresh ingredients. No canned soups or frozen burritos for this chef—if you can’t get it fresh from the market the morning of, don’t even bother. Vasta tells me the cuisine is also largely veggie-based. Locals only eat meat if you’re “willing to kill it,” she says. She mimes grabbing a chicken and snapping its neck.
Personally, I like this ideology. It probably explains why Vasta is a strict vegetarian and I’m weak-willed in the face of a fried chicken sandwich. Vasta chops the bell peppers, onions, and celery for a stir-fry while I do my best attempt spiralizing raw beets and grating radishes for a salad. In a large pot steaming on the stove, she has plantains boiling for a mash that I can’t help but salivate over already.
As she cooks, she shuffles pots and pans to find items that have inexplicably gone missing.
“I have a girl who runs my Airbnbs,” she says, looking halfheartedly for a can opener, “but she doesn’t pay attention. Every time I come back, there’s something missing.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Is it delicious? Yes, of course. It is a home-cooked meal prepared with love as advertised. [/quote]
Eventually, dinner does materialize. Three hours after I first arrived, we sit down to eat the meal that brought us here and set this unusual course of events into action. Is it delicious? Yes, of course. It is a home-cooked meal prepared with love as advertised. But more than that, it is a physical relief. To be doing the only thing we both know how to do naturally—i.e. eating—is a welcome respite in a night full of awkward pauses and strained silences.
Over perfectly cooked tofu, a comforting plantain mash, and a bright, citrusy beet salad, we begin to exchange stories with ease. The food, a perfect moderator, seems to facilitate easy conversation. The tendrils of beets I sliced are too long and get tangled into a pile not unlike a neglected jumble of Christmas lights, but this flop merely serves as some comic relief. I can’t decide whether it’s the warm, flavorful meal itself, the anticipation of eating it, or the culmination of one long night that informs this nourished feeling.
Stuffed, we pick at a dessert of nutmeg-dusted mangos and a coconut cream drizzle and talk about the struggle of making friends in L.A. Between work, school, creative projects, and soul-crushing traffic, it can be hard to topple the everyday life barriers that come between two people enjoying a good meal. Sitting among the detritus of our feast feels like an odd accomplishment, but an accomplishment nonetheless.
In another instant, we’re saying our goodbyes and promising to meet again soon, though we both seem to recognize the flimsiness of this open-ended promise. When Vasta returns to her hometown next month, she will stay at Airbnbs, only stopping by her relatives’ places for a quick hello before heading back out to do her own thing. Balancing our nomadic urges with a desire to build meaningful human connections might be something we never fully accomplish. But through food, maybe it’s possible, in a way, to bring the whole village with you.