At home in Paris: Meal-sharing website connects travelers with amateur chefs around the world


Lunch in a Paris passage

Parisians love to eat. Food is art, whether it be a simple lunch served on the sidewalk terrace of a covered passage, or a display of delicate fruit tarts lined up in glass cases like colored jewels. So when you retire from a 46-year career with Air France and suddenly find yourself with time on your hands, what do you do? You invite strangers into your home for dinner, of course.

Florence serves appetizers 
Meet Florence Otte with whom two friends and I dined recently after signing on with Eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide - not with a room but with a shared meal in their home. As with Airbnb, no money changes hands. Hosts post their menus online, along with their prices. You pay on the website with a credit card at the time of booking, and agree to cancellation terms set by the hosts.

Like Florence, who charged a modest $34 per person, most hosts are amateur chefs who sign up with Eatwith mostly for the experience of meeting travelers. Florence, 67, retired two years ago from a busy job. Now she has time to exercise, travel (vintage Air France travel posters line the walls of her apartment) and cook homemade meals for visitors to Paris. The income helps pay the rent on a spacious flat in the 19th arrondissement where she raised her two grown children.

Various hosts offer different types of experiences. I enjoyed a dinner last year in Paris hosted by Thomas Obrador, a French news reporter. There were nine guests for a meal that began with lively chatter in his living room over wine and appetizers, and didn't end until almost 1 a.m. 

Florence's style was more low-key. She limits her guest list to four or five. Two others were expected to join us the night we booked, but cancelled at the last minute, leaving our group at three plus Florence who joined us at the table for wine and relaxed conversation. 

She advertised her meal as a "seasonal, homemade French dinner" of four courses, prepared with organic ingredients purchased from local markets. Her instructions included what Metro lines to use to take to reach her fourth-floor apartment in the Buttes Chaumont neighborhood, an area outside of the center of Paris most tourists would likely not discover.

The evening began at 7:30 p.m. with a Kir, a cocktail made with white wine and cassis, a sweet, dark red liqueur made from blackcurrants. We chatted in her living room while snacking on pate and an eggplant spread on toasts and cherry tomatoes filled with a green olive tapenade. 

Our dinner with Florence 
When we moved to the table, she presented a salad of fresh beets and greens, followed by rabbit served with potatoes and a sauce of mustard and thyme grown on her balcony. Then came three types of cheeses, all labeled, with a small piece cut and placed on top or on the side to show how each should be sliced.

Three cheeses

Fig tart
Dessert was a homemade fresh fig tart. We chatted about our travels, toured her little apartment, and were on our way back on the Metro to our hotel by 10 p.m. 

Florence hosts both lunches and dinners, and will cook a meal even for one person.  This year, with her children planning to spend the holidays elsewhere, she'll host a special feast to be shared with a group of travelers she'll meet for the first time when they knock on her door on Christmas Eve. 

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