It's Airbnb for foodies! PlateCulture lets diners book meals in strangers' homes
Bodian Diatta dwarfs the barbecue pit as he tends to the chicken pieces sizzling over charcoal.
A sports instructor by day, the Senegalese home chef is making one of his specialities, poulet yassa, a tender chicken marinated with oil, lime, onions and chilli, to welcome me into his home.
It is an incongruous sight: this tall, strapping man cooking under the streetlight in a narrow road in suburban Singapore. We communicate in smiles, nods and simple words, and Bodian gestures that the food will be ready soon - and delicious.
Meanwhile, his wife Greta - a statuesque Finnish-English blonde who translates for French-speaking Bodian - is having a beer with my husband on the porch.
We had been strangers to them up until 10 minutes ago, but here we are, about to sit down to a meal together. It is all thanks to a website called PlateCulture.
The venture, which bills itself as a "community marketplace" for keen home cooks, started in September 2013 and now has around 3,000 subscribers.
Think Airbnb for foodies. If you want to meet new people and cook for them in your own home, you put up a host listing introducing yourself, your dishes and how much each diner pays. Those who want to try your cooking sign up as guests, and the booking is confirmed when payment is made via PayPal.
PlateCulture now features listings in nine countries, including Malaysia, where it as first launched, Singapore, Vietnam, Spain and the US. Prices range from US$8 to US$84 per person, with most hosts charging about US$30 per head.
The website gets its revenue by taking a 16.7 per cent cut of the bill. "My aim was to create an online tool that allows tourists to find and book such dinners easily," says PlateCulture co-founder Reda Stare.
While travelling around India, she was invited into a home in Kerala for a traditional South Indian meal. Afterwards, Stare decided she wanted to have more of those experiences.
"Of course, I had a hard time finding people happy to invite me home to share their food. That is how PlateCulture was born," she says.
A mathematician-turned-digital entrepreneur, the 30-year-old Lithuanian roped in compatriot Audra Pakalnyte, 27, a linguist with experience in start-ups, to establish their website, raising seed money from a venture fund (Pakalnyte has since left the company).
The PlateCulture concept has evolved since. "What started out as a tourist attraction is now a community of foodies," Stare says.
It enables tourists to enjoy authentic home-made food and spend time with people of the country they are visiting. Locals, meanwhile, can sample different cuisines simply by dining with foreign hosts.
In Singapore, for example, cuisine options range from Brazilian and Caribbean to Italian, Indian, Korean and, of course, Senegalese.
Stare estimates that the site lists more than 100 hosts. Hong Kong residents who want to become PlateCulture hosts can join simply by registering their kitchens. "We are happy to feature and present them to our guests," she says.
Greta and Bodian, both in their 30s, say they wanted to see if Singaporeans would enjoy the flavours of Senegal. "It's fantastic food," Greta says. "If people like it, we'll think about opening our own restaurant."
Moreover, she says, the concept of PlateCulture intrigued her: "I'm very interested in this kind of e-commerce. I think it's the future."
They relocated to the Lion City in 2013 when Greta was appointed head of user experience for a digital media company. Within 12 hours of signing up with PlateCulture, they got their first booking: me.
At their home, the couple offer quite a spread. Besides the tender, piquant poulet yassa, Bodian also cooks heavenly grilled mutton chops, a peppery shrimp soup and rice done the Senegalese way. My husband and I had brought a riesling, but Greta recommends the local Tiger beer to accompany the hearty food.
Admitting that he feels a bit of pressure cooking for strangers, Bodian says: "It doesn't matter who you are, what nationality you are, I'm happy to cook for you. Even if you just try it, I'm happy." Would he do it again? " Oui, with pleasure," comes the reply.
Another home chef who has gone the PlateCulture route echoes this sentiment. Stacey Nonis, a Singaporean loan consultant, signed up as a host because she likes "entertaining and meeting people from overseas".
Nonis and her husband, Josh Tay, have hosted two dinners through the site: one for a group of Singaporeans and another for three tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They enjoyed both occasions.
"I'm very passionate about cooking and talking to people. It was very exciting," say Nonis, a Eurasian, who describes her cooking as "fusion-inspired".
"Initially, my husband and I were like, 'So, do we invite strangers to our house?' But that's the way PlateCulture works," she says. "It can be a little scary, but, in general, if they are friends of friends, or female, I would feel safer."
Concerns about admitting strangers into his home never crossed Bodian's mind. Greta quips: "Have you seen his size?" Try anything inappropriate and Bodian can bounce you out of the premises in a flash. But the Senegalese way, he says, is to bend over backwards to accommodate guests' wishes.
Stare says PlateCulture hosts are vetted by "ambassadors", who visit new home kitchens to check out the cooking. Reviews are also collected from guests after each meal. Hosts are also not obliged to accept every booking, but they are encouraged to write back to guests to explain why they have turned them down.
What about unruly guests? "I strongly believe in sharing-economy models," Stare says. "People go to the dinners hoping to have a great time. None go with bad intentions. This is not only about the food, but about new social experiences, too.
"A good guest understands that the host is not a restaurant employee but a person who is more like a long-time-no-see friend. A good host has to pay attention to guests and make sure they don't feel the host is acting superior."
The PlateCulture model has emerged at a time when the private kitchen trend is taking off in Southeast Asia. Masak Masak, a pop-up kitchen venture in Singapore set up by Andrew Seetoh and Kim Zeng, has been booked solid this month after launching in October last year.
Operating out of a rented rooftop kitchen in Geylang, an area known for its colourful nightlife, Masak Masak accepts bookings through its own website jiak.co ("jiak" is Hokkien dialect for "eat", while Masak Masak is Malay for "cook").
"From a cook's perspective, it helps if the guest is passionate about the food or cuisine and enjoys sharing tidbits of information, or is willing to learn and be exposed to the food and ingredients," says Seetoh.
"People enjoy going to private kitchens because it gives them insight into how and why the person cooks. They get a full experience out of it, and there isn't anything closer you can get to getting food from the source."
The pair registered on PlateCulture last week after finding out about the site. "Had we known of the site, we might not even have had to start Masak Masak," Seetoh says. "It's an easier way to get people to come to a place and try your food."
Jasmine Leong, 37, who has used PlateCulture to find hosted dinners, says: "I'm always up for food, plus the thought of meeting new people who like food also excited me."
The account manager has no complaints about the service: "The conversation flowed fairly well, thank goodness. There's nothing to dislike about new experiences."
At Bodian and Greta's home, we are stuffed with meat, and chat about everything from soccer, polyglottic childhoods, (Greta speaks Luxembourgish, along with French, German and English), Senegalese culture and national service in Singapore.
We cap the night by taking a photo, and promise to keep in touch. Then I drive off with the leftovers Bodian has packed in foil containers, faith renewed in the kindness of strangers.