At EatWith, you have the world at your table, and dinner isn’t just a meal.
In a dimmed loft in Williamsburg, Ai was cooking away with her friend in her tiny kitchen. An army of bamboo baskets stood neatly on the counter, waiting for the chef to plate her crafts on them.
We were at one of the hottest EatWith underground supper clubs in New York, where our Japanese host Ai was cooking us a vegetarian Japanese tasting menu. Founded in 2012, EatWith is a network that connects travelers and locals together, offering unique dining experiences in locals’ home in over 150 cities from more than 30 countries. Its founder, Guy Michlin, came up with the concept of EatWith after a family trip to Greece when he was invited by the locals to dine at their home.
At EatWith, you have the world at your table, and dinner isn’t just a meal. It’s also about bringing a community together and seeing a city in a new perspective. At Ai’s, some of us were visiting New York for the weekend, while others were longtime residents. I quickly learned that my fellow food enthusiasts came from different cities and all sorts of interesting backgrounds. One works at the FDA and as an art history professor, a Facebook designer and a jewelry designer. Matt, our other host, is Ai’s husband, and he kept us company and helped the conversations flowed at ease throughout the dinner. We talked about food (well, obviously), our work and even politics.
It wasn’t my first time eating with a group of new people in a communal setting, but this was definitely my best communal dining experience. Ai came to our table to introduce each plate before she got back to the kitchen to work on her next whimsical dish. The tasting menu at Ai’s is inspired by her Japanese roots, and she uses lots of vegetables and herbs harvested from her rooftop garden. She believes that “flavor and nutrition shouldn’t be mutually exclusive” and it reflects well in her dishes. Here, we had marinated quail egg with fried and charred leek with tofu sauce, avocado bamboo tartare topped with micro watercress, crushed pine nuts and wasabi oil (yes it’s a thing and it’s fucking delicious) and mountain vegetables rice wrapped with cherry blossom leaves. The list went on. Within the first bite, I was hooked. I still clearly remember how each of the dishes tasted, and Ai’s enthusiasm for wholesome cooking was infectious.
Ai has never been to culinary school nor worked at a restaurant before. Her story as a home chef began in childhood. “I loved helping out with my mum at home as a child. I got to prepare different dishes and learned about different ingredients, so it really started from there,” Ai said. “My dad used to go to the mountain to pick wild vegetables, and my mum would cook them into tempuras.” When she moved to New York for college she would host dinner parties with her friends at least once or twice a week, and the group could be as large as 10 to 20 people.
Prior to joining EatWith as a host, Ai worked at a production company. It was during her vacation when she started to consider hosting dinner parties in a more organized and professional way. “I had a month off and I started thinking seriously of hosting supper clubs, but I had no idea how other people do it and how they would bring guests to join their dinner. So I just did a bit of research on Google and I came across with EatWith.” Two years on, she has already lost count of the number of guests she has hosted.
So how does her Japanese heritage come into play with her craft in the kitchen? Being away from Japan for seven years, Ai’s first trip back to her hometown shocked her in many ways, and inspired her cooking even more. “I didn’t have much Japanese food when I was living in New York. My first trip back to Japan reminds me of the flavors of Japanese cuisine and all the ingredients again. Japanese cooking is heavily depended on seasonal produce such as vegetables and fish. The visual presentation is also quite important too.”
Ai does have restaurant plans in the works, something that her guests and I eagerly await. One thing that she knows for sure is that it will be a Japanese brunch place. EatWith has not only created a community for locals, travelers and hosts to cross path, it also became a hotbed for up and coming chefs.
Starter—pumpkin wrapped in sweet potatoes, sesame and seaweed on top
– grilled bamboo shoot
– marinated quail egg with fried charred leek with tofu sauce
2nd: avocado, bamboo tartare, micro watercress with crushed pine nuts, wasabi oil
3rd: soft tofu, sesame topped with cherry blossom and edamame
4rd: salad – white wood ear mushroom, Fuji apples, yellow beets with radish, soy sauce, Chrysanthemums sauce, sliced almond
5th: stuffed tofu, with stem inside underneath lotus root chip, grated ginger in there. Bathed in a vegetarian dashi soup
6th: mountain vegetables rice wrapped with cherry blossom leaves
7th: dessert – Okinawa black sugar, red bean paste, cream, matcha flour less cookie