When my friend and I arrived for dinner at Linda's house in Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood, her boyfriend was still at work. No matter, he'd join us later.
We sat down in her clean, cozy apartment where she offered us red and white wine along with hibiscus juice served with frozen berry cubes.
We talked about her childhood in the Congo over a pan-African meal of greens accented with strawberries (an improvisation, Linda said, because in Africa they don't eat salad before dinner, but they do eat fruit); a plantain ball with peanut sauce; and two entrees.
First was Senegalese fish in a lime-and-Dijon-onion sauce served with spiced rice, followed by fufu, best described as an East African steamed dough ball, alongside Congolese cassava leaves cooked with ground nuts plus steak served perfectly rare.
The meal Linda prepared included fufu, Congolese cassava leaves and steak. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
Needless to say, almost three hours in, I was quite full by the time the finale of homemade crepes with berries and cream arrived. Linda's boyfriend had joined us, and the conversation turned to his tales of growing up in a Jewish community in Manhattan.
By the way, before that night, I'd never met Linda or her boyfriend.
Our meal was an event organized by Eatwith, a company that connects guests with locals for in-home culinary experiences. Linda got her foodie bona fides by learning the traditional African recipes her grandmother cooked when she was a child. Although she has a degree in biology, she realized that what she really wanted to do was turn the joy she got from hosting dinner parties for friends and family into a business. She now caters and, of course, hosts Eatwith events.
Like any millennial, Linda documented her informal dinner parties on her iPhone. She sent a collection of those photos to Eatwith, which had her host a demo meal before accepting her. She started hosting in August, and every review since then has been five stars.
Linda, an EatWith host, in her apartment in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
As someone who has lived here for 18 years, I can confidently assert that Linda's story is about as New York as they get: She's a refugee who moved here from war-torn Congo in her teens, went to college and now, in her mid-20s, visits the local farmers market with her American boyfriend on weekends.
It is this kind of dinner, companionship and cuisine for which so many travelers clamor.
The immigrant experience is as much a part of the fabric of this city as Broadway. But since most people visiting New York don't know any locals, a meal like this is very unlikely to happen. Even a visit to Inwood, situated on the last subway stop in Manhattan and overlooking the Bronx, is not usually on the itinerary.
This is exactly what Eatwith's co-founder Camille Rumani wanted to offer people when she started the company in 2014. After living in China, she realized that only by visiting locals' homes had she really come to understand the culture.
"It's such a paradox," she said. "People travel so easily today to cities where millions of people live, and you don't actually meet any locals. The people are the soul of the city. If you don't meet them, you don't get the real point."
Eatwith options in New York include an Italian meal in a brownstone, a Japanese tasting menu in a Brooklyn loft. From Los Angeles to Paris to Tel Aviv, Eatwith meals offer windows into local culture.
Eatwith works with travel advisors and tour operators, who can either choose events on its site or create custom ones. Claire Hanney, head of travel experiences for Insight Vacations, said Eatwith meals are a hit with their clients. "Before they arrive, some guests are nervous about the concept of dining in other people's homes, so they're grateful we've fully vetted the experience for them," Hanney said. "Once they leave, however, they're full of stories of the new friend they've made in the host and can talk about the local culture from a unique perspective."
It's an easy add, Rumani said, because it doesn't change the essence of the trip, since it's only one meal.
"It takes only three hours of your time, but it's the highlight of your trip," she said.