This is the Airbnb of home chefs.
Try global cuisine from the comfort of a stranger’s living room.
Traveling Spoon allows vacationers to enjoy authentic, off-the-beaten-path dining experiences in homes around the world, such as sampling empanadas in Buenos Aires, slow-roasted lamb in Greece, or prawn malai curry in Bangladesh. The idea was dreamed up by two avid travelers who were sick of doing the same-old guidebook stuff while they were abroad.
“When I went on a family vacation to China, in some ways, it was this negative traveling experience because it was so touristy,” recalls Traveling Spoon co-founder Stephanie Lawrence. “We’d eat in these huge hotel banquet halls with other tourists. I felt so disconnected from the culture.”
Lawrence moved to China in 2009, and spent six months learning the language and experiencing the culture — such as living out her ultimate foodie goal to make dumplings with a local Chinese grandmother.
“I wanted to learn the recipes that people were passing down through generations,” she says.
Lawrence, 33, met her future business partner, Aashi Vel, 39, while studying at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley in 2011. The duo bonded over their shared love of food and travel, which led to conceiving Traveling Spoon. They tested it on a classmate in 2013 by having a fellow MBA student trek to India and try their recommended food experiences. They tapped into their college network for global food recommendations, and collaborated with select tourism boards in a number of countries before officially launching the business in 2015.
They now have hosts — 85% of whom are women — in 110 cities across 44 countries (including India, Thailand, Indonesia and Morocco) dishing out more than 1,000 different dining experiences. Travelers book sessions on the Traveling Spoon website, and can reserve the in-home meals, cooking classes or market tours a few weeks in advance, or even just the day before. Once they sign up, guests are connected with vetted locals who demonstrate how to cook their homemade meal, and share stories behind culinary traditions and passed down recipes, before everyone sits and eats together.
The experiences provide a true feast for the senses. Travelers visiting Bali can learn to grind up fresh spices from scratch using a traditional Indonesian cobek (similar to a mortar and pestle) for dishes like bumbu kuning (chicken in a fresh turmeric and coconut milk sauce) while visiting the family village Ubud. Or prepare an Ethiopian sourdough-risen flatbread called injera, and partake in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony (considered a symbol of friendship and respect in Ethiopian hospitality). You can also tour a London farmer’s market with a Michelin-star trained chef before returning to a penthouse flat in Notting Hill for a British cooking course. Most experiences cost around $60 per person, but can run up to $232 for an Icelandic cooking lesson with a trained opera singer and author in central Reykjavik.
Diana Jacob, a 40-year-old New York City native, quit her job as a former hospital executive to travel the world for a year on a “sort of sabbatical without retiring,” as she puts it. And she was hungry for an authentic dining experience while visiting Morocco last year.
“Being of South Indian descent, when I got to Morocco, I really wanted to have an authentic experience with food and cooking because of my love of spices,” says Jacob. “I found a lot of restaurants (that) offered cooking classes, but they were very touristy, and I already know how to cook. I wanted the local cultural experience.”
After many locals told Jacob that the restaurant food in Morocco is nothing like what people who live there actually eat, she read about Traveling Spoon online and booked a class.
“I learned the secrets to making traditional couscous, tagine, eggplant and harissa. It was a very special experience — not just for the cooking class, but also for the dialogue, and cultural learning,” she says. “We sat for hours just talking about life and love.”
While breaking bread with complete strangers may sound intimidating for some, this ambitious globetrotter, who is now in Israel, wasn’t scared to go into the dining experience alone. “I’m traveling solo, and I’m not afraid of strangers,” she says.
Traveling Spoon makes safety a major priority to ensure both travelers and hosts are protected. Lawrence says that each host goes through three intense rounds of interviews before getting hired. This includes filling out an application answering personal questions about their culinary backgrounds and work experience. Next is a live interview to further vet them, followed by Traveling Spoon team members personally taking each host on a taste-drive, watching for whether the hosts adhere to food safety policies (such as properly cooking the food, and washing veggies with clean water, etc.) to ensure the meal is up-to-par for customers.
While Traveling Spoon can’t run background checks on every traveler who signs up, the traveler and host are able to correspond via email beforehand, and the host can either accept or reject a perspective guest (sort of like booking with Airbnb).
“Safety is our number one priority,” says Lawrence, noting that the business, hosts and guests are also covered through an insurance policy.
More than half of the hosts come from current host referrals, which is how the Traveling Spoon network continues to grow. And Lawrence typically takes four- to six-week-long business trips to seek out potential new hosts.
“Our mission is all about making sure travel is more meaningful,” she says.
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