I don’t think it’s a surprise that Britain’s culinary boom over the past decade has coincided with rising house prices. My generation — I’m in my twenties — can’t afford bricks and mortar, so we spend our money on good food. With rock-bottom interest rates and house prices sailing far out of range, nobody saves. Why bother? Instead, we invest in anything edible that we can photograph for Instagram. It’s a big ‘up yours’ to the baby-boomers. They may have benefited from cheap house prices, but during their twenties they thought quiche was a sophisticated meal. We like to think we know better.
This reckless life choice is made all the more simple because it’s now so easy to order food on your phone. Apps such as Deliveroo, Jinn and Take Eat Easy will bring restaurant food to your door. Others like JustEat and HungryHouse help you to order from takeaway joints. That’s handy, but hardly revolutionary.
But a new generation of apps could be about to cause the kind of seismic upset in the restaurant trade that Uber wrought among taxi drivers and Airbnb on hoteliers. These apps can connect both professional chefs and amateur cooks directly with customers, meaning that restaurants are completely bypassed.
Using a private chef sounds fairly decadent and in a way it is. But then so is dining at a restaurant, and it looks like the numbers are on the side of the insurgent technology. Using the website EatAbout, which allows you to dine at a chef’s house, I joined eight friends for a dinner in central London. It cost us £35 a head and included platters of oysters, lobster thermidor, fish bouillabaisse and a chocolate pudding. All delicious and as good as anything I’d expect to find in a decent restaurant, but much less expensive. Of course, you don’t get the linen napkins, extensive wine list (it was BYO) or snooty waiter, but when the prices are so reasonable, frankly, who cares? Uber empowered professional drivers; these new apps may well do the same for chefs.
Other apps let you buy directly from people cooking at home. Dish Next Door shows you what people are cooking in your area, and if something takes your fancy you can put in an order, either to pick up, have delivered or to eat with the cook if they invite you in. Members are all vetted and trained in food hygiene — and a rating system means that the best cooks often sell out as soon as they advertise what’s in their ovens.
The service is currently being rolled out across north London. Right now there are only 75 registered cooks but by the end of the year Dish Next Door expects to have 1,000. There’s no reason why the coverage shouldn’t eventually spread to most of Britain. I tried out an aubergine curry made by a nursery-school teacher called Fatema and a vegetarian thali cooked by a Jain nun called Didi. They cost fractionally more than a supermarket ready-meal but I enjoyed them much more. There’s something rather comforting about eating a meal cooked by your neighbours — once you get over the initial fear factor.
What’s particularly appealing about these experiences is that they bypass the unbearably kitsch cooking fads that keep cropping up as restaurateurs try to lure gullible punters with the ‘next big thing’. One of the most recent of these is ‘street food’ — the postmodern, recession-friendly cuisine whose essential components include a deep-fat fryer, an Airstream trailer and an endless supply of wooden cutlery. But as anyone under 35 knows, this already feels deeply uncool and the food is often grim.
Instead, these new apps focus on more traditional culinary concepts — hiring a cook or buying food directly from other people — and chefs are getting on board. ‘Restaurants are for losers,’ says Daniel Salvador, a chef who used to work the Michelin-star circuit in Spain, but has since packed it all in. Long hours, insecure jobs, psychopaths at the top — you can see why restaurant work is losing its appeal. Add high taxes, overheads and staff costs and it’s easy to see why chefs are starting to use technology that can make their job both easier and more lucrative.
Salvador now focuses his time on hosting supper clubs or cooking dinners at people’s homes. He uses sites such as EatAbout, La Belle Assiette, Supper and Chefs Exchange to find people who want to book a chef. Similar apps in Spain let him work there too. Freed from the shackles of a fixed-point restaurant, he can come up with his own menus, which are published online along with ratings and feedback. His south London flat is kitted out with all kinds of intriguing equipment — from dehydrators and herb sprouters to a device that will perfectly slice the top off an egg.
Not everybody is happy — and the country credited with inventing the modern restaurant is getting in a particular flap. Last August, French restaurateurs urged the government to ban ‘meal-sharing’ websites which let people book dinners cooked by amateur chefs at home. Back then, Didier Chenet, head of the restaurateurs’ union Synhorcat, suggested that 3,000 French households had signed up as hosts.
‘You could say that’s not so worrying,’ he said. ‘But if you look at Airbnb, in 2012 they had 7,000 homes in France, now they have 50,000.’ If French restaurateurs fear obsolescence, something’s up.
There are times when you can’t beat a restaurant experience, but these new apps are bound to shake things up. No doubt there will be plenty of hiccups along the way too, as people find a fly in their homemade soup and suddenly miss having a waiter to complain to.
But there’s no denying that my generation is ready to try anything when it comes to food — and now we are armed with the technology to make it happen. If a few restaurants have to die along the way, then so be it.