Madelyn Kumar

Afeefa’s dining room was warm, insulated by an amber ceiling light and long, drawn shades that concealed the dark street outside. Her husband Sami had just steered four strangers into their East Rock quadruplex, closing the door to the unit and shutting out the crisp November chill. Afeefa joined him in embracing the guests and jiggling their hands as if reuniting for Thanksgiving. Her cooking, arrayed along a plastic purple tablecloth on the floor, was already assembled at the center of her tableless dining room, but this feast had no special occasion. Strangers and loose acquaintances gathered on a Sunday evening, forming a cross-legged rectangle on cushions that surrounded the food in the name of conversation and new connections.

Only once her guests had removed their coats and bags did Afeefa herself sit down. She had been darting around the kitchen since 11 o’clock to produce a 12-dish, 29-plate banquet, ambitious for even the hungriest crowd of eight. A diverse group prepared to dig in: Syrian refugees Afeefa and Sami, an IT coordinator from Iraq, a Yale student from Boston, an early employment specialist working in New Haven, a Yale student from the Netherlands, a volunteer coordinator for Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services and a Yale junior from Florida.

While Afeefa produced the food and flavors of her home in Syria, Florida-native Kevin Zhen ’20 assembled the concoction of guests in the dining room. Afeefa hosted her event through Homecooked, a social dining startup that connects conversation-hungry guests with local amateur chefs who prepare dinner, set a booking price that typically falls between $15 and $20 and invite six to eight guests to a meal in their own home.

Founded by Zhen and his high school friend Hojung Kim, Homecooked seeks to be anything but transactional. Though Syrian stuffed grape leaves and spinach-filled flatbread may be what initially brings guests and hosts to the table, its founders hope the platform will help people cultivate the ongoing social ties they believe a shared meal can inspire. Zhen compares Homecooked to a blend of “Airbnb for food” and a Tinder for friendship.

“The long-term dream is you open Homecooked, you’re in New York and you see that across the street there’s this Vietnamese lady who makes amazing pho,” Zhen explained. “You go, you sit down, you eat with her, you find out her story, you learn a little bit more about her and you love the experience so much that you come back every two weeks. You bring her presents and just hang out. That’s really what Homecooked is about.”

Homecooked’s concept and vision, however, began with Kim. As a student living off campus at the University of Chicago, Kim struggled with loneliness and depression. He started cooking for friends, who found themselves returning for the company of other members of the UChicago community as much as they did for Kim’s cooking, and charged them to make rent money as more people came — 30 people twice a month. At the same time, he began researching the social psychology behind loneliness.

“I ended up knocking on a professor’s door [to discuss] the reasons for this widespread epidemic of isolation throughout society,” Kim said. “We talked about ways to bridge that gap again, to reintegrate communities, and we centered in on food as this really powerful way to connect with others.”

In 2017, Kim posted an open invite on the internet and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, which featured Korean-inspired turkey, in his apartment. International students left on campus flooded the event, and when Kim stopped by New Haven in between two squash tournaments a few weeks later, he proposed the idea to Zhen. Though Zhen was initially hesitant, Homecooked incorporated in January 2018.

Two days before Afeefa’s dinner, Homecooked released its revamped app, coded by Eric Duong ’20. The iOS program provides the backbone of the service, a way to process payments and reservations and to explore the profiles of guests and hosts. Although it doesn’t yet allow for referrals, ratings or tips, the founders plan to implement these features in updated versions. Users can track the mutual interests of their fellow guests and former hosts. Kim, who lists the Milwaukee Bucks, squash and startups in his profile, could add Kevin — who also lists startups, as well as breakdancing and storytelling — to keep in touch.

Homecooked and its four-person team — Zhen, Kim, Duong and creative director Gabe Oviawe — have spent the past year securing funding, developing the app and marketing the idea to potential hosts and guests. Recent UChicago graduate Kim — or “Mr. World Tour” as Zhen beams — has traveled to Atlanta, San Francisco, Copenhagen and other major cities for startup competitions, while Zhen balances Homecooked’s operations and his coursework as an East Asian studies major at Yale. The venture has won $70,000 in non-equity funding, including a $15,000 summer accelerator grant from the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale and a $50,000 award from 1ST50K, a contest whose stipulation has sent Kim and Oviawe to expand the company’s presence in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

As the team prepares to launch a marketing campaign with the revamped app now available for download, they’ve found support for social dining in unexpected places. Companies like banks have expressed interest in adopting Homecooked meals to promote closer relationships between company employees, stronger corporate culture and even friendly competition between two bosses who, for example, might battle for the better Homecooked barbeque. According to Zhen, apartment building managers also see Homecooked as a means of strengthening community and would be willing to incentivize meals on the platform if they ultimately increase retention. Even New Haven restaurants, with which Homecooked began partnering in mid-November, like the idea of using empty private rooms to connect their cooks with diners.

But no matter who hosts a meal, Zhen is insistent that chefs should sit down with guests in order to maximize the true benefit of a social dining experience. He once went undercover to an Eatwith event — a more established competitor to Homecooked that has hosted meals in over 130 countries — in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zhen felt the company prioritized a high-quality culinary experience, typically offering plates between $50 and $100. His Eatwith host did not sit with her guests, and Zhen believed that damaged the social experience and relationships his meal might have otherwise facilitated.

With the food handled by hosts, Homecooked continues to research ways to improve the social experience of their company’s events. Zhen said he has looked at dating sites like OkCupid to assess how they generate a sense of trust in other users and what algorithms they use to make better matches. Eatwith, for example, often requires hosts to include high-quality photos of the food, the atmosphere, the table and the cooking. A few paragraphs on the experience and an extensive sample menu also familiarize guests with the event they’ll be attending. In the app, Homecooked events feature a short biography on the host, profile photos of guests and three interests they each list.

Former Homecooked host Hannah Lant GRD ’21, who learned about the platform by first attending a friend’s event over the summer, agrees that the dynamic between guests and hosts is Homecooked’s strength. Joining a wide range of individuals around tables that blend New Haven residents and Yale students — locals, immigrants and others on short-term stays — generates conversation that can’t be achieved within the limited scope of one’s own social sphere. Though Kim conceived of Homecooked to fight social isolation, it might present a way to combat social polarization too.  

In Afeefa’s cozy East Rock dining room, guests with five occupations from three countries and three American states conversed in two languages, brought together by one meal. Ali, the IT specialist from Iraq, translated between Arabic and English on the fly as the group discussed Afeefa and Sami’s move to New Haven three years ago, IRIS’s refugee work in the city, the family’s first Homecooked event the weekend before and, of course, the food. Sami and Afeefa encouraged guests to sample appetite-replenishing radishes halfway through dinner, heaping additional helpings of food onto everyone’s plates and urging the group to stretch their stomachs.

A framed tapestry overlooking the feast in Afeefa’s dining room reads, “Happy is the house that shelters a friend.”

As people who value the hospitality and communal dining that Homecooked seeks to cultivate, Syrian refugees have shown great interest in hosting meals. The company filled November with three meals a weekend, most hosted by Syrians hoping to offer the New Haven community a taste of their country. IRIS recommends refugee chefs to Homecooked, and Zhen helps them organize their meals. “The craziest thing is that these cooks want to cook every single week,” Zhen said. “That is a game changer.”

The founders of Homecooked didn’t initially envision the intersection of the company and Middle Eastern refugees, but in its early months, Homecooked has become a way to engage them locally. Hosting meals through the app, refugees meet those in their new community, share their own culture and cuisine, and walk away having made some money from it all. The day after its unofficial one-year anniversary on Thanksgiving, Homecooked hosted its 40th event — “Hala’s Table” in East Rock — and the Syrian chef treated guests to mandi chicken with rice, green beans and lamb-stuffed zucchini with tahini-parsley sauce.

“I’ve eaten food that I’ve never eaten before, and I’ve eaten more than I’ve ever eaten before,” Alina Glaubitz ’21, the Yale College guest from the Netherlands, said after Afeefa’s dinner. “I just really enjoyed listening. … Even though there’s this disconnect in terms of our English understanding, there’s still something that’s bringing us all together to sit at the same table.”