Private chef service Kitchensurfing grabs $1 million, expands beyond New York

By Erin Griffith , written on February 13, 2013

From The News Desk

Kitchensurfing, a New York startup that brings professional chefs to home dinner parties, has raised around $1 million from investors including SV Angel, Founder Collective, Chris Dixon, David Karp, David Tisch, Joanne Wilson, Brian Sharples, David Barber, Ken Pelletier, Josh Stylman, Peter Hershberg, and John Maloney.

The site, live in NYC and Berlin, launched in Boston today.

Chris Muscarella would like to dispense with the preciousness around food and let people who dine together do what they want to do. For most of us, that is not golf clapping at the chef's subtly magnificent use of kohlrabi foam, or arranging our whimsical wine glasses for the best Instagram angle. We're there to enjoy each others' company. The food, he says, should be a backdrop to the communal dining experience.

As Ricky Roma says in Glenngarry Glen Ross, "Great meals fade in reflection. Everything else gains."

And another thing -- let's kill that agonizing group dinner thing, too.

Muscarella noticed the prickliness of group dining in his role as a partner of the Brooklyn restaurant Rucola. "It was really awesome to see people laughing and happy and getting drunk," he says. But the quality of experience dropped off with parties larger than four.

This got the wheels turning for Muscarella, who's had a love-hate relationship with the Internet for the past 15 years. He got his start at a dotcom-era ChatRoulette-style company called CU-SeeMe, which he jokes "totally had a penis problem, too." Burned out on the startup life, he escaped to Beijing for a few years, returning stateside to study Greek classics and experiment in the film industry. The Web eventually drew him back -- he started a text message payment company for non-profits called Mobile Commons, only to leave it for Rucola.

Even with a successful restaurant, the siren song of techs startups called.

"When you're an Internet person you can't really help but put the Internet into things," he says. "You can't help it even if it's analog and supposed to be analog."

At Rucola he'd noticed the labor market for chefs and food service is completely messed up. Talented chefs get paid very little to work long, hard hours in kitchens hidden in restaurant basements. Many of them burned out after a few years.

That, combined with his desire to make group dining experiences better, spawned Kitchensurfing. The site launched last summer as an experiment and has since blossomed into a full-on business.

Muscarella knew he was onto something when he held a meetup with some early chef sign-ups and food photographers. Eighty chefs showed up, many of whom had driven from several states away. One told them it was his dream to travel the world cooking for people, and that Kitchensurfing would help him fulfill that.

"They were hungry for a community on the Web," he says, "and we have an economic tie-in to that."

Plenty of professional communities on the Web host portfolios -- Behance for design, ArtistsWanted for art, Contently for writers -- but Kitchensurfing is designed to help its community members actually make money. This explains (in my opinion) why Airbnb users booked 10 million nights in just four years, while free users of Couchsurfing have only stayed 5.6 million nights over nine years. (The site says it has facilitated 20 million "experiences," including meet-ups.) Yes, the cultural exchange of hosting guests in your home is still meaningful. But it takes a monetary incentive to get a mass of people to do it repeatedly.

Kitchensurfing now has thousands of chefs on its waiting list. Around 200 are available in New York; the team carefully vets each one with an in-person "test kitchen." Since that's not particularly scalable, Kitchensurfing will soon move to a peer-driven vetting service for adding new chefs.

I stopped by a test kitchen today at the company's office (a large Brooklyn apartment). A pair of Turkish restaurant owners, a former taxi driver specializing in hearty kosher food, and a dairy-free baker served a communal lunch to the Kitchensurfing team and a few friends. There was something intensely personal and almost emotional about hearing each chef explain the back story to their food as we ate it. They had cooked us their versions of family recipes, adapted for allergies, modern twists, or seasonality. It was the sort of personal experience that I (like many, I assume) didn't think was available to me.

That answers one of the main issues facing Kitchensurfing. As with Airbnb, there's the obvious question of whether people actually want to do this. On the surface, hiring a chef for a private party seems strange, and possibly extravagant. Muscarella says he's found that, once people do it for a special occasion, they realize how easy and unique it is, and wind up booking chefs for a more casual occasion. It has worked -- Kitchensurfing's top-earning chefs made between $8,000 and $9,000 each cooking private meals in December. Muscarella says Valentine's Day is on track to be the site's biggest day yet.

To book a chef, you simply fill in your zip code, date range, number of guests and price range. A list of chefs, their availability, and menus comes up, and you choose one. Then a professional, tasty meal is cooked at your apartment while you entertain your friends. You're not asked to move the party elsewhere once everyone finishes eating, and there's no awkward splitting of the bill at the end of the night.

The meals are usually single payer. On the topic of price, Muscarella argues that Kitchensurfing meals for six to eight people are often lower than what they'd pay a restaurant. Beyond that, people typically underestimate what they pay when they eat out by half, he argues. Payment for Kitchensurfing bookings includes the tip, ingredients and clean-up.

In addition to users and chefs, Kitchensurfing has attracted the attention of an elite set of investors, raising close to $1 million in seed funding from SV Angel, Founder Collective, Chris Dixon, David Tisch, Tumblr founder David Karp, Joanne Wilson, Homeaway co-founder Brian Sharples, Blue Hill Farm executive chef David Barber, angel investors Josh Stylman and Peter Hershberg, former Tumblr president John Maloney, and Groupon founding CTO Ken Pelletier.

He plans to use his seed funding to staff up and expand beyond New York and Berlin (co-founders Lars Kluge and Borahm Cho are German, which explains the early international launch). A month ago Kitchensurfing hired Ben Leventhal, the co-founder of Eater, as its President. And today the site launches in its third city, Boston.

The investor attention is no surprise -- the site fits perfectly into the much-lauded "distributed workforce" and "sharing economy" trends the tech world has been obsessed with lately. To be clear, there is no sharing going on here (or really, at most services dubbed "sharing economy") -- Kitchensurfing is simply taking underutilized resources -- in this case, cooking talent -- and finding a demand for it.

"We're shifting the cost structure of how a restaurant works in certain way," Muscarella says. Oh, and there's the memorable dining experience part, too. But in some ways, that's just an appetizer.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]