Wait, Who’s Coming To Dinner?

 Kevin Zhen sets the table for Homecooked. Karen Marks Photos. 

Kevin Zhen sets the table for Homecooked. Karen Marks Photos. 

You’re a young adult in a new city, unsure of how to start meeting people. You haven’t shared a meal with anyone in days. You have a creeping suspicion that dinner will be eaten alone again tonight—but you’re not ready for another solitary bowl of pasta while watching Netflix. 

So you open an app that tells you where strangers in your neighborhood are willing to have anyone come over to their houses for a home-cooked meal. There are still a few slots open for a dinner that night. You put your shoes back on, and head over. 

On Wednesday evening, Homecooked, Inc. Chief Operating Officer Kevin Zhen hosted one of those meals at his apartment in downtown New Haven. Setting a table of mismatched utensils in his socks, he welcomed a group of seven strangers to his kitchen table for a meal of sticky Chinese roast pork belly with carrots, potatoes, tomato and egg.

Busting around the table, co-founders Hojung Kim and Zhen said that Homecooked is a “social dining platform” that is meant to be affordable. Through the program, six to eight strangers convene for a meal at a chef’s home, gathering around their dining table. Some chefs are restaurateurs, while others are home cooks who volunteer to take part in the program. While similar programs exist in other cities—New York’s League of Kitchens, for instance—there is currently no analogue in New Haven or Connecticut. 

 Homecooked Inc.'s guests include students, young professionals, newcomers to New Haven and the occasional townie who wants to know what it's all about.

Homecooked Inc.'s guests include students, young professionals, newcomers to New Haven and the occasional townie who wants to know what it's all about.

While the project launched officially in February and got Collab New Haven backing shortly thereafter, its genesis goes back much further. Kim had the idea of getting together with strangers when he moved into an off-campus apartment during his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago. 

“I spent day after day eating alone,” he said. “And I think I became kind of depressed.” 

While he was there, he said it hit him how isolated people are. He found that Americans were eating more and more meals alone—a trend that continues today, especially for those who are single. They’re also cooking less, with more options in takeout and delivery. Zhen added that by charging a fee, Kim was also able to cover his rent. 

Kim and Zhen were friends in high school, and Zhen was skeptical when Kim originally pitched the idea to him. Years later in their shared apartment—which doubles as company headquarters—he seemed excited as he set the table for his first meal. 

The apartment has quirks—and that’s meant to be a part of eating at someone’s home. In the living room, Homecooked Creative Director Gabe Oviawe had bought and placed a curious mannequin. Two whiteboards were mounted in the kitchen outlining short- and long-term business plans for the company. A playlist curated by Oviawe played in the background. And as guests trickled in, shoes came off and people padded around in their socks. 

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“I think a good number is six or eight people,” Zhen said as arrivals rolled in. Conversation flowed easily, words drifting between the entire group. New bread breakers-turned-friends broke off into pairs, words criss-crossing the table. 

“Eat more!” Zhen said, prompting guests to dig into the meal of rice, ginger orange pork belly, tomato egg, and potatoes that he had prepared. Growing up in Miami, Zhen’s family ran a Chinese restaurant and he would spend hours just cooking rice. That night’s recipe was just something he found online.

“It’s my first time cooking for eight people!” he said. Guests talked about their own cooking adventures and misadventures, work they were doing during the summer, their hometowns, and best places for camping. It was Zhen’s first time being present for a Homecooked meal, though he recounted his attempt to ask locals on a trip to Malaysia to make him a home-cooked meal.

While Wednesday’s meal carried a $15 price tag, Zhen and Kim said that more experienced chefs can charge more or host more often. They explained that 85 percent of the cost goes towards covering chef’s expenses and the other 15 percent is taken by Homecooked. With a fellowship from the Yale Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking, they added that the company is currently not making profit. 

 Co-founders Hojung Kim and Kevin Zhen.

Co-founders Hojung Kim and Kevin Zhen.

When asked about visions for the platform going forward, Kim said that he would like to be able to address food insecurity down the road. To make that happen, Homecooked would need to designate itself as a benefit corporation. As a benefit corporation, Homecooked could invite those unable to pay the meal fee into events for free—otherwise, failure to maximize profits would allow shareholders to sue the startup. 

For now, Kim said, “We’re just trying to stay alive.” Where the company was “floundering” in February and March—in a startup phase labeled the “Trough of Sorrow” on their business plan whiteboard—Homecooked released its iOS app this month, enabling strangers to sign up and receive notifications for new meals hosted in their neighborhood. Right now, Homecooked is only live in New Haven, but the long term plan is to spread both the concept and company to other cities.

“Pop-up dining has been very bougie,” Kim said. “We just want people meeting people.”