This travel site finds you an authentic home-cooked meal abroad

BY    | Updated: Feb 29, 2016 at 11:21 PM
To visit Mexico is to eat your way through Mexico. Pictured here are chiles en nogada, guacamole, homemade salsas and ensalada de nopales. Photo by Margaret Myers

To visit Mexico is to eat your way through Mexico. Pictured here are chiles en nogada, guacamole, homemade salsas and ensalada de nopales. Photo by Margaret Myers

Wouldn’t it be cool to travel the world like a TV chef? Like Anthony Bourdain, or that guy on the Travel Channel who eats weird food? OK maybe not him. But Bourdain, he has it all — not only does he get to dine at the world’s most exquisite and exclusive restaurants, he gets to experience the food and the culture from the very people who carry on their country’s culinary traditions.

Now, thanks to the sharing economy, and sites like Traveling Spoon, you, too, can travel like an irreverent chef.

Much like Airbnb, Traveling Spoon connects users with hosts abroad — but instead of a bed, you get a home-cooked meal.

The concept is the brainchild of two passionate travelers and food lovers. And the origin story: co-founder Steph Lawrence’s 2007 family vacation to China. She yearned to break through the tourist trap offerings — the big, gleaming hotels and restaurants catering to Western travelers. Instead, she felt disconnected from the culture she had traveled so far to experience.

Two years later, determined to immerse herself in that culture, she moved to Beijing.

“I wanted to explore the culture through food. I wanted to find a Chinese grandmother … I wanted to learn her recipes,” she said.

But even as a resident, she struggled to make those connections.

“If it’s so hard for me, just think of someone planning their one-week vacation. In my mind it seemed like such an incredible opportunity.”

So she mapped out a business plan, registered the URL and moved back to the states.

Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence, co-founders of Traveling Spoon. Photo courtesy of Traveling Spoon

Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence, co-founders of Traveling Spoon. Photo courtesy of Traveling Spoon

It wasn’t until 2011 when she was in her first week of business school that she met fellow food lover Aashi Vel, and the two put the plan into action, launching Traveling Spoon in 2013 in just a few cities in India, Thailand and Vietnam. Today, 200 host chefs participate in 18 countries. Just last week the site launched in Mexico, adding hosts in Puebla, Puerto Morelos and the capital Mexico City. So now you can experience abuela’s mole and arroz con leche.

Or a chef’s family recipe for chiles en nogada, which is one of Salvador Fernández’s specialty, especially if you visit him in the fall, around the time of Mexico’s Independence, as I did. I joined Fernández, who is one of Traveling Spoon’s newest hosts, for a meal of this special dish, accompanied by a traditional cactus salad and an array of salsas about as colorful and rich as Mexico itself.

“I’m one of these guys who thinks you can eat culture,” Fernández told me. “We are eating something that the Aztecs created.”

Photo by Margaret Myers

Chef Salvador Fernández prepares salsa in a traditional molcajete, as his wife Maria and their 18-month-old Lionel prepare to set the table for dinner. Photo by Margaret Myers

Each of the dishes Fernández prepares comes with a story. Chiles en nogada comes with the legacy of Mexican history and pride: the dish was created by the Augustinian nuns of Puebla to celebrate General Augustin Iturbide, who led the country’s fight for independence from Spain.

For Fernández, a Puebla native who is also a trained chef, this dish recalls memories of his grandmother and mother and a gaggle of grandkids gathered in the kitchen preparing each step of the labor intensive stuffed Poblano peppers. (See his recipe for it here.)

Photo by Margaret Myers

Cooking lesson: You have to char the skins of the peppers to make it easy to remove. Photo by Margaret Myers

“My personal food is about all the memories I have,” he said, as he showed me how to prepare three types of salsa in his home in Puerto Morelos. “Mexican food is in my veins.”

READ MORE: A chef’s take on Mexico’s most patriotic dish

Lawrence said these are the best travel experiences, when visitors can engage and interact with locals in their own homes. Her goal is to facilitate these encounters.

The cost per person is more than a typical meal in a local upscale restaurant — I paid $120 for a meal and a cooking class with Fernández. But remember, you’re also paying for the experience.

Each host gets vetted through an application process, video interviews, and in-home visits. At first co-founders Lawrence and Vel personally vetted cooks. Now they utilize a team of “ambassadors,” like expats, travelers, food bloggers, who make in-home visits in exchange for a free meal.

What they’re looking for? A love of their food and love of sharing culture with others.

Photo by Margaret Myers

Dinner with Chef Fernández’s family, including his wife Maria and 18-month-old son Lionel. Photo by Margaret Myers

“That was another thing that was wonderful,” Lawrence said. “We found that so many reasons for hosting were much more than money.” One of her hosts, a mother in Tokyo, told her: “When I grew up I had never met a foreigner. … That’s not what I want from my children. I want them to know about all the different cultures that are out there.”

Other hosts want to practice English, she said, or are empty nesters and want to share their hospitality with others.

For chef Fernández, it was clear from the feast he prepared for me.

“We want to serve all of this like a family,” Fernández said. “Cooking is love.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest number of host chefs and countries: 200 hosts in 18 countries.