A few weeks after I first wrote about EatWith, my editor told me about the possibility to interview Joel Serra, one of the people in charge of EatWith.com, the up-and-coming global community where guests and hosts connect through wonderful personalized dinners.
I’m not sure what I expected to find in Joel. Most likely a foodie and entrepreneur; someone with an interest to plug his product; perhaps a more business-y type of person.
What I found, though, was an extremely well rounded 30 year old guy with a penchant for good stories, a rich cultural and family history, a restless DIY spirit, a deeply engrained appreciation for badass chefs, and Sweet Jesus… a mouth-watering way to describe a dish!
In essence, Joel seems to embody the spirit of what EatWith is trying to do: offer people an option in which the person-to-person exchange, cultural idiosyncrasies and full sensory experience becomes every bit as important as the food itself.
I got to know a little bit about the man, chef, author, former reality show contestant, Pilates instructor and entrepreneur. There are many layers to Joel Serra, and we’re here barely scratching the surface.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Joel
I was born in New Zealand and grew up in the Tasmania — quite literally the ‘end-of-the-world’. It was a simple farming life with a father that always saw good in the world and a mother who always pushed us above the mundane and had me reading Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus early on.
I’ve done a few things to get where I am — barman, bricklayer, Pilates instructor (I still teach in Barcelona), English teacher, life model, medical research participant (human guinea pig) — and then more seriously, economist, editor, consultant, public policy adviser, chef and now I am officially 100% startup. It’s been a ride and in a beautiful twist of fate, every one of these random experiences now makes sense and played a part in getting me where I am today.
I would describe myself as a cynical optimist but a real believer in anything being possible if we do as Winston Churchill instructed and, “Never, never, never give up.”
So, what inspired you to start cooking?
I was eight years old and it was the night before the School Fair where every kid arrives with a cake to sell. I left the task with my dear mother. But waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a flat chocolaty disaster on the counter, I calmly pulled out a bowl and made what would be the first of many creations in the kitchen.
Later, while working at KPMG, I realized I needed a creative release and started a supper-club called Global Gobbler, run out of my apartment, where guests would come for free for multi-course tasting menus and in return do things like cut my hair, teach me how to take nice photos, or source me rare black garlic — I wasn’t in it for the money, but more to test my food on a wider audience and also meet some interesting people. I eventually had a national food critic come along for a dinner — calling my food ‘modern fashionable Spain’ in her review — she did leave the dinner very tipsy and with a friend’s number so that might have had something to do with the gushing compliments.
I then somehow found myself on the first season of Masterchef Australia where I was famous for cutting more fingers than onions in a knife skills challenge. I made it through elimination after elimination and, despite being told, “if you keep cooking like that, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with”, I bowed out and returned to a less dramatic reality.
Then I moved to Spain and transformed into Papa Serra…
Yes! I read about this on the Papa Serra website. Tell us about Papa Serra and Papalosophy.
Papa Serra, my Catalan great-grandfather was never a chef, but I have a powerful memory of him pounding together a magical allioli — he was simple, powerful and somehow became my inspiration. I try to carry those qualities through life in and out of the kitchen.
I took my food obsession and together with a ‘fuck ‘em all’ approach, launched PapaSerra.com, where I created gastronomic experiences for food lovers from all around the world: market tours, cooking classes and other unique events.
I also kept up a blog and with my first studies being in Journalism, I knew some piece of literature was in me — and so I started creating Papalosophy.
Papalosophy is a cookbook that combines original recipes with personal stories and rock photography shot by Aldo Chacon, one of my closest friends and the other half of the Papalosophy team.
It is both ‘lick-the-page’ recipes as well as blow-your-mind fine art photos. I also tell my story from wild blonde New Zealand kid to running a cooking school in one of the world’s gastronomic hubs armed with both a sharp knife and wit.
What’s your involvement with EatWith and how did it start?
It was through Papa Serra that I crossed paths with EatWith co-founder Guy Michlin. He tried to book a spot in my class but I famously turned him down because I was full up. He persisted and when we finally connected over Skype it was clear we shared the same vision about changing the global dining landscape. I joined the team before we were online and set up EatWith Barcelona — currently the #1 market around the world. I now head up Global Community and working hard to spread EatWith around the world while the plates are hot.
How did you get to Barcelona? What attracted you about it, and what’s your favorite aspect of its gastronomic culture?
I have a Catalan grandmother (who still lives in Tarragona just outside of Barcelona) and also grew up in a Mediterranean household (despite being on the other side of the world) where olive oil was splashed around like water.
Burning my KPMG pin stripes in my mid-20s, I moved to Barcelona to study a Masters in Refugee Studies (with ambitions to work for the UN). We all know a Masters actually stands for Holiday in Barcelona so in between writing my thesis, I transformed into a Spanish food freak and after finishing my studies and a brief stint working in London, I knew my stomach belonged in Barcelona.
Barcelona is my ultimate city. There is a lazy confidence that is well deserved. The whole city drinks vermouth in sprawling sunny plazas every evening, the food (if you know where to go) is close to perfection, and you are just a short, cheap, and very uncomfortable flight away from anywhere in Europe. I also have a real affinity with the people as well — warm, passionate, open-minded and with a real appreciation of what is important in life. Being sport-mad, I go mad with ocean swimming, riding up mountains on my single speed, running the city’s marathon, windsurfing in Andalucia and playing tennis on clay a la Nadal. I need to maintain my obsessive tendencies with my sport, or else my ‘cook, eat, repeat’ job would not end well.
[Chef] Anthony Bourdain describes Barcelona as “the most exciting place to eat in the Western world”, and I would argue that it is the most exciting place to live as well.
You definitely have a thing for ‘rockstar chefs’. In your opinion, what makes one?
My crazy spark for food, travel, writing and a ‘just fucking do it’ approach came from Anthony Bourdain. Aside from being a world-class chef, he is the only other gonzo journalist I know of (aside from the never-to-be-repeated Hunter S. Thompson). He proved that not every chef has to wear whites and keep his station clean.
Most of the world grows up idolizing rockstars, not real musicians. And I guess I grew up idolizing rockstar chefs, who made their plates literally explode with personality, rather than the gastronomic perfectionists.
I don’t do enough drugs to be a real chef and am too modest to ever be a rockstar chef, but I feel like with enough black humor and ‘in the kitchen anything is possible’ mantra, I could become a true gonzo chef.
Any signature dishes you’d care to share with us?
At a big food event in Tel Aviv, I cooked with three other chefs for a crowd of 200 and prepared what would become my signature dish.
It involves ajo blanco (white almond gazpacho) studded with green grapes and the bite of sumac, next to a Romesco cream scattered with toasted almonds and pomegranate. Next to this sits juicy Catalan spinach, rich with pine nuts and sweet with onions and raisins topped finally with crispy skin bass crusted in saffron salt.
Holy shit, that sounds amazing! Tell us more! What’s an example of something you might serve during the dinners you currently host?
I actually just hosted one! This was the menu:
– Housemade vermut
- Toasted almond and pear gazpacho with sumac vinaigrette and wild red currants.
- Tomato orgy with olive tapenade, basil oil, balsamic toffee dust and cured lemons.
- Spiced carrot cream with glazed wild carrots, marinated prawns, pickled radish and bitter greens.
- Saffron crusted sea bass with mussel broth and crispy fennel.
- Mushrooms magic with rosemary salsa, white pesto, star anise duxelle and pickled blackberries.
- Fig love with rosemary infused dark-chocolate mousse, coffee, orange mascarpone, & hazelnut carquinyolis.
Plus enough alcohol to guarantee glowing reviews and at least one guest doing something they’ll regret the next morning.
Are you an avid user of Eatwith as a guest?
I’m the #1 fan.
From the personal handmade touch of a shy Thai girl in Spain that cooks a Pad Thai you would kill for, to the Italian guy that makes his own lasagna and hosts dinners in a disused Italian café, to the crazy Japanese sushi master who prepares Japanese tasting menus in a haze of marijuana and amazing playlists, all the way up to the ex-Michelin starred chef who now creates simply amazing degustation menus that rival the best restaurants around the world.
At EatWith, we are aiming to create and promote the most exciting and unique dining experiences around the world. And when I do go to traditional restaurants it does feel a bit stale and predictable.
I really believe that in less than a decade, EatWith will be the most sought-after dining experience for locals and travelers around the world.
Have you developed any close food-based relationships with people you’ve met through EatWith?
I took the job primarily to meet girls and for the free lunches. Both those ambitions were realized but in ways I never imagined. A meal is probably the second most intimate thing you can share with someone and with almost every person I sat around the table with I formed some sort of connection. There was an internal joke that for a while I was secretly launching another startup called SleepWith, but it was all lies (not lies). But I did form really close connections — I fell in love, forged lifelong friendships and made professional connections with some of the most creative and inspiring people around the world.
What’s the most creative dinner experience you’ve been in/heard of on EatWith?
For sure my favorite and most memorable experience was with a true artist called Maria-Adele in Barcelona. She created an amazing Italian-inspired menu that was accompanied by her own music played on various instruments using kitchen tools like a knife and whisk. It was sensory beyond my imagination and I still get shivers remembering the experience. There were about 20 of us at three intimate tables in this beautiful cave-like concert hall enjoying a dining experience that was so much more than just a dinner. Just wow.
Are there any places you’d like to visit based specifically on the food? Tell us a couple of your dream gastronomic destinations you haven’t been to yet.
I fell in love with the food from Jordan, which aside from being the birthplace of hummus, is filled with exotic spices like za’atar and summak as well as the once-in-a-lifetime experience of eating mansaf. Then there is Mexico… Aldo (the other half of Papalosophy) inspired me and we have tentative plans to do something crazy around food there in 2015.
No matter where I go, I will always seek out the authentic and this can sometime lead to some unpleasant, but ultimately rewarding experiences like eating a bowl of fish eyes in Hong Kong and closing my eyes and swallowing a few slices of chicken sashimi in a underground bar in Tokyo. But I love it – I’ll always take the uncut version.
EatWith is currently available in over 20 countries. There are plans of expanding; what are some of those places? Additionally, what’s required for other locations to apply for host positions?
EatWith is exploding in a few cities around the world including Barcelona, San Francisco, New York and Tel Aviv and we are organically growing other markets around the world. The next cities to focus on will be Paris, Rome, London, Berlin, Tokyo and Los Angeles and a few other surprises.
EatWith is about offering the most unique and exciting dining experiences around the world and we use a number of criteria to measure each person that writes in wanting to be a host — the hosting space and food have to be unique and first-rate and the host themselves must have a strong identity that is reflected in the food, space and ambiance. If you think you’ve got what it takes, go to EatWith.com and apply to be a host.
If you could host a dinner for two major political/famous figures, who would they be and what dishes do you think should be served that night?
Despite being quite organized in my own life, I love chaos. My favorite moments at EatWith dinners were those moments of chaos. When born-again Christians from Alabama found themselves seated next to a lesbian couple from Amsterdam, or when an Israeli startup guy found himself sitting across from a strong-minded Palestinian girl. Beautiful, beautiful chaos.
So I would actually host three dinners simultaneously with the aim of inspiring chaos:
Sarah Silverman and Sarah Palin would attend the first dinner and I think that for Sarah Palin I’d do a really nice caribou (shot by Palin) braised in Spanish sherry and some confit black lentils with basil oil and a tomato concasse for the beautiful vegetarian Sarah Silverman.
I’d also like to cook for Angela Merkel (German PM) and Mariano Rajoy (Spanish PM). For Merkel I would want to show off the Spanish work ethic and say thank you for the billions of bail-out Euros. I would spend the day playing Pétanque by the beach and then, despite being scheduled to start at 9pm, dinner would actually be served at 10:30pm. For Rajoy I would prepare a 7lb Apple Strudel – delicious in the moment but with payback the next morning (just like those German billions).
And finally I’d love to invite Justin Bieber and Issei Sagawa (who became a minor celebrity after cannibalizing a Dutch woman). There would be no food, I would just make sure Justin was properly seasoned.