Growing up in Athens, Michalis Gkontas adored his mother’s traditional Greek cooking. A baked pasta dish called pastitsio was a favourite; papoutsakia (stuffed aubergines) was another. But when he moved out of the family home to study, Gkontas soon found himself with takeaway burger joints and pizza places on speed dial. He longed for the home cooking he was raised on, but lacked the time and the skills to recreate it himself.
Around the same time, Gkontas was trying to come up with an entrepreneurial business plan as part of his Master’s degree. He figured that there were plenty of other people in his position who wanted healthier, properly cooked meals and he went about proposing a website through which subscribers would be able to buy meal portions from home cooks who would make a little extra food to sell.
Time-poor workers and students wanting a home-cooked meal could get one on the cheap and the family cook could earn a bit of money. It was a proposal well-suited to Greek’s tough economic climate; everyone would benefit. In fact, the plan was so strong that Gkontos was able to secure financial backing and launched Cookisto in Athens just over a year ago. So great has its success been (the site has attracted more than 12,000 cooks in Athens in just the last few months) that it is being introduced in London this week, with plans to spread around the UK in the near future.
“I had always used different start-ups that belong to the broader space of collaborative consumption such as Couchsurfing, Airbnb, or those sites where you rent a car off someone near you,” Gkontos says. “I had this daily problem of wondering what to eat and I saw so many concepts that build platforms and connect people and create local markets, and I thought that this idea could potentially do really well.”
So how does it work exactly? The idea is that cooks (they can be anyone from family cooks willing to make a few extra portions to dedicated foodies who want to share their passion for cooking) upload to the website what they plan to create. People looking for a home-cooked meal can browse the site for cooks in their area and see what they are making that week.
On offer at the moment is everything from boeuf bourguignon to beetroot gnocchi in orange and sage sauce; yellow split-pea soup; and bamyeh (a Middle Eastern stew). Meals are exchanged by collection or delivery, depending on the cook. Cookisto is also introducing a bespoke service whereby users can request that a cook to make a certain meal (anything from canapés for a party to a full Sunday roast) and the cooks can bid for the business. And, in case you’re wondering, Cookisto makes its money by taking a 15 per cent cut from whatever the cook earns.
If the idea of picking up and eating a meal from a perfect stranger horrifies you, then this might not be the service for you. But its creator argues that this is simply the new world of online consumerism; you have to trust the seller, just as you would when purchasing something on eBay, or renting a room off Gumtree. Although there are terms and conditions stipulating UK health and safety standards that prospective cooks sign up to when they join, the service goes otherwise unregulated. Cooks and meals are user-rated, however, so you can get a fair idea if someone’s not cutting it in the kitchen. In Athens, those with the glowing reviews become the most in-demand cooks.
“Obviously with any collaborative peer-to-peer marketplace there is a trust element involved,” says Nikki Finnemore, Cookisto’s UK marketing director. “But the more cooks we have reviewed, and as they grow in prominence, it will get easier. The public is getting accustomed to using collaborative marketplaces, though. And you can easily see that a lot of the home chefs who have signed up are legitimate. They run supper clubs or have their own YouTube channels, or a food blog. Many of them are really involved with the foodie community and I think that adds credibility and perhaps breaks down some of those trust barriers.”
One of the reasons that Cookisto has been such a success in Athens is its low pricing; punters could pick up a home-cooked meal for between €3 and €4 (about £2.50 to £3.30). The dishes on offer on the UK version of the site are more than double that. But the founders are optimistic that people will be willing to spend that much.
“Obviously, we are feeding into quite different economies so the pricing is very different,” Finnemore says. “Here, I think the appeal is that it’s a home-cooked meal rather than a low-cost meal, if you like. It’s about enjoying the luxury of not having to cook yourself, but still getting something well-made. And you’re not restricted to the obvious takeaway food. There’s so much on offer.”
They also think Cookisto will thrive in the UK because of the country’s dynamic food scene and point to the selection of high-calibre home cooks they have already secured. There are food bloggers, supper-club hosts, bakers and even a MasterChef quarterfinalist signed up to start cooking. They are also excited about the level of diversity that London offers and they expect that to be reflected in the dishes on offer.
One of the home cooks is 30-year-old Sara Mittersteiner, a baker who runs a monthly vegan supper club called Pomodoro E Basilico. “I’m Italian and I love the fact that I can share my knowledge about Italian food with new people; I’m very passionate. We have loads of Italian restaurants here in London but they always offer you the same dishes and it’s not really what we eat in Italy every day. The best bit about the supper club is when people get excited about the food; I love that, and hope Cookisto will be similar. And obviously getting a bit of extra money is also great.”
Gkontas highlights the multicultural nature of the UK and the sophistication of cooks here. “That is not the case in Athens,” he says. “Almost everybody there is Greek and is making Greek food. I think the ethnic diversity will be a very strong element of the UK launch.” Sure enough, they already have cooks from South Africa, Italy, Kenya and America, among others.
What they really think sets the business apart, however, is the community aspect of it. “We tend to naturally bring people together around food, whether that’s eating a meal together, or meeting friends for dinner,” Finnemore says. “This is just an extension of that. There is the convenience of not having to cook, mixed with the desire to be part of something bigger; part of a community. There’s the personal contact. The exchange is personal and people develop a relationship.”
While the economic crisis in Greece no doubt contributed to Cookisto’s success, Gkontas imagines that it will take on a bit of a different life here in the UK. “I think it will be interesting to see who uses the service,” he says. “I think it’s going to be quite different to Athens. But at the end of the day, I think the most important thing, the most valuable thing, is the joy it brings to people"