It's 7pm on a chilly Friday night and I'm navigating my way through the crowded car park of a Narrabundah apartment complex. I'm looking for an apartment I've never been to before, to have dinner with people I've never met. In French. And I'm late.
I'm heading to a Voulez Vous Diner evening. My hosts are French couple Caroline and Jean-Marie Le Rest - she works at the embassy and he's the embassy chef. We're going to have a dinner party - a classic French meal prepared by Jean-Marie.
The concept is simple - it's like Airbnb for foodies. You're heading off on holidays or visiting a new city. You browse Voulez Vous Diner for dinners in your city, pay a fee, and get to meet a food-loving local for a home cooked meal, a glass of wine and conversation about everything and anything. Or you meet someone for a cup of coffee and a chat with tips on how to get the most out of your holiday. Or you book a food tour around the city. Locals advertise their offerings on the website - dinners, picnics, tours - and tourists or visitors book them.
Voulez Vous Diner is a French affair because it started there (the website comes in both French and English). Franck Leonhardt runs the operation in Canberra. He's an expansive, genial Parisian whose life became inextricably linked to the capital after he met and fell in love with an Australian woman who worked for the embassy in France. They married and had children, and then moved back to the capital to be closer to her family. Leonhardt is friends with the owners of Voulez Vous Diner and when they were looking to expand outside of France, he agreed to launch the website in Australia.
Leonhardt is trying to boost Voulez Vous Diner's presence in Australia by spruiking dinners in Canberra and hoping to spread them to the rest of the country.
Tonight, he's joined me and another guest, Frances Summers, in Jean-Marie and Caroline's living room for our Voulez Vous Diner party (I've finally found their apartment after frantically making a circuit of the complex). Caroline is charming, blonde and attentive, Jean-Marie elegantly dressed and expressive. We drink champagne in their living room, which is filled with modern, dark furniture and baby paraphernalia - they've recently had their first child, a little girl who sleeps undisturbed throughout proceedings.
Jean-Marie produces a tray of canapes - fried ravioli stuffed with duck and adorned with pesto and a cherry tomato each. He's a seasoned traveller - he was in the French navy before coming to work for the French embassy and has worked as a chef for years. He and Caroline talk about their posting to Australia, what they've enjoyed about Canberra and what they've managed to visit so far. Frances, a former public servant, tells us about the year she hopes to spend in France, travelling to each of the 150-odd "le plus beaux" villages which call themselves the most beautiful and picturesque villages in the country. She wants to write a book.
We're having a raclette dinner party tonight. In the kitchen and dining room Jean-Marie and Caroline have prepared an epic spread. Slices of raclette cheese and charcuterie are fanned out on a wooden board. There's a pile of fresh crusty bread, bowls of cherry tomatoes and new potatoes and cornichons. Caroline turns on the raclette machine - a circular, electric hot plate on which we place wedge-shaped individual pans to melt our cheese. "This is a great dish for winter," she says. "It's very good for a party in the cold weather - but it's a bit rich." Leonhardt shows us how to fill up our plates with a selection of potatoes, cured meat slices and vegetables, layering them or shredding them into a mixed pile. We then pop a couple of slices of raclette into a little individual pan and slot them onto the machine to melt. When everything is melted, the panful of cheese is poured over the potatoes, ham and vegetables in a gooey, luscious golden mess. It's delicious, and yes, a little rich.
Jean-Marie pours out more wine, Caroline hands round more potatoes, tomatoes, cornichons. We talk about French villages, holidays in the south Pacific, their baby's amazing capacity to sleep through the racket we're making, visa requirements in both France and Australia. Leonhardt dollops more melted cheese over a tangle of shredded ham. The room is toasty, and the raclette and wine are filling everyone up.
Voulez Vous Diner isn't the first of its kind - there are a number of websites that do exactly the same thing, linking hosts offering dinners with interested guests who'd like a meal or to meet new people. In exchange, they take a commission from the host. Traveling Spoon allows you to book dinners at people's homes throughout India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Japan and Indonesia, and says it vets hosts before allowing them to offer meals on the site. Meal Sharing says it operates in 425 cities around the world and allows you to book dinners from $10 (it's also apparently partnering with OpenTable, the online reservations system). Cookening is another French-based website which offers to connect guests and hosts throughout France, Europe and the United States. Like AirBnB, there are always concerns about safety and legal issues - what happens if someone gets sick from a meal, and how safe is it to go to someone's home or to invite someone you don't know into yours? And even if everything's fine, there's always the chance that you don't get along with your hosts or guests. Some of the websites say they vet hosts' information. Some don't. For what it's worth all the websites, including Voulez Vous Diner, offer the chance to leave a positive or negative review of the experience.
"We are trying to get the dinners, tours, even cooking lessons with local people," he says. "It doesn't have to be tourists, you can book dinners in a city you're visiting or in your own city." Leonhardt has catered a dinner for a group of women who had come to Canberra from Sydney on a golfing trip. They were looking for something to do in the capital and ended up having dinner with him and talking about holidays and travels.
Which is what we're doing now in the Le Rests' apartment. Jean-Marie plates up dessert - individual cups of "fraicheur" or sabayon-like custard with tiny goblets of fruit and white chocolate. It looks gorgeous. He pulls out bottles of digestifs, filling up little glasses with calvados, brandy and what seems like an endless collection of pear liqueurs. It's past midnight. Leonhardt has started talking almost entirely in French. Jean-Marie explains what sort of meals he cooks for the French ambassador, the big banquets he has to prepare for, the difficulty in finding ingredients. He's got special contacts who send him all the wines he can't get in Australia (and also plenty of bottles of rare digestifs). It has been an expansive, delicious meal and everyone has gotten along famously. We head out into the night well fortified. If every dinner was like this, then Voulez Vous Diner has every chance of success - but not everyone is Jean-Marie and Caroline.
See more at voulezvousdiner.com