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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 May 2018

ChefXChange: home-made meals by top-notch chefs

We meet the entrepreneurs behind the new culinary idea ChefXChange, which allows foodies to invite chefs into their home to cook for them.

Chef Alex Chalk was hired through the ChefXChange website that allows users to source cooking professionals for private functions. Christopher Pike / The National
Chef Alex Chalk was hired through the ChefXChange website that allows users to source cooking professionals for private functions. Christopher Pike / The National

It has been dubbed the Airbnb of the culinary world, connecting foodies with private chefs across the globe, and the only ingredients you need are a computer, a functioning kitchen and a penchant for good food.

ChefXChange is the brainchild of Karl Naim and Marc Washington, two friends who had a light-bulb moment while enjoying a meal at a dinner party in the UAE two years ago.

“It hit us that all over the world, people were getting to know each other over food more so than any other medium,” says Naim, who hosted that evening in his Abu Dhabi apartment, and wound up with a plate full of ­inspiration.

“We are both foodies, and thought that the marketplace model, which is gaining popularity and adoption following the success of the likes of Airbnb, could be applied to cooking.”

And so it began. The pair, who met at London Business School and spend their days working as finance professionals and their nights cooking and socialising, set about developing their concept, aimed at connecting chefs with foodies in a one-stop online shop.

“We are simply about bringing the world to your plate,” the marketing pitch reads. “ChefXChange is a trusted online marketplace for foodies to search, discover and book a private chef. Whether you are looking for an amateur chef for an informal gathering or a professional chef for a special occasion.”

After spending much of the next 12 months or so fine-tuning the idea, this past October, Naim and Washington took part in a food-and-technology accelerator programme called Dig Eat All at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, Spain, the aim of which was to bring together gastronomy and digital technology and help drive innovation.

ChefXChange was one of 11 digital technology and food start-ups invited to participate in the five-week programme, during which time Naim and Washington were exposed to industry experts, technology entrepreneurs and some of the world’s most innovative chefs.

The incubator provided the pair access to investors, mentors and key industry players, which was invaluable. In the development phase, they were able to raise US$430,000 (Dh1.6 million) in investment.

“We received recognition and support from Michelin-star chefs Andoni Luis Aduriz, Yoshihiro Narisawa and Angel Leon, to name a few,” says Naim. “All of them strongly believe ChefXChange will revolutionise the way we eat, as well as reinvent the ­traditional kitchen.”

The www.chefxchange.com online platform was officially launched in Dubai and Washington in January, and with more than 25 active chefs for hire in the UAE, another 15 in London and plans to expand into Brazil and Singapore, the concept is gaining momentum. The foodie feedback so far is good.

“What a wonderful experience,” says Zuhairah in one of the online reviews. “We had a night to remember.”

Another writes: “This was my first ChefXChange experience and all my expectations were ­exceeded. It is the first time I have hosted hassle-free.”

For the chefs themselves, it’s a prime opportunity to put their skills on show in a private setting, and for those such as the Abu Dhabi-based chef Alex Chalk, to help keep his hand in.

Chalk has not been a private chef before, but was involved with cooking for the British Queen for her Jubilee and has cooked for many of the world’s most famous people at the Ivy and Le Caprice in ­London.

“I really miss my life as a Michelin chef,” he says. “I really wanted to use this as a route to regain some pride, passion and love for food, which for the last six months has been very much on the back-burner as my new role is head-office-based and very cost-oriented.

“I’d like to think the site will work for me in terms of regular bookings.”

According to Naim, who flies ­between his base in Geneva and the UAE regularly, the site is a great option for anybody who appreciates good food.

“While hiring a top chef may not be an entirely new idea, we have made the process of finding, comparing, contacting and paying the best chefs in your area, seamless and convenient.”

Dubai was the perfect launch pad, he says, because a big part of the UAE culture is based around socialising and eating out.

“It’s a great idea for summer dining,” says Naim. “Chefs can be filtered by price, popularity, location and cuisine. On your chosen date, your chef will ­arrive with the equipment and ­ingredients to cook up a gastronomic delight. They will even present you with a sparkling clean kitchen at the end, leaving you and your guests full and ­happy.”

While this phase of their grand foodie plan is simmering away nicely, the menu isn’t done yet: the next course is ChefXChange Black.

“ChefXChange Black will consist of our premium offering,” says Naim. “A select group of Michelin-star chefs will join CXC Black and will be available for high-end private events.”

Naim and Washington’s ­advice to other start-up entrepreneurs is quite simple: “Just do it. Having an idea is the tip of the iceberg; the team, perseverance and implementation is what matters,” Naim says. “A mentor of mine once told me entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and figuring out how you can build and spread a parachute before you reach the ground. If you are passionate and dedicated enough, you’re halfway there.”

• For more chefs and information on ChefXChange, visit www.chefxchange.com.

mhealy@thenational.ae