On a cold night, one of the finest things one can have to warm up is a tartiflette. The Savoyard dish of potatoes, lardons, and melted Reblochon cheese is a wintertime standard around France, well outside its mountainous region. I tucked into one that was not only warming but absolutely delicious. And best of all, it was made by a young lady just down the street.
There was no overpriced formule with paltry choices. There was no disinterested waiter to ignore me. And the cost was negligible. This was actual, home cooking – from a neighbor who heretofore was a complete stranger.
That's the premise of Super Marmite, a social site that allows you to discover what's cooking in the myriad apartments in each of Paris' arrondissements. And to taste them. And – if you're interested in cooking – to share what you have with others. Cooks can post what they're making, how many portions are available, set a (reasonable) price, and the time and date it will be available for pick-up.
"The idea came to me one night when I arrived at home and my fridge was empty," says Olivier Desmoulin, one of the co-founders of the site. "It was late, I was hungry, and sure, there's a lot of fast food in the neighborhood – kebabs and the like – but it's not exactly what I wanted. It's a lonely feeling, you know, and I thought there must be plenty of people around here who cook, preparing little meals.
"Oftentimes when you cook for just one or two, you might end up cooking enough for four people as it's the same amount of work. So I thought to myself I'd love to be able to go by these people's places and have a meal, and it could be interesting for them, too! People could exchange food, discover new cuisines, share both eating and social experiences, get opinions on their cooking… So that's how the project came to be."
It's also how Olivier came to be in my living room for the second time. Unbeknownst to me, he'd been over to my place once before, as a Super Marmite customer, with me on the cuisinier end.
Olivier is a user experience designer by trade, and he's been working on Super Marmite since last summer, along with two friends: one who's a community manager, and another who's a developer. Together, they debuted the site just a few months ago, and it's been growing ever since, available in several cities in France.
The site recently made a splash as one of the outstanding startups at the Le Web '10 internet conference held in Paris. For the occasion, Olivier had cooked up his confit de canard – a dish he considers his specialty. Because aside from being a Super Marmite creator and customer, he also likes to cook. "I make it," talking about the duck dish, "because I really like it! Normally it's a very traditional dish, a bit on the heavy side. I serve it nicely browned, as it should be, but instead of the usual potatoes, I serve it with an arugula salad with finely sliced green apples and a balsamic vinaigrette. It's a bit more refined and light. I serve it how I like it!"
And it's not just traditional French cooking on offer by the various neighborhood cuisiniers on Super Marmite. "There's a great variety of meals: traditional meals from various countries; more sophisticated cuisines like the Thanksgiving bentos from the last time we met; some experimental things; lots of cakes! I think we may have – in a way – the most varied menu in Paris, or all of France! And we hope, someday, in other countries."
Before setting out for world domination, though, Super Marmite is doing a great job of opening doors in Paris. Literally. "I think it's a great way for foreigners and visitors to try local cooking," Olivier says. "People who come to Paris often want to try real, local food, but the trouble is: How are you going to meet an actual Parisian? Not everyone here is a tourist. There are a lot of people who are hidden away in apartments ready to be discovered."
Paris is notorious – even among the French – as a hard town for meeting people. And Super Marmite not only gives people a chance to meet one another, but share one of the most important social parts of the day: a meal.
"I mean, I would love something like this in New York," Olivier continues, "so I could go there and meet and eat with real New Yorkers after work. That's the real adventure – to see real people in their real element – that's an experience."
New Yorkers have a reputation for being distrustful of strangers in their own right, which begs the question of safety and trust.
"Certainly, we want to put in place an evaluation system, not just for the cooks, but the customers, and it's something we want to implement very soon before the site gets too big. Also, we want to make sure that for cooks who post a meal, they don't need to reveal too much information about themselves. People don't need to come into your building or up to your door. You can arrange to meet down on the street – it's up to you to decide. Sure, we want to ask for enough information for the proximity function on the map to work. But ultimately, it's your comfort level that sets the bar."
On the other hand, he says, "It really is a good way to meet new people from the neighborhood. It's really nice – I've met all sorts of people this way."
I agree with Olivier, having met a number of people through my own interactions via the site, which is truly social.
"As far as social sites go," he replies, "it's not meant to compete with other networks. If anything, we want to complement them, as well as various food sites. We want to integrate our services with them, not compete with them. Our development objective is to improve the way people use the site and take part in the community. There's a lot of work to be done."
We talk about new features, most requested items, and other tech stuff. He gives me a peek at the upcoming mobile version on his iPhone (with Android and Blackberry versions planned thereafter). One brand new feature that may be of interest to many VINGT readers is multiple languages, the first of which is English.
"I think we've done a pretty nice job so far in terms of ease of use and maintaining community spirit, and that's where we want to keep it. It's not necessarily a site for businesses looking to make money, but for sharing and being part of the community."
As I convince Olivier to pose for a photo with my marmite (not like the English savory spread, but the French word for cooking pot, from which the site's name is derived), I realize he's totally right. Here was a cool guy, talking shop in my apartment and posing for silly photos, whereas just a few weeks ago, he was one of the hundreds of anonymous faces I'd see just walking down my street as I made my way home from work. And next time I see him, I hope it's to pick up his famous confit de canard.
Use of the site is free, but requires registration to place orders or to offer meals.