At “Foodisch”, even the best 5-course dinner is no more than a means to an end. Founder Simo Azzaoui’s ultimate mission: bringing people together. First in NYC, now in Berlin.
To the right of the path, soil-packed wooden boxes provide a home for French tarragon, Mexican mini cucumbers, Swiss chard, and fennel. On the other side of the narrow dirt track, a school-style blackboard invites us to “Foodisch @ Prinzessinnengärten. No cell phones. Talk to each other.” It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek statement – after all, Simo Azzaoui’s idea relies on the internet to spread the word.
So, it’s no huge coincidence that Foodisch works and looks a little bit like AirBnB. Its basic premise mirrors the original inspiration of the world’s largest online rental broker: to schedule and arrange offline experiences online. At the same time, Azzaoui is serious about the stated blackboard request. To make us ditch our digital existence for a brief moment or two, he has decorated a table surrounded by trees and shipping containers with flowers, lavender almonds, and tea lights. The location: Berlin-Kreuzberg’s Prinzessinnengärten community gardens.
It’s the perfect spot for breathing tangible life into the Foodisch concept. Since 2009, residents and activists alike have been flocking to the former flea market and used car dealership site to grow fruit and vegetables, turning the temporary wasteland into a place where people meet, exchange ideas, and – generally speaking – enrich each others’ lives. And that’s something the tall, enthusiastic 33-year-old entrepreneur can get behind.
A feel-good Foodisch dinner
It’s taken Wuppertal-born Azzaoui a few steps and detours to get to this point. After teacher training for higher education, he soon raced up the career ladder as a strategic private health insurance consultant, leading a team of 30. Yet this never quite made him happy or content. “I need to feel connected to the product I work for. Which simply wasn’t going to happen there,” he reveals.
After personal reasons prompted a move to New York City, he decided to embark on a new chapter. Together with a friend, he organized a string of dinners where – initially – people who didn’t know each other would meet over food to exchange views on art and literature followed by dancing. Last October, he took himself and his idea to Berlin, called it Foodisch, and finally created a matching online platform in December.
Foodisch is an innovation that refocuses our sense of what eating could – and should – be: a moment that prompts people to gather around a food source and embrace the great feeling of being part of a group and community for one night.
Yearning for real experiences and encounters
And that’s exactly what happens on the night in question. Simo Azzaoui has invited around 20 people, friends and acquaintances from all over the world he has met over the past few years. People like Sascha Zeilinger who Azzaoui met at a US music festival. Zeilinger, too, left his career two years ago, swapping a sneaker brand marketing job for the luxury of not knowing what to do next – and spending time looking for answers.
Or there’s Johannes Lawrenz, a dapper gentleman sporting a suit and impeccably folded pocket square, who arrived in Berlin with a single suitcase and manages to convey his passion for tango so well that you are tempted to book him for one-on-one lessons. Generally speaking, there is a strong sense of connection throughout the dinner – even between Tokyo graphic designer Sumi Yoon and illustrator Gabi Almeida from Brazil via the UK who seem to have more in common than the distance between their countries of origin might suggest.
So, we skip between discussions on learning how to tango (never in dance academies – just give it a try), whether it’s possible to enjoy both South Park and The Simpsons (yes, it is), or the Japanese name of McDonald’s (Makudonarudo), i. e. your average blend of random topics when people discover shared experiences or expertise. “I only arrived relatively recently,” Sumi Yoon explains. “And nights like these are a great opportunity for meeting new and interesting people.”
Short supply chains vs. mass consumption
Our actual host of the night is Elisabeth Wolfe, a landscape gardener from Massachusetts. Beyond her two shifts a week at Prinzessinnengärten, she has conjured up a bespoke Foodisch menu. Tonight, her guests enjoy a fresh, hand-picked salad with rocket, ricotta with olive oil, herbs, and garlic, or a risotto flecked with peas, mushrooms, pecorino, and fresh herbs, followed by a strawberry dessert.
“In times where we spend most of our day staring at a screen, we start to yearn for real experiences and interaction,” states Wolfe. And turns this theory into communal practice: Before the main course, she guides her guests to the wooden boxes – for a spot of crate-to-plate harvesting. For an even shorter supply chain, you would have to nibble the vegetables straight from the earth.
The successful dinner exemplifies Simo Azzaoui’s vision for Foodisch. The portal lets any amateur chef invite the platform’s users for dinner. Anyone can register for a spot at the nearest table – or even offer to host or cook, if either culinary skills or the right location are in short supply. “We’d rather have thousands of active, passionate users who really love Foodisch than hundreds of thousands who love us a little,” adds the enthusiastic amateur cook. After all, if he’d started Foodisch just for the money, he could have simply stuck with consulting.