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Test-driving CookApp's dining meetups—and what to chew over before hosting your own

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On Sunday, a colleague and I went to a dinner party at a stranger's apartment. More intimate than a restaurant, more awkward than dining at a friend’s, the get-together was arranged through Cookapp, a website that hooks up diners with professional and amateur chefs who open up their homes to paying guests. (Another colleague had given it a spin; such is the power of word of mouth.) 

For real estate voyeurs like us, it was a chance to peer behind apartment doors and see how people live. (Hey, it's a sport in this real estate-obsessed city.) Still, there seems to be an appetite for this kind of service. Cookapp, which launched in Buenos Aires in May 2013 and reportedly touched down in New York this past February, is one of a growing number of websites—competitors include Feastly and EatWith—that are bringing the sharing economy to the world of gastronomy. Instead of offering apartments short-term, a la Airbnb, they're serving up dinner—and raising a similar slew of issues for the New York apartment dweller. (A spokesperson for Cookapp did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)

Our hosts were a professional chef and food writer, both of Italian extraction, who throw several events per week at their Upper East Side studio. When we arrived, a side table was heaped with Italian comfort food: meatballs and mozzarella on skewers, circles of toast spread with tapenade, bite-size pieces of eggplant parmigiana. Later, the chef brought out little plates of lasagne and two platters of pandorini, Italy’s answer to fruitcake.

The couple had folded up their sofa bed to set a long table in the center of the room and, while he prepared the food in the pass-through kitchen, she recounted the story of how they’d met. Considering the size of the apartment, they'd done an admirable job of making everyone comfortable—it wasn't until well into the night that we realized we were effectively standing in their bedroom—and a door that opened onto a terrace was propped wide to let in a breeze. As we worked our way through half a dozen bottles of red wine (supplied by the guests), we made small talk and played tombula, Italy’s version of bingo. Our companions were a United Nations of foodies: a boisterous Australian partway through a global tour; an Italian IT professional; a pudgy blonde; a tourist from Jupiter, Fla., here to see Rockefeller Center, and more. 

Overall, the guests were people we'd likely never have met otherwise, and the food was good. But it also wasn’t cheap. For the $55-a-head price tag, you could get a meal in one of the city’s better restaurants. (Cookapp takes a cut of whatever chefs charge.)

So far, Cookapp and the like seem to be flying under the radar of landlords and boards, but given that not many building owners (or neighbors) are keen on the idea of residents routinely letting a gaggle of strangers into the building—and making a profit off it, to boot—it's possible they'll start to crack down, particularly if something goes wrong, experts say. “It’s kind of raising red flags for me on every side of the equation,” says Mark Levine, executive vice president of Excel Bradshaw Management Group, a property management firm. A "rotating cast of people" getting access to the building is one concern, but so is the possibility of hosts overloading the doorman with frequent guests, or throwing barbecues without following city rules, or failing to get proper insurance.

Technically, there's nothing illegal about hosting a Cookapp event: apartment dwellersrenters and owners alikeare allowed to invite people over, whether they’re strangers or not, explains attorney Terry Oved, who heads up the real estate department at Oved & Oved.​

Hosting an event or two, however, isn’t the same as running a pseudo-restaurant out of your one-bedroom, which can raise safety concerns because of the volume of unknown people entering the property. “You have a duty, obviously, not to endanger people in your building,” Oved says. (As far as the Department of Health is concerned, the apartments are not inspected or given permits like regular restaurants, the New York Post reported in March.)

If a guest vandalizes the laundry room or steals from a neighbor, it's possible you'd be on the hook, depending on the level of risk you created for your fellow residents. “The question is, are you creating an unreasonable risk to other tenants or other owners?” Oved says. “We always say that a crime is not foreseeable,” meaning that, since you couldn't predict it would happen, you probably wouldn't be liable if one took place. But if you had reason to believe that a burglary could occurif, say, your guests are all ex-consit might be a different story, he explains. 

For its part, Cookapp has “no formal security measures in place,” the Post said, citing a comment from its founder, Pedro Rivas. Since guests hand over their phone numbers and credit card information, there is some accountability, and a way to track them down. “We have never had a safety issue at a Cookapp event," the company notes on its website. It also maintains general liability insurance to cover chefs in case someone gets hurt at a meal. Likewise, Feastly, which launched in November 2011, provides chefs with $1 million of insurance coverage, and requires “Feasters” to register, according to its website. 

A bigger issue might actually be the money you rake in, since most leases, proprietary leases and bylaws (in rentals, co-ops and condos, respectively) restrict commercial activity in apartments. “It’s when they start charging, when it goes into the commercial realm, that [buildings] can prohibit it or regulate it,” Oved says.

If you breach your lease or building rules, a management company could take you to court, and try to recover the cost of any repairs, Levine says. Building management might even try to evict you if, for example, they’d specifically prohibited this activity in writing and you'd followed through on it anyway, he says.

Again, most buildings would look the other way for a dinner party or two, experts say, but may go after residents who routinely host events and make money off them, either by explicitly writing rules forbidding the parties, or by asking hosts to take out an insurance policy and/or verify who's coming to minimize the risk, Oved says.

Bottom line: your best bet is simply to run it by your landlord or building management before advertising your event, Levine says. “They may even be able to tell you right away if it’s prohibited in the building documents,” he adds. And if they nix your soiree, well, inviting your friends over instead is not such a bad worst case scenario. 

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