Public Eye: EatWith host Hila Katz
The Israeli expat discusses the long and winding road that brought her from Tel Aviv to Brooklyn
Mon Mar 31 2014
Photograph: Rayon Richards
Brooklynite Hila Katz is a host with EatWith, an online community in which people open their homes to strangers to share a meal. She's also a life and career coach and creative consultant.
What’s your background?
I grew up outside of Tel Aviv in a home that was very eclectic culturally. My dad’s family in Israel goes back 11 generations, and my mom was raised all over the world. In Israel, it’s mandatory to serve in the military, so at 18, I had to go in. This was the mid-’90s—the rise of the Second Intifada—and I served with the elite forces in the occupied territories. Very, very intense times. Quite a few friends were killed right in front of my face, and I almost lost my life a few times.
But food was a connector. The rookies we were training would come in with big bags of homemade hummus, roasted chicken, pita bread baked by their grannies—and it was picnic time! We would all just bond and connect. Food bridges divides. It's amazing to see how quickly people open up if you just give them the time to sit down. That solidified in my mind that there’s no room for war.
What was your next move?
The day after I was released from service, I went to New Zealand. I was this little pisher 20-year-old, but I knew I had to get away to the other side of the globe and immerse myself in nature to start healing. PTSD was not anything that was discussed or acknowledged; nobody talked about how the violence had affected us. So I was still caught in this deep, dark place, and it was an amazing, transformational period. After New Zealand, I ended up moving to Italy and working in this great restaurant in Milan. The chef took me under his wing, this newbie with no experience. It was the first time I worked in an environment where it felt like a little community that encouraged creativity and exploration.
What made you want to move to NYC?
I always fantasized about living in New York because it was the antithesis of Israel—the eclectic nature, the contradictions that it encompasses, the fact that it’s a hub for anyone from any kind of culture. I was a mishmash child from all over the place, and New York was someplace I knew I could be myself. It gives you the space to be exactly who you want to be.
How did you get involved with EatWith?
I had been working on Hollywood feature films for eight years, in the art department. And I thought it was what I wanted to do, but the business aspect of it really did suck my soul. So I decided to take time off to meditate on what it was I really wanted from life. Food was something I had really lost touch with. In eight years, I barely even made an omelette. [I went to an] EatWith dinner in Williamsburg, and it was such an amazing experience. I could see it as a way to reconnect with something that I always loved and to connect with new people.
What’s your favorite kind of food to make?
My go-to is Israeli-infusion flavors: figs, olive oil, dates, pomegranate, garlic, lemon. When people think Mediterranean, they think hummus and falafel, which is so not what it is. Jewish people in Israel come from Eastern Europe, North Africa, the U.S., the Far East… It’s truly a melting pot.
When you throw dinners, do you ever worry about having strangers in your apartment?
Not at all. There is something very primal about sharing food; there’s this space of safety. You’re not protecting yourself—you’re just chilling out and eating. And the guests that sign up are similar in their state of mind: They’re adventurous foodies—well-traveled, multicultural—that are intrigued by the social-experiment aspect. So I trust in that, and I haven’t been disappointed.
Seems like it would be a great way to meet people.
I’m a big fan of the social-sharing, collaborative-consumption movement. For most of us, the way to meet people is either at work, through online dating or at networking events. But everyone puts on this little hat of “I have to show my fucking best,” and authenticity goes out the window. And I found with EatWith, because it is in a home environment, and because there’s food, people end up connecting.
Is there a through line in everything you’ve done?
I knew that I didn’t want to live a life of regrets. I’ve been present too many times right after bombings, literally holding people as they’re dying. And not once did anyone say, “Oh, I’m so happy about my life. Send my love to everyone.” It was always what they didn’t do, and I didn’t want to live that way. So I have been unafraid to take risks. Even though it initially didn’t seem like any of the transitions [in my life] made sense, you have to trust that at the end, when you look back, you’re going to see something that is complete. There’s still so much more room to grow, and I don’t know shit, you know? But I’m unafraid.
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)