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He Wrote the Book on Cooks

A screen shot from the Book of Cooks site. (Book of Cooks)

When Julian Mellicovsky lived in Boston, he had an epiphany that started, as so many epiphanies do, with a question -- many questions, actually. He had just been to northern Brazil, where he tried "this amazing dessert called cuscuz," a coconut-tapioca pudding. "You know how you come back from somewhere and you have this fixation and you can't get it out of your mind?" (Actually, yes, I do.) "I thought, 'Why, when I go online, can I only find a recipe for cuscuz? Why can't I find someone who can make it for me?' "

The 34-year-old Arlington resident missed being around cooks. When he was a youngster in Buenos Aires, there was no shortage of them in his house: his mother, grandmother, a hired hand, his brother, himself. "That's how I grew up," he said. "Everybody cooking." But since moving to the United States seven years ago, he has found himself, like so many other people, always going to delis and restaurants: "Why in this country, where there's everything, isn't there an opportunity to buy directly from other cooks?"

Of course, that might have something to do with food-safety laws and inspections and licenses. "I would say it's probably easier to sell food almost anywhere else in the world," he said. In this dilemma Mellicovsky saw an opportunity, which is why he came up with the Book of Cooks, a new Web site that aims to connect eaters with those who can satisfy them. It's something of an Etsy-like approach, or perhaps Craigslist: a clearinghouse for food professionals.

An even closer match, Mellicovsky says, would be something like School of Everything, which allows learners to find teachers in a multiplicity of subject areas, or perhaps Air Bed and Breakfast, which facilitates the rental of private homes or rooms.

At the Book of Cooks, Mellicovsky hopes to provide a place where culinary professionals such as caterers, personal chefs, dietitians and artisans such as chocolatiers and cheesemakers can market their services directly to people who want them, without worrying about packaging or shipping. "You just want to deal directly with your community," he said. "This is a storefront where you can showcase your cuisine," while connecting more personally and directly with food lovers. Eaters, meanwhile, can sign up when they're looking for something hard to find: a personal chef or dietitian to prepare a gluten-free or low-sodium diet, perhaps, or maybe, say, just a good Sri Lankan cook.

What about those pesky food-safety rules and inspections? The site is careful to make sure users understand that anyone selling food would need to make it in an inspected, licensed kitchen. Soon, Mellicovsky promises, his Web site will offer a beefed-up resources section pointing users to catering associations, commercial and rental kitchens and primers on marketing food.

So far, 600 users have signed up, most in the past few weeks and most in the United States, although there are clusters of members in Buenos Aires and Paris. In the Washington area, many pages of users are listed, most of them without fleshed-out profiles, making the map-based search limited. But page through those profiles, and a few possibilities pop up: There's Mekdem, an Alexandria pastry chef-student who promises cakes for events. Devi from Rockville, another baker, specializes in vegan and eggless goods. Laura, also in Alexandria, is a culinary student with personal-chef aspirations, promising, among other things, the possibility of freshly made pet and baby foods.

How many have actually sold food or their services so far? "That's the million-dollar question," Mellicovsky says. He's working on ways to get more data about transactions: not particular ones, but general statistics. "I want to know if it's working in the aggregate. I don't need to know who's calling who."

One thing Mellicovsky knows he doesn't want at the Book of Cooks: recipes. Cooks can use their profiles to refer to their own blogs and Web sites, but he has no plans for this one to do anything more than provide the platform for connections. "The Web is cluttered with recipe sites," he says. "It's the most competitive area of food on the Web. I don't want to contribute to that clutter."

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  July 6, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
 | Tags: Joe Yonan, Web sites  
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