Enlightenment by Way of Adventure

The New York Times Nov 17, 2011 Back to press

What do you do in New York once you tire of the bar scene, eat your way through Yelp’s “Best of” restaurants and conclude that watching Film Forum documentaries is simply too passive? If you’re just the right amount of curious, adventurous or even a touch voyeuristic, you might sign up for a SideTour.

“Authentic Experiences. Real People,” reads the banner on this fledgling company’s Web site. In tidy boxes you’ll find enticements like “Workshop and Gig With NYC Jazz Group” or “Increase Your Speed With a Champion Sprinter.”

Mark Webster, one of the company’s founders, described it as a social-networking site that operates offline. “It’s meant to be a higher-quality experience than a regular tour or class, not mass-produced,” he said. Annabella Asvik’s “Get Your Gift Shopping Done With an Eco-Fashionista” hosts only four people a tour; a drive in a Tesla Roadster, which came with breakfast and a tour of the Tesla service center, hosted eight, which is usually the maximum.

Those numbers were crucial to my first SideTour experience, an artisanal dinner party hosted by Elise Kornack, a former sous chef at Aquavit and now a private chef. She was assisted by her fiancée, Anna Hieronimus, a yoga instructor. Together they are Take Root, a small business centered on growing food, sharing meals and practicing yoga, they said.

A friend had persuaded me to sign up for the last open spot on a whim. Though I was leery about the $75 price and having dinner at the couple’s Brooklyn apartment, the idea of having an experienced chef on hand to answer all of my questions, like how to cook the perfect soft-boiled egg, or what exactly is in brown butter, won me over.

So did Ms. Kornack and Ms. Hieronimus. The setting, a rustic table with an assortment of antique glasses and candles in their extensive garden, was warm and welcoming. And the meal, beginning with homemade peasant bread and brown butter and ending with a fresh rosemary shortbread dessert, was exquisite. Ms. Kornack popped in and out from the kitchen to tell us about the food and her inspirations and to comment on whatever topic the conversation had turned to.

There was just the right amount of getting to know one another; enough to pursue a new friendship, if we were interested, but not so much that we felt we had to keep in touch. Most interesting was the show going on behind the scenes. The salt-and-pepper quality of Ms. Kornack and Ms. Hieronimus as they whispered to each other while prepping in the kitchen, every once in a while sneaking in a supportive hug or kiss, gave the evening an extra dose of personality and sweetness.

“We were trying to think of a more exciting way to eat dinner,” Marisa Knopman, who attended a Take Root dinner with three friends, said. “I remember thinking over the course of the meal that this was such a New York night.”

Not so much with the fireworks viewing expedition hosted by Capt. Walter Masterson on his sailboat, Beckoned. Captain Masterson, like many people I met over the course of my SideTour experiences, had recently switched careers, quitting his job at an investment bank to start a private therapy practice, write fiction and teach sailing.

Motoring — there was no sailing involved in the outing — into New York Harbor, we were afforded front-row seats to the fireworks show in honor of the Statue of Liberty’s 125th anniversary. (So close, in fact, that we were visited by a Coast Guard crew and personally escorted back a few hundred yards.)

It was an amazing show, and I enjoyed listening to Captain Masterson banter bawdily with his two-person crew, one of whom was never without a can of Coors Light. You could tell that he loved being on the water and that he had plenty of stories to tell, but I disembarked knowing little more than what I had read on his online biography. And I learned even less about the other “side tourists” who were on the boat.

Vipin Goyal, a founder of SideTour and its chief executive, heard about Mr. Masterson from a buddy who had taken a sailing class. “Everyone has a side business or a passion they want to share,” Mr. Webster explained. There is some vetting of each host and a small amount of input on how each tour should work, but for the most part, SideTour’s commission is earned by providing a platform for hosts to connect with customers. The company has offered about 35 different tours so far and adds options every few weeks. Some tours, like the one at Tesla, have a limited shelf life. (When the cars are sold out, so are the tours.)

Next for me, a master class in graffiti. Tats Cru is a group of muralists who started out illegally tagging subway trains as teenagers. Their work could not have been further from the tiny scratchings I made on the bathroom doors at my private Roman Catholic high school. But for one afternoon, behind their studio in the Bronx, I got to see why they became so addicted to it.

“We planned it for weeks,” Bio, one of the Cru, said of the first time he tagged a wall, “and for weeks after we kept coming back to stare at it. It was amazing.”

After a quick lesson on the evolution of spray paint and a first-hand account of the history of graffiti culture by the guys who lived it, I made some scribbles of my own, switching out caps for different effects, as the Cru had taught me. These guys were the real deal. And though the price, $85, seemed high, watching them and signing my own crude tag to my work felt like a rare opportunity.

Perhaps the most satisfying tour was lunch with Rasanath Dasa, a monk who lives and practices at the Bhakti Center ashram in the East Village. I initially signed up to find out why this was one of the most popular SideTour offerings and to see what a monastery in downtown New York might look like.

Turns out the monastery looks a lot like a run-down building in the East Village. But the feeling inside was different from that of any other place I’ve visited in New York. Rushing in late, between meetings for work, I burst through the door, making excuses. I quickly learned that they were not needed. Mr. Dasa’s story, which he shared over a deliciously simple and satisfying meal, was about stepping out of the “game,” as he called it. Mr. Dasa had been a banker and said he felt a profound relief when he finally chose to quit that part of his life.

My three tour companions were also seekers, who had come with specific questions. We spent almost an hour and a half discussing the Bhagavad-Gita, how to live a life of achievement but also humility, and how vulnerability was the most important quality in a leader.

I left with a different perspective on some big life choices I’ve got coming up and I couldn’t help wondering if SideTour had brought me to Mr. Dasa — or simply fate.

Deepen Parikh found SideTour by reading a tweet from someone who had had lunch at the ashram. Having recently left the world of finance himself, he was inspired by Mr. Dasa’s story.

“It didn’t make me want to become a monk, but it really made me see a different perspective of people,” Mr. Parikh said. “I guess a good analogy for what I think SideTour does is the startup world. Investors always say that the idea is such a small portion, it’s really the people behind it.”

SideTour, which began in August, is still in its beta testing phase, so it will continue to grow and expand in the next few months, Mr. Goyal said, eventually incorporating some sort of social-networking software that allows users to share comments and stay in touch post-tour. For now, a good old-fashioned exchange of phone numbers and word of mouth seem to be working.

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