Exploring culinary team building as a revenue booster
By Patrick O’Neill

Cook by the BookDrawing up a new game plan for boosting your restaurant’s revenue? Or seeking new opportunities as a chef? Consider adding culinary team-building to your playbook.

Culinary team-building, or staging cooking sessions for groups of people from the same company, has been drawing cheers from many chefs, restaurants, cooking schools and hospitality firms as one way to deal with these challenging economic times. But it takes a lot more effort than organizing a backyard touch-football game.

It does offer some income potential. Many corporations see culinary team-building as an ideal way to improve workplace communication and camaraderie, and to reward hard-working employees. And it’s far more fun and less strenuous than rock climbing, paint ball or other team-building activities.

When offering team-building services, though, you must decide how deeply you want to get into it and whether you can distinguish your sessions from regular cooking classes. While some client companies simply want an entertaining diversion for employees, others want a true bonding experience, and many want to concentrate on specific workplace issues. Michael Maddox, Chef de Cuisine and co-owner of Le Titi De Paris in Arlington Heights, Illinois, says, “We often talk with the company’s human resources people to see what they want from the class. Sometimes the client even matches up team members to get the right dynamic.” Andy Broder, chef and proprietor of AndyFood in Scottsdale, Arizona, agrees that classes work best if the client is directly involved. “When a company offers more input about its culture,” says Broder,” We can set up a strategy together for the team-building session.”

Le Titi de ParisCooking By The Book, in New York, focuses almost entirely on team-building, with highly-customized classes to suit the client’s agenda. There’s a lot of supervision too. A class of 20, for example, is divided into four teams with separate instructors, who teach basic knife skills and review the recipes, so participants can ask questions and instructors can learn more about the individuals – their cooking knowledge and how they interact.

Owner Suzen O’Rourke has created kitchen exercises addressing typical employee challenges – stress, conflict resolution, resource allocation and communication.
Unexpected problems are tossed into the mix to see how students think on their feet and work together to get the meal on the table. As O’Rourke says, “When new obstacles crop up, you get a wide range of responses, good and bad, and people have to adapt.”

Chefs at Cooking By The Book are not only well-trained in the culinary arts but as class facilitators adept at steering different personalities in the right direction. That brings up two more questions for food pros considering team-building: does it fit your style and are you qualified?

Broder, who opened AndyFood six years ago, started doing team-building a decade ago, along with private parties and events, because he didn’t want to work in or run a restaurant. As a former trial lawyer, he honed his presentation skills in court. “I like being in front of a group and gauging how people respond. So running team-building and cooking classes in general was a natural extension for me. I was also a psyche minor in college, which doesn’t hurt either.”

Maddox, of Le Titi De Paris, got into team-building five years ago as a direct result of his wife Susan’s previous experience running in-house sessions as corporate chef at Motorola. Maddox also taught many cooking classes before tackling team-building and notes that a talented chef doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher, let alone a team-building facilitator. “You have to have a keen sense of observation and lots of patience. Just like I tell my waiters to ‘read the table’ in order to provide the best restaurant experience, you have to get a sense of the people in the group and make adjustments.”

The popularity of Iron Chef and other reality-TV cooking shows has helped boost demand for team-building and some classes have similar themes. At San Diego resort hotel L’Auberge Del Mar, one popular event for corporate gatherings is its chili cook-off, where teams choose from a vast array of already-prepped ingredients…from beef and rattle snake to beer and vegetables. But others frown on kitchen combat, saying the intense competition can defeat the purpose of team-building. As Broder says, “I generally recommend that a group works toward a common goal rather than focus on beating the other team.”

Still, all team-building sessions should be fun. Maddox advises, “Keep recipes simple and use a light-hearted approach. And silence is deadly. You have to keep it going or you’ll lose your audience.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of team-building for chefs is watching the role reversal and emerging confidence of some participants. O’Rourke tells a story about one stiff, well-dressed executive who was teamed up with a young man who was somewhat disheveled but obviously very comfortable in the kitchen. “As the young guy turned the tables and showed how it’s done, there was a palpable behavior change in the executive, who went from being pretty dismissive to showing him a new respect.”

What do you charge for team-building? Prices vary widely, based on geographic location, group size, range and types of ingredients and whether the event is on- or off-site, to name a few factors. Paul McCabe, Executive Chef at L’Auberge Del Mar, says the initial investment can also be surprising. “Equipment, cutting boards, pots, utensils; the costs can sneak up on you. And if you do a lot of prepping, it’s very labor-intensive.”

Meanwhile, team-building, like the rest of the culinary field, is far from recession-proof. Recipe for Success offers team-building services nationwide, often at hotels and resorts during Fortune 500 company conferences. Richard Cooper, Director of Culinary Events, says business last November and December was down about 30% from the year-earlier period but began to inch back in January. “Companies are realizing they have to keep morale positive and our events don’t raise red flags with shareholders because their relatively inexpensive compared to many team-building activities.”

To allay client concerns the classes may be too frivolous in this weak economic environment, Recipe for Success has developed a “Fare to Share” program, in which extra food is donated to local food shelters, whose representatives often speak to the groups about hunger and giving back to the community.

Business at Cooking By The Book was down a whopping 50% for the year before stabilizing a bit during the summer. O’Rourke puts much of the blame on the financial industry’s strong presence in New York. “American Express and J.P. Morgan, for example, were regular clients before the financial crisis. But much of our business from financial-service firms disappeared and had a ripple effect on other companies here.”
As a result, she reduced some amenities to make classes more affordable. Personalized, embroidered aprons, for example, are out and groups must now bring their own wine if they desire.

Still, O’Rourke is cautiously optimistic. “Many companies in New York are down on team-building right now. But when the economy turns upward, it will be all about team-building because companies will focus even more on boosting worker productivity.”

That would seem to present a bright future, and more opportunities, for those who want to enter the culinary team-building arena.