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Teambuilding du jour

Courtesy Boar’s Head Inn

“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”
Julia Child, My Life in France

Turn a cadre of Julia Child wannabes loose in the hotel kitchen, grab a glass of wine and sit back and watch a stew of creativity and cooperation start to simmer. When it comes to team building, it can be hard to top programs that involve cooking.

People feel at home in the kitchen. It’s a place where anyone can contribute, whether they are washing a dish, peeling a potato or beating an egg.

Like the workplace, the kitchen is a place of experimentation where, as Julia Child advised, new ideas beg to be tried, fearlessness is rewarded, mistakes are learning experiences and ultimately, fun is to be had.

Those who follow team-building trends have seen ideas come and go. But like our appetite for great food, team building that involves cooking never seems to wane.

“I think television and the Food Network have a lot to do with it,” said Bill Justus, chef at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville, Va. “The ‘Iron Chef’ and all the competition programs have boosted interest.”

Like recipes, there’s no one way to approach culinary team building, which makes for an almost endless supply of options.

Icing on the (cup)cake

The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in McLean, Va., is capitalizing on the cupcake craze with its Cupcake Challenge.

After the hotel’s kitchen was reworked and could no longer handle team-building groups, decorating cupcakes was a good way to continue the culinary competitions without a kitchen. The hotel’s pastry chef, known for his homemade cakes, makes and bakes the cupcakes. The unadorned cupcakes are delivered to teams, along with all sorts of icings, garnishes and decorating tools. After a brief demonstration of decorating techniques by the chef, groups decorate their cupcakes to fit a theme they are given.

Among the themes are seasons, animals and sports, said Jessica Maner, catering sales manager.
“A group that had sports as its theme actually tried to build basketball players with marzipan,” said Maner. “The group that had the animal theme made cats, dogs, spiders and ladybugs. It was neat to see what people came up with. It definitely turned the creative side of the brain on.”

The Ritz-Carlton gives its clients a choice: They can eat their cupcakes, donate them to a local charity or both. Those who opt to donate must wear hats and plastic gloves as they work.

The first group to try the Cupcake Challenge opted to donate its work. The 20 team members decorated 500 cupcakes that were given to three charities, including a homeless shelter.

“Shelters aren’t used to getting fun things like this,” said Maner. “Everyone deserves a cupcake once in a while, so it was nice for them to have a treat that they don’t get every day.”

In addition to being tasty treats, the inventively and sometimes comically decorated cupcakes likely brought smiles to the recipients. “I know some of the cupcakes would definitely have made them laugh,” said Maner.


The more kitchens, the more cooks

The Boar’s Head Inn’s many kitchens make it well suited for culinary team-building. Perhaps that’s why Justus has done more team building in his first year at the inn than he did over the course of several years at other properties.

At the historic Boar’s Head, groups can gather in the main kitchen, the pavilion kitchen or the sports club kitchen. For larger groups, Justus can set up cooking stations in a ballroom.

Team-building events at the inn tend to be more about cooperation than competition, Justus said. Often, groups will cook their own lunch or dinner, opting for a three-course meal at lunch perhaps, or four-courses at dinner.

Justus and his staff suggest a menu and after client approval, pare the portions down to the appropriate size for the group, write recipes, and gather ingredients and equipment.

Attendees don Boar’s Head aprons and paper toques; some opt to have wine and hors d’oeuvres as they work; others prefer to concentrate on the task at hand.


French cooking without fear

Julia Child devotees must thrill when they hear the possible team-building menus at the Osthoff Resort’s French cooking school, L’Ecole de la Maison in Elkhart Lake, Wis. There’s a French bistro dinner, with mushroom veloute soup, steak tenderloin au poivre and Lyonnaise salad; a European breakfast with lemon ricotta pancakes, crepes suzette and tomato leek quiche; a French Modern dinner with red snapper en papillote, haricot verts and sunflower country bread.

Mouth-watering, and maybe a little intimidating to some, but Chef Scott Baker assures that all of the dishes are achievable and authentic. Groups can plunge into cooking a five-course meal, which they will later enjoy; those with less time can opt to make hors d’oeuvres or desserts.

“The intention is to be practical, to create something where people take traditional dishes of France and Italy and really apply it at home. We don’t try to make things simple but we consider time and equipment that people would have at home,” said Baker.

No student has yet complained about the classes being too difficult even though some obviously don’t spend much time in the kitchen at home.

“Once people understand what they need to do, they open up and start helping one another,” Baker said. “People love to be around food. Here, it is a comfortable environment, where people can learn and be somewhat challenged. And when they are cooking their own food, it makes everybody pay more attention to what they are doing because they have to eat what they make.”


Recipe-free cooking sprees
At Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., groups divide and conquer to cook a multicourse meal for themselves. Team 1 might be in charge of appetizers; Team 2, the soup or salad; and so on.

But there are no recipes here, a tactic aimed at squeezing a group’s creative juices. Instead, Anthony Verni, executive sous chef, provides basic ingredients and sees what transpires.

Although he doesn’t direct, he might coach teams a bit if they are veering in an unappetizing direction. “I might say, ‘No, that would not be good,’” he said.

The Mohonk’s program, like most, is hands-on, and small groups sometimes move into the hotel’s kitchen, where they see how cooking is done on a larger scale and marvel at gigantic bowls and mixers.

When teams finish their assignments, Verni and his staff arrange courses on platters and present them, buffet style. One person from each team talks about the dish and what went into its creation.

Verni has seen how the kitchen can equalize and inspire. Last year, one team member showed up late, unenthused. By the end of the class, he could have been voted most enthusiastic team member, given his excitement about making whipped cream.

Cooking also can make the boss seem more human. “We might have a leader of the company who says ‘I have no idea what I’m doing I don’t even know how to hold a knife.’ Everyone is equal.”

In any event, whether a class is labeled team building or not, teamwork naturally transpires in the kitchen.

“If you have a team of four or five, one might not be comfortable with the knife so maybe they will work with the herbs,” said Verni. “Even if one simply holds the bowl for another, they are working as team.