Cooking–A Culinary Highway to Team Building

Article By Chef Martin Lopez

Would you agree with me that it doesn’t matter where you plan to have your party or dinner, the gathering always ends up in the kitchen? I cannot count the number of times I planned a dinner and spent money and time to make the room or area perfect–perfect light, sitting areas, music, and setup–only to find out that as the night progressed all my guests ended up in the kitchen. Food and kitchens bring people together. Kitchens are fun, and with the combination of great food, cooking on the stove, and delicious treats, many large corporations are signing up their employees to put on aprons and take a culinary expedition.

Thankfully for the sanity of middle managers everywhere, a new type of business away-day is increasingly on the menu– team-building cookery classes. Instead of having to try to keep up with “Tim from accounting” on a space hopper, or build a raft with “Karen from HR,” an office team or department will make a meal together in a professional kitchen. Culinary party companies and cooking venues are popping up from coast to coast. They are hybrid affairs, designed to bridge the gaps between departments and office hierarchies, teach cooperation and collaboration, and offer plenty of fun. Food is the universal language, and nothing brings people together better. Forget ropes courses and golf outings, cooking is the new wave in the US and in other countries.

Cooking in groups for team building can be used as a reward or incentive. I am currently working with a culinary school in Cancun, Mexico–Mexico Lindo Cooking. Executive Chef Alejandra explains that she works with executives from all around the world. This school offers the opportunity for guests to cook authentic Mexican food in an authentic Mexican kitchen. Many of their visitors are employees and executives from companies that choose this excursion for their business team building exercises. A trip to Mexico Lindo Cooking in Cancun can be a fun and original idea for a corporate trip for a team
building exercise.

Taking inspiration from television shows like Iron Chef, where professional cooks compete against time and each othe to make the tastiest meals from limited ingredients, companies like Monsanto, Amgen, and Microsoft are sending their employees off to chop, dice and sauté their way to better sales and management skills. They might spend a leisurely hour assembling a meal together, or split up and go cleaver to cleaver in a race against the clock. However it is done, the cooking class approach to corporate team building has caught on. Doing something as basic as cooking is a wonderful way to break the ice and get people familiar with each other. In the kitchen, it’s not about  top-down structure. You might not especially like someone you work with, but while working on a recipe with them, you might see that they are a really good cook and enjoy spending time with them in a culinary setting.

The culinary approach has even been used to court customers. Last year a corporate client of mine wanted to create a culinary team building event in Chicago and invited employees from a prospective client to join them. Things started slowly, but as the group of a dozen or so sales managers and engineers from the two companies worked together to create a tapas menu, the group grew more collegial. They were pleasantly surprised.

As a teenager, I remember going across the street to my best friend’s house for dinner several nights a week. Her mom would whip up one of her made-from-scratch specialties and we would all sit down to share the meal and stories about our day. It was always surprising what kinds of things we found out about each
other over that half hour. By the time I graduated high school, I had gone on multiple family vacations with them, been included in various holiday festivities, and pretty much carved out a place for myself in that tribe. That got me thinking about how much bonding happens over food. For some people, making a meal for others is their way of expressing themselves. They get as much joy out of preparing it as they do watching their family and friends enjoy it. And when you get people working together in the kitchen … well, it’s just pure magic.

I think this is what has made cooking team building events so popular as a corporate activity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great cook. This type of team building event gets employees in the mindset of having fun, sharing their ideas, and working together toward a delicious finished product–something that translates well back at the office. Cooking team building can also be a great leveler with executives, especially if they are not used to being in the kitchen.

A large percentage of event organizers believe that multi-sensory events offer more memorable and creative experiences for attendees. The sense of smell is closely linked to memory and can drive behavioral change in the future. It makes sense if you think about it. Being in the kitchen makes you feel good, even if you’re typically an observer at your own family gatherings. Culinary team building events also give employees the opportunity to overcome obstacles, encourage each other to try something new, and celebrate victoriously–whether it’s decorating a monster cake or teaming up for a cooking challenge.

Here are a few reasons why team building is important in the workplace:

−− Raising employee morale
−− Encouraging creative thinking
−− Increasing communication
−− Improving team interaction
−− Improving leadership skills
−− Improving organizational productivity
−− Identifying team strengths and weaknesses

1. It facilitates better communication: Activities that create discussion enable open communication among employees and between employees and management. This can improve office relationships and, in turn, the quality of work done.

2. It motivates employees: Team leadership and team building go hand in hand. The more comfortable your employees are expressing their ideas and opinions, the more confident they become. This motivates them to take on new challenges.

3. It promotes creativity: Taking a team outside of an office setting and exposing them to new experiences in the kitchen forces them to think outside of their normal routine. Working together with other team members ignites creativity and fresh ideas, which are great qualities to bring back to the office.

4. It develops problem-solving skills: In public relations, a crisis can happen at any time. Team building activities that require coworkers to work together to solve problems can improve the ability to think rationally and strategically. Teams that are able to respond effectively to simulated problems in training scenarios are better prepared to respond effectively when a real crisis occurs.

5. It breaks the barrier: Team building increases the trust factor with your employees. Often in corporate settings there is a disconnect between the leadership team and employees because the employees sense too large of a gap between the two. Culinary team building exercises give leadership the opportunity to be seen as colleagues rather than bosses, which can do wonders for employee morale.

So, the next time you are trying to find a fresh new idea or theme for an event, try a cooking culinary team building approach. I can guarantee you that this approach will make you the company hero!

MM&E

To learn more about Chef Martin Lopez, visit his website at www.ChefMartin.net.

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.