Exploring culinary team building as a revenue booster

Drawing 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, which involves staging cooking classes 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.”

Cooking 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.”


© 2010 Patrick J. O’Neill