• 4 Culinary Events Can Turn Anyone into a Top Chef

    FROM THE Summer 2017 ISSUE
  • 4 Culinary Events Can Turn Anyone into a Top Chef

    FROM THE Summer 2017 ISSUE

If you're an avid food network fan, you’ve probably noticed a steady increase in the number and types of cooking competitions over the last few years. Cooking is not only cool, it’s competitive and allows amateur chefs a chance to make it big. 

And while the rest of us may not be destined for a spot on TV shows such as “Top Chef” or “Chopped,” preparing great food is defi nitely fun. For planners, off ering groups the chance to participate in culinary events adds a creative and educational component to meetings. And it’s catching on in a big way. 

Meetings of the Senses Ritz-Carlton, Dallas

“People like to be involved in what they’re eating, and they like to be proactive participants in a meal,” says chef Chris Southwick, creator of a new culinary program for groups called Meetings of the Senses at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas. “This can be particularly meaningful in a meeting and event setting, when dining can be a diversion that equates to shared fun and to delighting the senses.”

Southwick’s new banquet menus are designed to incorporate movement and interactivity to draw guests into the experience. Examples include demonstrations where pasta is made in front of the diners, alongside housemade mozzarella created from scratch and stretched, then incorporated into each guest’s own preferred dish and a charcuterie board with customized meats and cheeses

“Our guests care about where their food comes from, and they want to learn everything they can about each meal they are experiencing. As chefs, we are thrilled to see this passion and interest among group travelers,” adds Southwick. “We love every single minute of this new catering experience.” 

TeamBonding Culinary Events

The company TeamBonding started in Boston, but its creative take on corporate team-building has expanded nationwide with unique culinary events for groups. 

All of TeamBonding’s culinary programs are available in Texas, but the most popular ones now are the Food Truck Challenge, the Chili Cook-Off and Cooking for a Cause, which is a culinary program that includes a food donation to a local food bank or shelter, says David Goldstein, C.O.O.—creator of opportunities—of TeamBonding and Recipe for Success.

“We have taken the food truck from the chassis to the banquet table, bringing you the Food Truck Challenge,” Goldstein says. “Teams not only prepare delectable food truck fare but they also construct and decorate their own food truck façade, with their own food truck brand name and logo. We are a mobile team-building company and we go to the venues that the clients choose including locations in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.” 

Meridian 98 Sonesta Bee Cave Austin

At the Sonesta Bee Cave Austin, Executive Chef Patrick Newman offers a variety of fun, Texas-themed culinary events for groups. The Chili Cook Off is one example, and allows guests to compete in a cook-off featuring their own “secret” chili recipe. Participants even get the chance to create a name and logo for their product and pitch it to the judges.

“The continued marriage of business and leisure lends itself toward travelers who want to experience something new through the location and local flavor,” explains Eric Wimbush, director of sales and marketing. “We see a rise in guests who want to learn more about what makes the city and the community tick. It’s not a business trip unless they can take back some kind of knowledge about the experience—what kind of food they ate, how it was made, where it came from.”

Judges can be group VIPs or hotel chef associates, and in true Food Network style, the cooking materials include individual cooking pots and burners, a full pantry with ingredients, official rules, flip charts with colored markers, official rules and judging score sheets. Lastly, for groups just looking for a fun happy hour option, the Sonesta Bee Cave will also help put on a mixology contest or lesson for teams who want to create a custom cocktail, logo and slogan. 

Onion Creek Kitchens Juniper Hill Farms

At the Onion Creek Kitchens at Juniper Hill Farms, corporate groups work as a team to learn kitchen techniques and make delicious recipes through the Corporate ReTreats™ program. According to owner Sibby Barrett, the events are fully customizable and can include area excursions and even overnight lodging for a limited number of participants. Overflow lodging can be arranged at nearby venues. 

“A lot of people tell us they don’t find cooking fun anymore—too much work, too stressful,” says Barrett. “We like to bring the fun back to cooking by making it easy. When we do the planning for you, the guests really enjoy themselves. They feel they don’t have to work that hard but they feel challenged to do something they might not try at home because we do all the cleaning.”

Sample menus include Summer Night in Italy, Beat the Heat Cool Summer Entrees, Paella Fest, Cooking Light in the Summertime, Dining Al Fresco and Pizza on the Grill. 

“I love watching the body language when people first arrive and then check it again after an hour of cooking together,” says Barrett. “Chopping vegetables across the table from someone or sautéing something works magic. It really loosens people up and they start to feel comfortable about talking about themselves and how they cook and eat at home. We all have that in common—food, traditions and memories.” 

League City CVB manager Stephanie Polk shares her career journey.

Originally from Kentwood, Louisiana, Stephanie Polk, TDM, CTE, first made her mark on the travel and tourism industry as director of marketing for the Beaumont Convention & Visitors Bureau. There, she helped to elevate the city as a destination for recreation travelers and business groups. Wowed by her accomplishments, in 2020, League City brought her on board to lead its marketing efforts. She shares with us highlights and advice from her experience in the industry. 


The “Hub City’s” dynamic approach to downtown revitalization, coupled with a community that fosters an environment conducive to growth and progress, paved the way for new developments in the shape of a world-class performing arts theater, luxury stays and a Michelin star-worthy restaurant.


In 2020, Houston First Corp. (HFC) reported that the city was slated to host 252 meetings and 611,000 room nights. By March 14, the Bayou City had already hosted 115 conventions and 137,400 room nights. Then the pandemic hit, and meetings and events across the country came to a screeching halt.

We asked Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First Corp. (HFC) how the health crisis has influenced the organization’s business model moving forward.