One of my favorite television shows to watch is Master Chef Junior—that Gordon Ramsay-spearheaded competition, which pits incredibly talented mini-chefs against one another in a race to produce professional-caliber works of food art. Often these culinary savants perform with startling professionalism when working solo, but struggle when presented with a team challenge.
Their group cooking endeavors frequently result in frayed emotions and shaky technique as egos and culinary styles collide. One would hope that come adulthood, the prospect of working with a team would bring much less friction. Yet team-building activities remain a top meeting and event request from corporate clients. It seems that one never outgrows the need to improve skills of compromise and diplomacy.
And the culinary challenges that foster teamwork with talented young chefs work just as well for adults. In fact, culinary team-building options— ranging from competitive challenges to relaxed group meals—have grown in popularity alongside our current foodie culture. Here are a few culinary options to consider for your clients’ next team-building event.
Dividing attendees into teams and facing them off against one another in culinary competition ranks as one of the most prominent food-centered team-building options. Following on the heels of successful television shows like Iron Chef and Chopped, this group activity usually centers around a basket of pre- selected ingredients a team must use as it attempts to concoct a culinary masterpiece.
At the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Fort Worth, teams battle against one another in chili cook-offs and salsa cook-offs, giving a taste of Texas cuisine to event attendees who fly in from far-flung locales. In the process of perfecting a recipe (with no Web research allowed), teams are judged on presentation, aroma and taste. Each team also crafts a banner with a team logo, all while striving to interact amicably and avoid pitfalls like cross-contamination of recipe ingredients.
“We get positive feedback on the camaraderie that these events build,” says American Airlines Training and Conference Center General Manager Frank Will. The singularity of task seems to enable participants to look past personal differences and work toward a common goal, a process that will hopefully reap dividends upon return to the workplace. “In judging the teams, we consider how they’re interacting,” Will says. “A lot of times, when putting together teams, the group coordinators pick people that don’t get along. But when it comes to this one task, they can do it.”
For groups that may be concerned about the potential of wasting food in culinary competition, or that wish to make an impact on a community while bonding with one another, partnering with a host site that donates food to charity may be the answer. Such is the case with Team Bonding, which promotes “the power of play” as an effective method of fostering workplace harmony. The company puts on Cooking for a Cause workshops in Dallas and Houston. These workshops involve a three-part food-centered challenge.
Before starting the challenge, teams learn about hunger and homelessness in the United States, enabling them to gain perspective about the potential impact of their charitable team-building.
Then teams participate in a cooking competition, working together in an attempt to create the most delicious lasagna. A group meal follows, with extra lasagna donated to organizations serving hungry community members. Next, teams compete in The Great PB&J Challenge, racing to shell peanuts and making their own peanut butter. Each team then assembles and packages up to 20 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are sent to area soup kitchens and food programs. The third component involves a challenge-based food bag assembly for distribution to needy families in the community.
For a sweet spin on charitable cooking, American Outback Adventures and Events coordinates culinary team-building activities like cake decorating competitions in all of Texas’ major metro areas. In the Cake Creators program, teams decorate cakes based on a company logo, product launch or other theme of their choosing. Teams are provided cake-decorating ingredients and supplies, and conceptualize and carry out a frosted design. After the cakes are decorated and judged, teams have the option of donating them to a local food bank, thus integrating charitable giving into camaraderie.
“This is a lot of fun,” says Dustan Sept, marketing manager for American Outback Adventures and Events. “It’s probably our most popular culinary team-building event.” Sept notes that culinary team-building options also hold distinct advantages over outdoor adventure options. Events like Cake Creators, which are held indoors, aren’t restricted by weather. And mobility impaired attendees are often fully able to participate in culinary team-building. The short time frame (most culinary events take between two to four hours) also appeals to groups on a tight schedule.
Groups seeking a simpler foray into culinary concoctions may prefer cocktail-centered team-building events. Interest in vintage goods combined with the commercial success of the movie The Great Gatsby have increased the appeal of pre-Prohibition and Prohibition-era cocktails.
Cocktail team-building events include options like crafting custom mixers to give away as gifts, spirit tasting and learning the essentials of mixology: how to mix, shake and muddle. These events are particularly well-received just before the holiday season, so attendees can hone bartending skills prior to hosting their own holiday parties.
For groups more interested in wine than spirits, consider team-building events that combine wine and food, teaching participants the essentials of wine and food pairings, and then challenging them to properly match foods and wine on their own. Sangria and mulled wine challenges encourage participants to experiment with adding various fruits and spices to wine in order to create a winning drink. And team-building events held at wineries like Cork This! in Montgomery allow attendees to learn the science behind proper bottling of wine as they work to sanitize, bottle, cork and seal bottles of wine.
Travaasa, an experiential destination resort in Austin, offers numerous culinary team-building options including tequila, beer and wine tasting, a juicing class for groups wishing to focus on nonalcoholic drinks and a popular workshop called Art of the Cocktail.
For this cocktail workshop, a sommelier/bartender gives participants a lesson on how to make a top- notch cocktail. Teams are then charged with melding a pleasing flavor profile, as well as naming and marketing their cocktail. A tasting determines the best drink, and the winning libation is put on Travaasa’s restaurant menu for the night.
“This is a great way to break the ice,” Travaasa’s Guest Services Manager Brian Bastress says. “After a full day of meetings, it’s nice to just have fun together. And we even give them a cocktail ahead of time to get the creative juices flowing.”
For corporate teams who are used to being confined to the air-conditioned interior of an office building all day, a team-building retreat within a natural setting provides a refreshing change of pace. Farm-based team-building events give participants the opportunity to engage in activities like planting, harvesting and cooking fresh food.
Austin Ranch, a dude ranch located in Grapevine, offers a comedic team-building option called The Funny Farm. In the competition, team members are divided into “hillbilly families” and race against one another to complete tasks like shucking corn, gathering fire wood and making dumplings.
For an authentic farm experience, The Greer Farm in Northeast Texas provides acres of blueberry and blackberry bushes, as well as sustainably raised vegetable and herb gardens, and plenty of farm animals roaming about to add to the country charm.
Attendees can get in touch with recipe ingredients by picking pounds of juicy berries in the pick-your- own patch. Then they meet up with co-owner Chef Eva Greer for a cooking class. For groups staying in the farm’s cabins for a weekend retreat, Chef Eva prepares a farm-fresh meal for them the first night. Then on the second night, she turns the tables and gives attendees the reins of the farmhouse kitchen. After breaking into teams of two to three people, each team tackles one component of a gourmet meal—crafting dishes like spicy cheddar cheese straws, prosciutto stuffed pork tenderloin and fried blueberry pies. Chef Eva supervises and guides the teams in hopes of averting any culinary disasters. When all teams have completed their tasks, the entire group gathers for a meal. During the course of the meal, each team has the opportunity to explain their dish and reflect on the challenges and surprises they encountered during its creation.
The time shared in a farmhouse kitchen allows participants to shed artificial layers that they regu- larly don in an office setting. “Cooking together gives staff members the opportunity to be on the same level as the boss,” says farm owner Sid Greer. “The boss doesn’t have an advantage in this setting.”