Culinary Team Building Sizzles: Culinary Team Building is in Thanks to Hell's Kitchen; Ropes Courses and Paintball are Out

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Television programs such as "Iron Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" are showing how competitive and fun group cooking can be. Preparing a meal takes planning, attentiveness and adaptability. These skills, exhibited daily in restaurants across the country, parallel those that many managers are striving to hone in their corporate environments. Recognizing this, companies such as Atlanta-based Focus on Food (http://www.focusonfood.com) are designing culinary team building programs for corporations and hosting the events in their restaurant-style kitchen facilities.

Golf outings are fun for golfers, and ropes courses are fun for the adventurous, but neither is universally attractive to all employees. The kitchen environment is a great equalizer; it is gender neutral and does not depend on physical strength. Everyone can contribute and have a great time, whether they consider themselves gourmet cooks or barely know how to boil water.

    In recent years, employees at top companies such as American Express, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley and Nordstrom have participated in cooking team building programs.

"Culinary team building is essentially group collaboration under stress, necessary for surviving and thriving in today's business environment," said Ron Marks, founder and president of Focus on Food. "The trend of culinary team building is becoming more and more popular with corporations because the kitchen environment encourages creativity, promotes time management and flexibility, emphasizes multi-tasking and problem-solving, and demonstrates how well employees perform under pressure."

The popularity of group cooking can be attributed in part to its widespread appeal among both men and women. Participants do not have to be proficient in the kitchen to have a great time.

Explains Marks, "Golf outings are fun for golfers, and ropes courses are fun for the adventurous, but neither is universally attractive to all employees. The kitchen environment is a great equalizer; it is gender neutral and does not depend on physical strength. Everyone can contribute and have a great time, whether they consider themselves gourmet cooks or barely know how to boil water."

Focus on Food now makes it easy for Atlanta corporations to take part in the culinary team building trend. The company's Culinary Innovation Center can handle groups of up to 40 people at a time and tailors its programs based on the seniority level and goals of the group. Available formats include: a hard-core Supreme Cuisine Showdown, a Three Course Gourmet Team Challenge, and a Tapas & Wine Event (http://www.focusonfood.com). In every format, the group is organized into teams, each of which is guided by a professional chef facilitator who serves as a mentor.

Designed for highly competitive, Type A personalities, the Supreme Cuisine Showdown is an Iron-Chef style team building event at its best. In this program, each team prepares a meal in hopes of winning the judges' votes. Not only is each team graded on cuisine flavor and presentation, but they are also judged on their effectiveness as a team.

Another option, designed to build camaraderie without competition, is the Three Course Gourmet Team Challenge. In this program, perfect for change management teams, each group prepares a different course of a fine dining meal. The session culminates in the dining room, where the entire group sits down and enjoys the multi-course gourmet meal they created together.

The third option is the Tapas & Wine Event, similar in format to the Three Course Gourmet Team Challenge. In this program, each group prepares different small dishes from around the world. After completing their creations, the groups mingle and enjoy great wines while making their way around to the various food stations.

When asked what makes these events different from culinary and team building events at other venues, Marks replied, "We are not a fancy kitchenware or gourmet foods store offering cooking classes. This is definitely not cooking at Williams-Sonoma with Martha Stewart. Our program is great fun and very engaging, but can be very challenging if that is the client's objective. We are offering groups the opportunity to experience 'reality-style' restaurant cooking in a real-world restaurant kitchen, under the guidance of experienced professional chefs."

Regardless of the program selected, Marks says the groups always have fun.

"At the end of the day, team members are amazed and proud of what their team accomplished and jokingly prod each other about the mishaps that invariably happen in any kitchen," explains Marks.

Focus on Food (http://www.focusonfood.com) was established in 2002 by Ron Marks, who has served as executive chef at nationally recognized restaurants on both coasts. The company began as a consumer-driven food research center for restaurants and the food manufacturing industry. Restaurants, ranging from upscale to quick service, utilize Focus on Food to help create and test new menu items. The food manufacturing segment regularly taps the company for food product development. In 2007, Focus on Food established a culinary events division, using its experienced culinary team and commercial kitchen facilities for special events and corporate team building outings.

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