Cooking Power

Kitchens Cut It with Recipes for Success

    If you can take the heat and you want to concoct a strong corporate team that produces
Michelin-star-quality work, you better get into the kitchen. Wells Fargo, Old Navy, Charles Schwab and American Express are a handful of the bigger-name companies that have chosen team building from the menu of options offered by hip Berkeley culinary school Kitchen on Fire since it opened in April 2006. The on-fire team has also worked with a mix of small firms—employees from a dental office; the staff of a music store; several independent retailers and others—eager to improve internal relations and performance.
    Kitchen on Fire (; 510-548-2665), in the Gourmet Ghetto just a couple of doors from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, is one of a number of East Bay cooking schools offering cuisine-centered team building with a focus on staff cohesiveness, improved communications and the bottom line—results.
    Three years ago, Terry Paulding (; 510-594-1104) built a 24,000-square-foot commercial kitchen in Emeryville, where she has taught groups ranging from “tiny to 63 people in one class.”
    Paulding-facilitated corporate events include team-building meetings where she provides a catered breakfast and lunch and then leads a hands-on kitchen cook-off-cum-party to conclude the day. One firm added a professional corporate trainer to the culinary team-building mix; and Paulding has even led intensive two-day team sessions.
    “I differ from some of the schools in that everything here is hands-on. I do minimum prep work ahead of time. I like clients to start with the raw ingredients to see exactly what goes into creating a dish. Most popular lately have been tapas parties,” she says.
    Cambridge Systematics is a national transportation consultancy with West Coast headquarters in Oakland. Office manager Selena Castellano—with Paulding—recently organized a tapas team-
building holiday party for staff and their spouses. “People liked it because it was interactive and everyone mixed,” says Castellano. “Principals and junior staff—who would usually sit apart and not communicate—worked together at the different cooking stations. It was fun, and the event let people get to know each other informally, in a relaxed setting.”
    “Get creative, get cracking and move around a lot.” The man barking orders in Kitchen on Fire’s loft-like red-and-orange interior is executive chef-owner MikeC, as he calls himself. (“I’m the Bono of chefs,” he states, I think tongue in cheek!)
    “Everyone eats, and we all have a food story,” says MikeC, referring to the growing number of kitchen warriors he sees rolling up their sleeves, loosening their ties, clicking their corporate high heels and wokking up a storm among the olive oil, garlic, spices, shiny utensils and prepared ingredients. “It’s such a communal thing when you cook together,” he adds. “There’s nothing forced. Nobody is intimidated. We make it like a party, so if someone really doesn’t want to cook, they can be a wallflower and watch.” All the while, they can snack, chat and sip good wine. “People relax and have fun—even when they arrive straight from a meeting or a hard day at the office.”
    San Francisco’s Stephen Gibbs (; 510-207-8827), a veteran of both Michelin-rated La Folie and Postrio, draws from a pool of chefs and holds team-building events throughout the Bay Area, including Berkeley and Oakland. “The food is always good, and participants learn to cook. But a prime focus is to get people out of their shells and to make sure they have fun,” says Hands On Gourmet marketing manager Anne Carten-Gibbs. “The classes start with mingling, then there is the structured part—the cooking—and after that, everyone sits down together to eat.”
    Business boomed during the era, says El Cerrito–based, Bangkok-born chef and cookbook author Chat Mingkwan (; 510-528-2547), a traveling team-building class veteran who has worked in kitchens throughout the Bay Area. If a company has a kitchen that is suitable, he will use it. Otherwise, he directs clients to kitchens that are for rent.
    Mingkwan says he starts with the question: What do participants want to learn? “I do mainly Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and French-Asian fusion,” he says. The number of participants and menu choices dictate the cost.
    At Kitchen on Fire, corporate groups get to choose from two options—“regular” style, where participants gather around, socialize and cook for fun; and Iron Chef style, which pits team against team. Here, each team gets a recipe and a dish to prepare, and points are awarded for taste, presentation, teamwork, organization and timing. “You see and can give feedback on how people organize, delegate, brainstorm—many typical business skills. And while they cook they develop a camaraderie. Even participants who perhaps start off negative usually have a great time.”
    Lisa Alumkal, co-founder of the Full Plate (; 510-482-1977)—a meal-assembly operation with branches in Walnut Creek and Montclair, has hosted PTA groups, church groups and select corporate groups for team-building parties. You don’t learn to cook here, but you do get to work together over wine and appetizers with ingredients prepared fresh and on the premises.
    These days, it seems, the adventurous and once-fashionable ropes course is passé. Murder-mystery games can seem trite. And who wants to (yawn) build a bicycle? And while too many cooks may spoil the broth, the word in the kitchen is that you can’t have too many executives when cooking up a tasty and cohesive corporate stew.

—By Wanda Hennig

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