How do you manage? Cooking brings new flavor to corporate team building

SAN FRANCISCO: Steve Jakosa, leader of the Emerald Palace cooking team, had just taken off his apron and sat down to enjoy his dinner when the bad news came. His team's Mongolian beef had lost. Across the room, the Wok Stars, Jakosa's opponents, cheered over their sweet soy and chili flank steak.

It was a cook-off with decidedly corporate overtones as the group of amateur chefs from UBS, the financial services company, divided into two teams and donned aprons one recent evening at Sur La Table, a kitchen and tableware store in this food-obsessed city.

Jakosa stood to make a toast. "I just want to tell you I'm devastated we didn't win the protein category," he said in jest.

Forget ropes courses and golf outings: Cooking is the new wave in U.S. corporate team-building exercises, and cooking schools across the country are expanding to meet demand. Last year, Hands On Gourmet, a company in San Francisco, tripled the number of chefs it had on call, to 32. Cooking by the Book, a company based in New York, did 178 team-building events, a 24 percent increase over 2005.
Taking inspiration from television shows like "Iron Chef," where professional cooks compete against time and each other to make the tastiest meals from limited ingredients, companies like Amgen and Microsoft are sending their employees off to chop, dice and sauté their way to better sales and management skills. They might spend a leisurely hour assembling a meal together or split up and go cleaver to cleaver in a race against the clock.

However it is done, the cooking class approach to corporate team- building has caught on.

Bibby Gignilliat, the owner of Parties That Cook, which sent three chefs to work with the UBS group, said the change of scenery made people see their colleagues in a different light. "You might not especially like someone you work with, but suddenly you're working on a recipe with them and you see they're a really good cook," she said.

This is true of other team-bonding pursuits, of course, and companies are investing in them, too: scavenger hunts, ropes courses, team boat-building, even knock-offs of reality TV shows like "Survivor." But unlike some of the more extreme activities, most people are willing to give cooking a try. What's more, the kitchen can represent a microcosm of the working world, with a deadline, limited resources to work with and a requirement for cooperation.

Jakosa, a senior vice president at UBS, directs a small wealth management group, but on this night he was the also-ran, the guy whose team took the equivalent of the Miss Congeniality crown, with the prize for the best noodles.

"Some people would be happy with the noodle prize," he said. "I'm perennially unhappy unless I'm No. 1 in the meat category."

Yet Jakosa kept his humor about it. "It's so good for the boss not just to lose but to come in third out of three," he said. "It's good for esprit de corps."

"At a golf tournament, the better golfers will have more fun," said Mary Risley, the owner of Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco. Risley has been running corporate events since 1980, when she led a group of 24 summer associates at a law firm through a menu of fresh pasta, sautéed chicken with shallots and chocolate mousse cake. Over the years, Risley has led classes for many law firms and for corporations as diverse as H.J. Heinz, Genentech and Fidelity Investments.

Gignilliat, whose prices start at $115 a person, said that unlike the corporate world, where workers might be collaborating on a project for a year, in the cooking class "they can see results after an hour."

Organizers say that some of the most gratifying results can come from a cooking event with people who barely know one another.

Throughout each year, Thermo Fischer Scientific, a large maker of laboratory equipment based in Waltham, Massachusetts, invites managers from around the world to participate in a weeklong leadership training program. For the past two years, a cooking course has been the first event of the week.

The culinary approach has even been used to court customers. Last spring, Renate Glaessmann, a sales manager at Hewlett-Packard in Bridgewater, New Jersey, took her team to a cooking event in Chicago and invited employees from Verizon, her prospective client, to join them.

Things started slowly, but as the group of a dozen or so sales managers and engineers, mostly men, from the two companies worked together to create a tapas menu, the group grew more collegial. "They were pleasantly surprised," Glaessmann said.

HP got the business.

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