It creates camaraderie, subdues office loudmouths and even teaches about cost control. We investigate the growing trend for corporate cookery school away-days
The falling leaves remind some business leaders of a dilemma that often plagues them at this time of year: what to do with the annual festive away-day. With macho pursuits too divisive (abseiling down the Shard or building bivouacs with Bear Grylls will only result in multiple sickies), and anything too boozy liable to trigger potential HR headaches, companies are discovering a more inclusive option: the corporate cookery school.
Blame it on The Great British Bake Off or Britons’ increasing foodie consciousness, but in recent years, cookery schools are becoming the safer, more popular alternative to the type of shindigs that usually culminate in staff yelling along to Slade with tinsel tiaras on their heads.
The corporate benefit? Its advocates say cookery schools are inclusive team-building exercises that can teach staff some elemental but vital business lessons.
“If you can make money out of food, you can make money out of anything,” says Richard Hughes, founder of Norfolk’s Richard Hughes Cookery School, which, alongside kitchen tuition, tasks pupils with costing menus, budgeting, sourcing ingredients, negotiating retailer prices and learning about customer service.
One engineering firm recently staged a two-day charity takeover of Hughes’s Assembly House restaurant, doing everything from cooking the dishes to serving to fundraising for charity. The cost to the client for 45 staff was £12,000, and the employees raised a combined £7,500 for good causes.
The UK’s first corporate cookery school, Venturi’s Table in London, opened in 2005 and has since hosted the apron-clad likes of Barclays, Microsoft and Apple. All manner of cookery schools have sprung up since, many catering to corporate clients. At the expensive end of the spectrum are courses run by celebrity chefs – see Jean-Christophe Novelli’s Novelli Academy, Anton Mosimann’s Academy or Mark Hix’s monthly classes at his Dorset home (£175 a head).
Elsewhere, more unconventional courses abound. There’s a pork pie and piccalilli-making course in Derbyshire (Hartingtons of Bakewell) and chocolate sessions in the Scottish Borders (Cocoa Black), while the Women’s Institute has its own WI Cookery School in Oxfordshire. Elsewhere, there are Diwali Curry Feast lessons in Bath, Ghanaian cookery courses in London and a grounding in vegetarian cuisine in Cheshire.
But other than the hilarity of watching senior managers get covered in dough, what do staff really get from it all?
“It’s sociable, you have an end-product, plus companies like the fact that, in cookery, feedback is instant,” says Hughes. “You can immediately tell on customers’ faces if you’re doing a good job – in jobs like accountancy it can take six months to get feedback.”
Moreover, corporate cookery classes tip workplace hierarchy on its head. “Junior employees are served food by their managers,” adds Hughes, who also notes such lessons have a tendency to humble troublesome office alphas because “they’re out of their comfort zone and have nowhere to hide”.
And the team-building? Hughes reckons cookery classes are perfect for fostering internal company fellowship because the customary end-of-course banquet is prepared and eaten by staff. “Everybody works together because nobody wants anybody else to fail,” he says. “After all, they’ve all got to eat the same food at the end of it.”
The IoD’s marketing team spent a day concocting its own feast at London’s The Cookery School. But what was the experience really like? Three members of the team reveal all…
The senior manager George Taylor
Acquisition and retention marketing manager, IoD
My past experience of team-building has been outdoor activities. These have been fun, but because they are so physical the chance to talk with colleagues is limited. This is why cookery appealed – it gave an opportunity for our (relatively new) team to integrate somewhere other than a soulless conference room. Or a pub. Plus, it would involve real work – after all, everybody wants to eat decent food at the end. The Cookery School emphasises healthy, sustainable British ingredients and my team was tasked with creating sea bream baked en papillote (in a parcel) with hollandaise sauce. From a manager’s perspective, it was interesting observing staff in a different environment and particularly inspiring to see quieter employees rise to the occasion during such physical activity. Another interesting aspect was the egalitarianism – junior and senior staff working side by side. If I had a criticism, it’s that the courses were somewhat akin to a school home economics lesson and we were slightly ‘mothered’ while using sharp knives. Nonetheless, we took away some valuable lessons. And of course everybody ended up in the pub afterwards.
The executive Zarina Sahni
Product marketing manager, IoD
The lessons got off to a good start, with champagne, gougère pastries and the fun of pulling on silly aprons. Then work started. Our 15-strong team was split into groups of five, with each assigned a different course. Ours got the starter – pan-grilled lettuce (who knew you could grill lettuce?) with a Dijon dressing and homemade granary rolls. Easy enough, maybe, except both dressing and bread had to be made from scratch. It soon became apparent the classes were less about team-building, more about having fun with workmates in a new environment. As chopping and kneading got underway, you glimpsed different characters emerging – who’s the most dominant, who got competitive about the vinegar in the dressing, who shirked all responsibility (somebody told me I was the “most conscientious”). With the school’s
South African owner, Rosalind Rathouse, dropping in occasional but wonderful stories about her life, the day ended with us all feasting on our food – and her organic wines. And the best bit? No washing up.
The new staff member Richard Rowe
Membership acquisition campaign executive, IoD
When we did the cookery course, I’d only been at the IoD for four months. So I jumped at the chance of extracurricular bonding. I was making the sea bream alongside George. The good thing was everybody had the chance to carve out their own autonomy, playing a cohesive role in preparing the meal. It was a great leveller, removing some of the office barriers. The quiet ones could come forward and shine as mini-Ramsays (foul-mouthed rants and all), while senior staff struggled to chop onions (yes, really). Meanwhile, the daft ones were still daft – one attempted to eat the parchment wrapping because he assumed it was edible. Sadly, the cooking wasn’t quite as hands-on as I expected – having prepared the fish, we had to hand our creation over to staff to place in the oven. That said, it was reassuring to know that our team could collaborate in an unfamiliar environment. I’d definitely do it again.
The Cookery School in London offers team-building events from only £100 (plus VAT) per person, which covers the cooking experience, food and wine
Cookery School Christmas 2015 packages (includes PDF menus to download)
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