Groups dynamic: WNC cooking schools turn up the heat with culinary team-building experiences

TEAMWORK: Participants in a culinary team-building class at The Farm work together to make pasta for a group meal. Many local cooking schools offer team-building programs for businesses and organizations that are looking for an out-of-the-ordinary employee experience. Photo courtesy of The Farm

It’s no secret that Asheville is an increasingly popular spot for tourists. But the city also earned nods from national meeting-planning publications in 2017 as a meeting destination on the rise and a top incentive destination alongside larger cities like Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn. And, of course, Asheville has found a way to blend its vibrant food culture into that mix. Many area cooking schools now offer culinary experiences that cater to meeting planners and organizations looking for an outside-the-box option for team building.

Through several Asheville-area venues, teams can customize their culinary team-building experience to include a range of cuisines and formats. At Asheville Mountain Kitchen, owner Ofri Gilan says many groups opt to divide in half for a competition-style cookoff. Sometimes she acts as both teacher and judge. At other times, the group selects its own judges and scores the dishes on presentation, teamwork and/or taste.

Even if things get heated during the competition, she says, the losing teams are usually good sports because everyone gets an edible reward. “Food always makes people happy,” says Gilan, who also teaches regular cooking classes for the public. She hosts events at her mountain home in Haw Creek, where groups can set up for activities around her large kitchen bar and mingle on her large outdoor deck after the cooking is done.

Team-building programming takes a different approach at Season’s at Highland Lake at the Highland Lake Inn & Resort in Flat Rock. Here, participants typically don’t go the competition route. Instead, they are divided into three groups with each in charge of preparing one course.

Teams at Season’s work directly with the restaurant’s executive and banquet chefs, who provide instructions and guidance as well as “constructive criticism on their performance, from flavor to plate presentation,” says Peter Fassbender, director of food and beverage. He adds that in working directly with the chefs, participants often walk away with an appreciation for the challenges of preparing food in large quantities. “They realize the importance of good communication,” he says.

At The Farm, an events venue and cooking school in Candler, groups can communicate the atmosphere desired when booking the activity, and the staff plans a customized event accordingly. “Some clients are looking for a relaxing private dinner, others want a higher-energy interactive experience,” says owner Beverly Gottried. Among the most popular group events to date have been beer-pairing dinners, where a local beer expert is brought in to add a fun and educational element to the team-building activity.

So do teams that cook together really get stronger? Gottried thinks so. “We like food-focused events because it changes the dynamics for folks who work together,” she says. “And there is no hierarchy during a cooking class or a beer-pairing experience. Everyone is trying something new, and they are doing it together.”

Yet, these events aren’t always just about bonding, as Gilan points out. “Some groups use it to test how certain people work together to perhaps make changes to their team,” she says, noting a company that hosted an event that allowed employees to socialize with colleagues and meet their spouses for the first time. That group ended up coming back because team members felt the event helped break down barriers.

“When you know where people are coming from, it may make you more understanding of your colleagues,” Gilan says. To facilitate these connections, she often asks people to share with the group memories they have about food from their childhoods. In turn, she talks about her own youth growing up in Israel and memories of cooking with her grandmother.

Fassbender sees the benefits of culinary team-building as being tied to two factors. “Cooking as a group requires great communication and organization, which are extremely important to any company, no matter the product, be it goods or services,” he says.

He adds that the intensity inherent to cooking large amounts of food also tests a person’s — and team’s — ability to handle pressure. “Being able to handle multiple tasks simultaneously with food items is extremely challenging. It makes for a pretty daunting task,” he says. Luckily, the dangling carrot of a great meal keeps people motivated, and the hard work makes sitting back and enjoying a glass of wine with the fruits of their labor that much more delicious.


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