Food and drink are subjects of almost universal interest, and it is difficult to think of a more effective way of building a team from disparate individuals than setting them to work in a kitchen. A number of hotels and training facilities around the world offer cooking lessons, not only to aspiring chefs but also to corporate groups wishing to bond in a shared endeavour, or just to have some social ice broken. Here are six operations offering truly memorable experiences.
1. Hong Kong – InterContinental
What? One of Hong Kong’s iconic hotels, thanks to a large extent to its spectacular cross-harbour views of the island. The InterContinental Hong Kong is also home to the city’s restaurant operations of two of the world’s most famous chefs – Nobu Matsuhisa’s Nobu and Spoon by Alain Ducasse. It runs regular cooking classes overseen by the resident chefs of those two outlets, and also by the chefs of the Yan Toh Heen Cantonese restaurant and the Steak House Winebar + Grill, under a programme called Cooking with the Culinary Stars.
Where is it? On the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, an easy stroll from the Star Ferry, but a long tortuous walk through the labyrinthine network of subway tunnels from the Tsim Sha Tsui Mass Transit Railway stop.
What is involved? The regular Cooking with the Culinary Stars classes are scheduled, but the hotel will organise special sessions along the same lines for events planners. For a hands-on team-building experience the hotel recommends either a private dim sum making class with executive chef Lau Yiu Fai, from Michelin starred Yan Toh Heen for up to 20 participants, or a sushi-making class with executive chef Oyvind Naesheim and executive sushi chef Hikedi Endo at Nobu, for up to 10. Groups learn together the intricacies of making these delicious “small bites” and sit down with the chefs to eat them afterwards. Sessions are usually held in the morning, starting with a light breakfast, and last from two to three hours.
2. Bangkok – Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa
What? A 4.5-hectare city garden resort hotel, which maintains a small fleet of antique converted rice barges for dinner and overnight cruises on the Chao Phraya River. These vessels can be booked by event planners for special training functions, including cooking classes. The Manohra Cruises boats can accommodate up to
70 guests for a private party or dining cruise, or up to 12 for a cooking class.
Where is it? On the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. The resort feels detached from downtown Bangkok, but a river boat shuttle connection to the Bangkok Mass Transit System’s Saphan Taksin Skytrain station takes just 20 minutes or so. The resort is about 45 minutes from Suvarnabhumi International Airport – depending, of course, on Bangkok’s notorious traffic.
What is involved? You have to get up early. The group taking the Spice Spoons cooking class travels with the chef by longtail boat or tuk-tuk to a market where they help buy ingredients. These are then taken to the boat where the chef – one for each four participants – supervises their preparation of traditional Thai dishes such as fishcakes, spicy prawn soup, satay, green papaya salad, chicken green curry and Thai fried noodles, while the boat cruises gently down river. Each effort is judged by the chefs before the group sits down to lunch. Larger groups can be accommodated on shore in the resort’s purpose built Spice Spoons Cooking School.
3. Oxford (England) –Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
What? A country house hotel best known for its double Michelin starred restaurant run by celebrity chef Raymond Blanc. Le Manoir is well set up for small corporate functions in its private dining room, La Belle Epoque, which can accommodate up to 20 guests and has conference equipment, including flipcharts and projectors. The entire hotel can also be hired.
Where is it? In the village of Great Milton, near the university town of Oxford, about an hour to an hour and a half from London by train or car. Alternatively you could arrive by helicopter – the hotel has its own helipad.
What is involved? As well as catering to corporate functions Le Manoir is prepared to give guests an insight into the workings of a kitchen in which some of Britain’s best known chefs trained – Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White included – through its Chef For A Day programme. This involves a 9.00am start, joining the pastry chef to bake fresh bread, croissants and pastries, followed by an introduction to each kitchen department, a light lunch away from the main restaurant, and the opportunity to see how the team of gardeners works with the chefs to meet their needs with high-quality home-grown produce.
4. Sydney – Cliftons
What? A conference, training and event venue also set up for video conferencing, which stresses the quality of its food and beverage service. Taking that emphasis a step further it works with suppliers in the food and beverage business to offer cooking and wine blending classes as team-building exercises.
Where is it? In the heart of Sydney’s Central Business District, near Wynyard Station and many of the city’s most important office and commercial buildings.
What is involved? Cliftons offers food-and-beverage-linked team-building sessions. They work with Bimbadgen Estate on classes in which participants learn how wine is blended, and try their hand at it themselves, and with caterers VictorsFood on cooking classes which aim not only to help those in each class to become better at preparing food, but also to understand the value of cooking and eating as networking catalysts. Similar programmes are organised at Cliftons’ other venues elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand.
5. Hong Kong – The Ritz-Carlton
What? A “Chef’s Table” private dining room with cooking facilities, able to accommodate groups of up to 10 people, overseen by Michelin starred Italian chef Pino Lavarra of the hotel’s acclaimed Tosca restaurant.
Where is it? On the 102nd floor of Hong Kong’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon, this may be the most dramatically situated chef’s table in the world. The views are breathtaking, assuming that they are not obscured by clouds, which at this elevation they
What is involved? Participants can get fully involved in the preparation of dishes, or treat the class mostly as a demonstration in which Chef Lavarra prepares some of his specialities, such as buffalo carpaccio, basil spaghetti wrapped in swordfish paper, Mediterranean tuna with eggplant purée and potato soufflé, depending on arrangements made beforehand. In the demonstration format he is able to prepare more dishes, and in addition to tastings during the class, lunch follows. Either way participants come away with an enhanced understanding of Italian cooking, as well as the day’s recipe on a USB stick and their hats and aprons.
6. Langho (England) – Northcote
What? A small hotel and restaurant with one Michelin star, known for the seasonal cuisine of chef patron Nigel Haworth. Northcote has been highly rated as a restaurant for decades, and last April opened a new cooking school which is offering corporate and group bookings as client incentives or team building experiences for colleagues.
Where is it? In Langho, rural Lancashire in the north of England, on the edge of the scenic Ribble Valley, in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The hotel is approximately 45 miles from Manchester Airport.
What is involved? Up to eight participants at four cooking stations can take one day or half day courses, graded by level of difficulty, conducted by head tutor Michael Vanheste. Master classes conducted by Nigel Haworth and head chef Lisa Allen are also available. Sessions have a seasonal theme, or focus on a particular area of the chef’s expertise, and different packages including lunch or dinner or overnight stays are available for small groups. Basic courses in which everybody can get involved are particularly effective
ice-breakers for small corporate groups.