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A corporate effort

We find out why cooking has become a popular choice for company team-building.

    Personalities are laid bare in the stressful atmosphere of a commercial kitchen, says Food@Work's Robinne Collie
    Personalities are laid bare in the stressful atmosphere of a commercial kitchen, says Food@Work's Robinne Collie

    According to South African-born Robinne Collie, who runs Food@Work, there is no better place than the kitchen to tackle difficult issues, particularly surrounding work.

    She, her team of chefs and a group of learning and development professionals take corporate teams and throw them into a high-pressured cooking environment. "Restaurants, commercial kitchens and cooking provide an exceptional environment for assessing, analysing and reviewing people dynamics," says mother-of-two Collie.

    She founded the company in early 2002. Explaining her inspiration, she says: "The team dynamics at my then job were challenging. At that time, I had a tiny kitchen, loved to cook and found it very difficult to do so with my husband… too many cooks and all that. I needed his help when we entertained and it made me realise that if I'd had the chance to get into a kitchen with my work colleagues, it would have been obvious how dysfunctional our team was. Your true colours come out in the kitchen - you are laid bare."

    Today Food@Work runs events for household names such as HSBC, Tesco and Sony. The teams work in busy commercial kitchens, including Michelin-starred restaurants and upmarket hotels.

    Collie says: "Our sessions are intense and typically involve making a multi-course meal. There are a multitude of challenges and we focus on front of house too."

    Asked why a manager would book his workforce onto a cookery course rather than an outdoors expedition, she replies: "There will always be some who don't want to climb a mountain. Most people will be happy to have a go in the kitchen, which is still a tough environment."

    Professional chefs are on hand to demonstrate and advise along the way. Business psychologists offer invaluable insight into how to improve productivity and work better together. "Personalities are revealed in the kitchen," says Collie. "Some people follow recipes step by step and find it difficult when a colleague tries to do something different.

    "Organised people can find it stressful to work with someone visionary and creative. We help people work together to arrive at a better outcome."

    For some groups, the end product is even more rewarding. Food@Work's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme follows a similar format, but the setting is a homeless shelter. "Instead of cooking for themselves, they must feed 180 homeless people. It's very humbling."

    Fellow South African Rosalind Rathouse also runs events for componies Cookery School in central London, which she set up eight years ago. Firms like John Lewis and Accenture use Cookery School's kitchens for team-building or as an innovative way to impress clients.

    "Some roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, while others do the minimum required," says Rathouse.

    She and her staff also run a leadership development programme in conjunction with professional psychologists.

    She says: "At some point I always ask the group to cook in silence. I reprimand them for being too noisy and insist they are quiet. Then they go silent.

    "When we debrief, I ask why nobody challenged me. The usual answer is that they listen to authority figures, but this exercise questions whether that is always the right thing to do."

    Despite the recession, clients keep coming back for more as the model has proven to have real results. "It's mind-blowing," said Rathouse. "The cookery school becomes a metaphor for the workplace. Issues that occur at work also arise when the team moves into the kitchen."

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