As soon as Marietta Stalcup, medical liaison team leader for Indianapolis, IN-based Eli Lilly & Co., learned her team would be in Las Vegas for a meeting, she began researching teambuilding activities in the area. "We'd had some differences in styles and personalities that we needed to address," she says. So, she signed the group up for a culinary teambuilding course at Las Vegas-based Creative Cooking School.

"We all like to cook and we all like to eat, so it seemed like a great opportunity to have a connection point at which to learn about everyone's different styles," says Stalcup. Catherine Margles, president and founder of the Creative Cooking School, agrees. "A kitchen is just like a company," she says. "Cooking is based on a system of organization. You have several people operating in different roles and you put them all together and come up with a product—the meal. It's the same concept as in a corporation."

In industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to software to banking, group culinary activities have emerged as an especially effective way to improve working relationships. "Breaking bread is a universal tradition," says Richard Cooper, president of Canton, MA-based teambuilding company Recipe for Success, whose clients include IBM and Oppenheimer Funds. "Whether it's a group of people who have a specific problem working together or people from offices around the country or the world who work together remotely, there are parallels of building teams in the kitchen and in the corporation." Culinary teambuilding programs can be competitive (think of a contest a la Iron Chef) or noncompetitive (think family-style dinners); they can be designed to resolve specific conflicts or to just generally strengthen the social fabric of an organization. What matters is that they improve the rapport of any given group of colleagues. "The reality of the situation is that people need to get along to boost the bottom line of a company," says Margles. "That's why managers want teambuilding in the first place. And rather than going out for golf, where the groups are broken up into foursomes and it's every man for himself, culinary exercises keep everyone together on a level playing field: the kitchen."

Playing the Field

The level-playing-field analogy is particularly applicable when bringing together employees from different levels of an organization. Suzen O'Rourke, owner of Cooking by the Book, a culinary event organization in New York City, recalls a law firm that visited her facility. Two members of the group were noticeably avoiding each other. "One was the senior partner, who was probably making millions of dollars, and didn't want to have anything to do with coming to this associates program," she says. "The other was a second-year law student who was completely intimidated." O'Rourke intentionally put the two on the same cooking team. "The kid was an amazing cook, while the partner was the type who doesn't know where his kitchen is," she says. By the end of the program, O'Rourke continues, "The senior partner was looking at this kid with entirely new eyes, and the kid realized he didn't need to be intimidated by someone who couldn't even cut an onion."

In Stalcup's case, the level playing field provided a friendly environment in which to address the vast differences in working styles between the members of her team. Stalcup's team was divided into smaller teams that would compete to create a given dish within a set amount of time. "We knew what we wanted to accomplish ahead of time, so we talked with the owner and selected the menu and assembled our teams strategically to make sure the different personalities and work styles on the team members would emerge," Stalcup says. "We have certain individuals who are very meticulous and detailed, and they'd spend 15 minutes making the little decoration that goes on the side of the plate while the rest of us down the line would be like, 'What are you doing? Let's go! This is a competition!' "

When the exercise was over, Stalcup convened the group to talk about everyone's frustrations. "Of course, it came out through the whole session, sort of as a joke, with people laughing and talking about their irritation openly. But the next day, we had a half-day session where we elaborated on what we'd learned about our team dynamics, and how to improve them," she says. "And people were really able to build on the night before. People who had been very hesitant to speak up and express their frustrations before really just laid it on the table."

Tough Love, On a Platter

Many culinary teambuilding experts emphasize that the exercise must be challenging in order to be useful. "To get the teamwork component of the program, it's got to be difficult," says Recipe for Success's Cooper. "If everyone's just going to grill hot dogs, you don't need to do it as a team." So when groups participate in his programs, Cooper says, "They come in not really knowing what's going to happen. Then I hand each team a sealed envelope that contains the name of the dish they will prepare. There is no recipe, just the name of the dish, and they have to figure out, as a team, how to make it." The teams' workstations, essentially mini-kitchens that Cooper's team can set up on site if necessary, consist of portable burners, kitchen equipment, and basic ingredients. "It's daunting for some people because the menu may include ingredients that people haven't used before or may not even recognize, like enoki mushrooms," Cooper says. "So they when look at their ingredients, they not only have to figure out how to use them, but what they are." When the dishes are completed, the groups are judged on four criteria: taste of the dish, presentation, cleanliness of workstation, and teamwork. Then the group dines on its collective meal, and Cooper debriefs everyone on what can be learned from the exercise.

"I talk a lot about what I call 'fluid leadership,' " Cooper says. "Even though each team has appointed a leader, different people rise to the leadership position depending on their expertise or the specific task at hand." Cooper says this is a phenomenon often left unrecognized in the workplace and one that his attendees value. "When I draw attention to this, someone will inevitably say that it's a concept they can actually bring back to the office to help team members keep an open mind about each other's abilities."

Donna Parent, director of marketing and communications for Boston-based Salesnet, Inc., used Cooper's program as the kickoff teambuilding event in her company's first global summit. "Our partners span the world and for many this was the first time meeting face-to-face," she says. At first, Parent admits, there was uncertainty about the event among her attendees, who were mostly male, C-level executives not accustomed to preparing their own meals. "There was some hesitation, as in 'We're going to have to make our own dinner?', because they were put into an element they're not typically in," Parent says. "But after the event, several of them asked for the organization's contact information because they thought it would make a great teambuilding event for them to do at their own conferences. Especially from a partner perspective, where the business partners are not only disconnected but often competitive, it's good to get them to a point where they're able to foster strong, mutually beneficial relationships." In that respect, Parent says the exercise was "by far the most intriguing and eventful component of our summit and a surprisingly great success."

Building a Bond

Some culinary teambuilding consultants draw a distinct line between programs that bond team members through a joint—and fun—activity, and those that actually serve a formal teambuilding function. Cooking by the Book's O'Rourke differentiates between what she considers teambuilding and teambonding events. "Teambonding is nonfacilitated, nonstructured. You get a bunch of people together in the kitchen environment and whatever happens, happens," she says. Teambuilding, on the other hand, is a much more technical process. Typically, O'Rourke says, when a client requests a teambuilding session, O'Rourke sends a business consultant (either her own or one of the client's choosing) to the client's office to identify specific problems with that group's dynamics. The consultant then meets with the team leader. "Once they've agreed on issues to tackle, we develop modules for the kitchen."

O'Rourke says the most common problem groups have is a lack of communication. "They'll outsource a task rather than teach each other," she says, so she's developed a typical communication-focused program. The group is divided into smaller teams that are then assigned to different cooking stations. After some basic skills training with culinary coaches, teams are given 30 minutes to prepare a dish, with each team receiving instructions for different dish. "Then, 25 minutes into the deal, we tell everyone to stop what they're doing and, as a group, move on to the next station to the left," O'Rourke explains. "At the new station, no one knows what to do. They are forced into a communication crisis: Did they remember what the coaches had taught them? Did they understand the directions? How do they apply what they learned to this new recipe?" O'Rourke says that the groups' responses vary widely, depending on how intact their communication skills are. "We've had people refuse to leave their recipe, and we've had people just walk away from it without offering any help to the incoming group," she says. "Or, we'll have a successful team that offers to leave one person behind to help guide the new group through the recipe." During this process, O'Rourke and her staff closely observe the interactions among team members, take notes, and review what happened with the group after the exercise.

When Miriam Boyce, now vice president of New York City-based JPMorgan Chase, was with American Express, she brought a team in to "focus on the need for people working on large-scale projects to link up and simultaneously produce items"—a goal with obvious parallels to the group cooking a single meal. "After the exercise, the whole team was able to discuss how long each person thought the task would take and how long it actually took. We were able to learn about planning milestones, listening, and communicating."

The growing interest in food and cooking, driven by celebrity chefs and the Food Network in general, makes culinary teambuilding activities a viable and increasingly popular means to achieve a common business goal. Says Eli Lilly & Co.'s Stalcup: "People really had a lot of fun and it gave us a positive, shared event to build upon when trying to bridge our differences and move forward as a team."