When you think of a team building program what comes to mind? A day of sailing? Rowing? Biking? Scavenger hunts? These are just a few of the activities offered by various team-building companies hoping to make a group of employees into a well-oiled machine.
But what about a culinary experience? Nadia Musacchio of the Lawrenceville Inn says cooking can be a great way to build team spirit, improve communication skills, spark creativity, and increase motivation. For corporate types who are not athletically inclined, culinary team building is ideal. You don’t need bug spray, there is little chance of a sprained ankle, and at the end of the exercise you get to enjoy a gourmet meal.
Musacchio is part of a trio that has developed a unique culinary team building program at the inn, located on Lawrenceville’s Main Street. The other members of the team are owner and chef Elizabeth Hunt and facilitator Karen Nathan. They will host a free open house reception to show off their facilities and explain their program Wednesday, July 23, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the Inn. For more information call 609-219-1900.
Each member of the team brings her own unique background to the program. Hunt began her culinary career in the kitchen of her childhood home in New Providence and had her first restaurant experience in 1977, when her parents opened the Meyersville Inn. She has worked as a chef in restaurants and inns in both New Jersey and West Virginia. She realized her childhood dream of owning her own restaurant in 2003, when she opened the Lawrenceville Inn.
In 2007 Hunt changed the structure of the business, moving from a traditional restaurant to a “gathering place for unique culinary experiences,” she says. She now focuses on private and corporate events, cooking classes, and the team building program. She brought in Musacchio to help develop more corporate clients.
When revamping the inn for its new purpose Hunt added a wireless Internet connection for web-based presentations, as well as white boards and easels. The inn can accommodate up to 85 guests in its various dining rooms, with as many as 24 in the largest room. Team building programs can fit between 6 and 15 people.
“I’m Italian, how could I not cook?” asks Musacchio, who graduated from the New York City College of Technology in the mid-1980s and has worked at hotels and restaurants — including the St. Moritz and the New York Palace and Mediterra in Princeton — ever since. She left the restaurant business for a few years to try her hand at massage therapy, but was “drawn back to the food business.”
Nathan is the facilitator in the trio. Her first experience with restaurants in general (and the Lawrenceville Inn in particular) was as a patron. “I loved dining there and when I learned they were changing the business model for the restaurant I decided there must be a way my skills could fit in. I called Elizabeth last fall and we sat down to talk and developed the culinary team building program,” she says.
Nathan graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in biology in 1995, but despite her degree, she never thought of herself as a scientist. “Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts college and I received a well-rounded liberal arts background,” she says. “That’s how I think of myself.” She worked for several companies developing written training programs as well as acting as a facilitator and earned a master’s in adult education with a focus on team and resource management from Rutgers in 2006. She now is an independent consultant.
There can be any number of goals for a culinary team building program, says Nathan. Some of the groups she has worked with are geographically dispersed and only get together once or twice a year. Other groups want to focus on a particular issue, such as improving communication skills, leadership training, or developing team skills. Still others simply find the experience a “fun reward for a job well done,” she says.
Planning the program. Each of the programs is custom-designed to fit the needs of the group, and work on the program begins even before the group arrives. Nathan discusses the goals for the day with the team leader, as well as which members of the team should work with each other in small groups. If the group is focusing on a problem area, members of the group who always work well together could be separated, while those who might not get along well with each other will be thrown together.
Preparing the meal. Working together in a small area to create a meal requires a number of team building skills, says Nathan, particularly time management and communication. When the group first arrives they often feel uncomfortable or uncertain about what they are supposed to do. Some of the group leaders have even chosen not to tell the team that they will be preparing the meal. “They arrive thinking they are coming for a nice lunch or dinner and find out that before they eat they have to cook,” Nathan says.
The members are handed aprons, personalized with their names, assigned to smaller cooking groups, and sent to the “grocery store,” a table where they must pick up everything they need, from food to equipment, to complete their portion of the meal. “This immediately calls for negotiation skills,” explains Nathan. “Sometimes they must share equipment, such as measuring spoons, or divide one of the ingredients so that there is enough for two different groups to use in a recipe.”
The kitchen is equipped with three small cooking stations where the different courses are prepared under the supervision of Nathan, Hunt, and Musacchio. Part way through the program Nathan creates a new challenge by breaking up the groups and sending half of the people to different stations. “Everyone must now work together with different people,” she says. “They must explain to the new person in the group what they are doing, the new person must fit into the process, and they must still get the meal completed on time.”
Bon appetite. Once the meal is cooked it is time to eat. After the meal Nathan leads a discussion about what happened during the cooking experience and how it relates to work at the office.
“For instance, if someone had difficulty in completing a task that can lead to a discussion on time management,” Nathan says. “Does the person always have a problem completing tasks? How can they and the other people on the team help him or her work on that?”
As a facilitator Nathan tries never to “just hand people the answers.” Instead she attempts to help them draw their own conclusions and come up with their own solutions. Nathan sees the Inn and its culinary program as the perfect setting for team building, and although the program is less than a year old the trio has already worked with people from a wide variety of settings.
“We have had financial groups, pharmaceutical teams, and even groups from the local universities in from our programs,” she says. “They all walk in a little scared, not knowing what is going to happen, and they walk out with a delicious meal and a great shared experience.”