Tales from the Front Lines of Culinary Teambuilding
I just finished reading Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business by Matt and Ted Lee. I enjoyed it, and could empathize with many of the situations, although never in my wildest dreams would I cook an event for six hundred or a thousand people.
It takes a certain type of person to dive into this world of inconsistency and constant variation. No two events are alike. I love it. I love the mysterious way each event unfolds.
Each event is a story unto itself.
Not a lot of attention is given to the world of culinary teambuilding or cooking classes. That too has constant variation and plenty of personality.
It’s difficult for me to decide which I enjoy more. Each has its own drawbacks and advantages. Sometimes I love the anonymity of catering. I love to hide out in the kitchen and just create beautiful food. Sometimes I want to interact and be a part of the party.
I started off teaching cooking classes at my home in 2010 when I sold 720 vouchers on Living Social (a Groupon competitor; remember when that was a thing?) in 24 hours. I hit the market at just the right time and proceeded to teach cooking classes four nights a week, eight people at a time for the next year.
It was crazy. There were people that came stoned and just wanted to eat, folks who were truly interested in cooking and folks that just wanted to party.
I met people that knew nothing about food or cooking.
I asked someone to peel a carrot one memorable evening. And she did. She peeled it until she had a pile of strings.
Another time I instructed someone how to rice a potato and he said, “Oooh, that’s where rice comes from.” I walked away and let the gal next to him explain that rice, in fact, does not come from potatoes.
There was the time that someone showed up with a sick but alive chicken in a box. He couldn’t leave it at home — it needed medication! His other chickens were ok though. Phew!
Once a couple showed up and declared that they were on a no carb diet, so NO WINE. Instead, they brought a bottle of tequila and a bag of limes and did shots over the course of the class. They generously offered to share, but I don’t like to drink during my classes. Afterward, they went out dancing.
One evening I found myself sitting outside a client’s apartment for over two hours after the arranged arrival time waiting for them to come home and unlock the door…to a completely empty apartment. As in no tables, no chairs, no furniture. The newly engaged couple had yet to move in but wanted to celebrate in the new apartment anyway. One of the reasons they were late was because they had to stop at Target and buy a table and chairs. The first question they asked was, “Is there any food ready?” No, my friend. This is a class, not a catered event. You are supposed to help make the food.
Over time, I learned to plan ahead. Days before one event I had a phone call with the organizer for an offsite company class.
“Do you have a kitchen?”
“And a stove and an oven?”
“Yes,” they say. “But the oven is small.”
When I arrived to set up, they had a two-burner hotplate and a toaster oven. Not anything like a kitchen.
I’ve learned to ask for pictures and to expect the unexpected.
Sometimes folks want to party. Such was the case with the holiday party for the PR firm They were all having a grand time, singing to hip hop classics like “Baby Got Back” and Easy E’s, “Boyz in the Hood,” doing shots, dancing, and dropbacks. It was all fun and drinks until someone passed out.
That was freaky. The poor girl had a condition where if she hurt herself in the smallest way (she mildly burned her thumb) she would faint. I saw her turning gray and managed to catch her on the way down so she didn’t hit her head. Though the party continued it definitely toned itself down.
Sometimes groups come and no one wants to cook. At all. So my sous chef Gabe and I put together a meal for them.
Sometimes people get wasted and nicely dressed older ladies with high heels end up barfing in the bathroom like sorority girls.
Once a group of about 25 german male students entertained my crew with beer hall songs and chants. “Oh, why are we always waiting, always masturbating…” they sang at the top volume. The only thing we could do was laugh and laugh…
A fellow named Andy attended one of our classes. He arrived with beer, took a phone call and disappeared. We spent the rest of the evening searching the house, “Andy? Andy where are you?”
Another guy wandered into my living room and slept the entire class away on my couch.
One class was attended by a group of Chinese students that spoke not one word of English. That class was a challenge.
Though it wasn’t as trying as the time I was carrying a bags of ice up the stairs, tripped and fell, slamming my face into the pavement. Blood was pouring out of my nose and I had a group of forty arriving in sixty minutes. Not much else to do but staunch the bleeding, take some Advil and push forward. That was event was, unfortunately, a bit of a disaster. I was working with someone new and it didn’t work out. The organizer was not happy. I went home and cried.
99% of the people that come to a cooking class are lovely. Sweet, kind, nice people.
I love hearing people’s stories. The former federal prosecutor who was single and having a child via surrogate. The group of friends that were celebrating a sixtieth birthday and brought a three-fold poster decorated with photos of their shared forty-year friendship.
The group of cancer survivors learning about a plant-based diet or the new to San Francisco singleton who just wanted a night out.
For some people cooking is like sky diving. They do it once and they are done. For me, cooking, entertaining and interacting with people is a way of life. It helps to have a sense of humor and roll with the punches.
I enjoyed reading your experiences, they are all so different. I agree, it takes a unique and special sort of person to be able to persevere under uncertainty. Not knowing how interested or involved your students will be and you handling all circumstances with grace and patience, is amazing. Your rad.
You are a force, Phoebe–keep on keeping on with your amazing food, hospitality, elucidation and passion for not just all things culinary, but also how it relates to life and ‘good living.’ I am in so much awe and admiration!