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Food Fight

By Selena Fragassi


People don’t have to go hungry when they have meetings here.” Kathy Crowley makes it her mission to ensure groups holding sessions at the Marcum Hotel & Conference Center at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio leave feeling satisfied—with a good meal and even better revelations about their working dynamic. It’s all a part of the new chili cook-off Crowley and her conference sales team developed as a unique teambuilding activity, which was inspired by the foodie trend enticing the country.

Although Miami University offers a range of group activities on campus—from high ropes and low ropes courses, geocaching and other types of scavenger hunts—the cook-off has been a popular item since debuting last fall, which Crowley attributes to the extensive post-debriefing session that lets companies analyze how they work together. “We designed the event to develop communication, leadership skills, problem solving and trust among team members,” she asserts. “There’s a lot of discussion after about who emerged as the leader, which people work best in a team structure and how tasks were appropriately or inappropriately delegated.”

Along the way, there’s fun and games, too. The chili cook-off process is supervised by the Marcum Center’s culinary department—a trio of award-winning chefs on campus who are hired as part of the university’s centralized food service program. Groups of 16-48 people are broken out into teams based on how the company wants to match people, although Crowley cautions the process works best if individuals don’t know each other. “Sometimes organizations will opt to pair people from different departments or put together a team from a new division in order to create cohesion.”

Each cook-off team then gets a packet of play money that is used to buy supplies from the fully stocked pantry of goods that includes proteins, spices, vegetables and exotic choices like chocolate and cinnamon (“one of the most unique recipes had tofu and pineapple,” Crowley recalls). Together, teams have to come to a conclusion about how to spend the money, what type of chili they want to make and create the names of their recipe and teams. In addition to cooking the chili, teams have to decide how to plate it as they are also judged on presentation.

There is just one rule: absolutely no technology. “There is no Googling in the room,” Crowley says, laughing. This is important not only to dissuade recipe help but also becomes a factor during the supplementary game called “Fire in the Kitchen.” Explains Crowley, “While teams are preparing the food, we play a soundtrack of songs related to fire and heat, and we ask them to write down as many of the songs as they can while cooking.” It’s an effort to see how well the teams can multitask, she says.

At the end of the preparation session, the recipes are judged and awards are doled out for the best overall recipe, best presentation and most creative name, as well as some interesting titles for the “Next Food Network Star” or the “Edward Scissorhands Award” for the team with the best knifing skills.

The judging (complete with certificates of completion) is followed by the introspective debriefing—and for groups who opt for the extended package, there is a lunch or dinner afterward with the chili concoctions and other menu items to complement the tastes.

For Crowley and her team, chili is just the beginning. “We’re looking to expand the program. Maybe it won’t be just chili next time but a three-course meal the teams develop,” she says, noting the true importance of the activity. “It’s a great way to customize a menu and an experience for groups they won’t soon forget.”