Many PR professionals cannot cook, but that does not mean they will not cook. Corporate cookery specialist Venturi's Table in Wandsworth says it has taken record bookings from media companies since the beginning of 2008. It has seen a 63 per cent year-on-year increase in bookings, 32 per cent of them from in-house PR departments or PR agencies. Since Venturi's opened its doors in 2005, it has run almost 600 events for PR professionals from the likes of Microsoft, BP, Mars and Green & Black's.
So why is cooking so suited to PROs? Anna Venturi, managing director of Venturi's Table, hazards a guess that it tends to suit artistic temperaments. Cooking, she says, is the 'perfect way to engage restless creative types'.
'People have their best ideas when they are relaxed. Inspiration has been suffocated by the standards of Western business - characterless desks, computers and PowerPoint presentations,' she says. 'Our kitchens help release the flow of ideas by relaxing people, opening them up to the creative process.'
Jo-ann Robertson, a Venturi's client and director of corporate comms at Weber Shandwick, agrees: 'We were looking for something fun and challenging that would get people mingling. What's great about cooking is that it gets the brain working and appeals across all age groups and genders.'
Beattie Communications sent 14 of its staff on a cookery class as part of a team-building exercise at Hazlewood Castle in Yorkshire last October. They were shown demonstrations on subjects such as perfecting their chopping skills and the basic rules of cooking. The objective was to improve working relationships between the agency's Manchester and Leeds offices.
Director Victoria Walker, who organised the initiative, also believes that the creative aspect of cooking is one of the reasons why it is such as good activity for PROs. However, what is more pertinent, she believes, is the healthy competition between employees and the time pressure involved in cooking.
'I wouldn't say it's the structure of cooking that PROs like, because our kitchen was very haphazard. But it was very deadline-driven, which suited us because it reflects the work we do,' says Walker.
Account executive Jess Wilkinson, who attended the course, says the session enabled her to acquire skills she could go home and use in her personal life. Many other PROs who attended cookery courses also mentioned this as a positive aspect.
As Katie McDermott, account executive at Threepipe (see case study oppposite), says: 'We all work so hard. We don't have much time to cook and advance our own skills at home, because we are usually too busy. So it was great to get the entire agency around the table at one time, which is rare.'
The fact that cooking enables directors to get involved is also identified as a bonus. For example, Handmade PR's account executive Talia Giles particularly enjoyed seeing her director get stuck in on a course run by JK Catering in December 2007.
'It was hilarious. Jason (Gale) ended up being the worst cook,' she reports. 'We did puff pastry, lamb shank and cheese cake - and Jason's cake cracked and had holes in it.'
For her part, Giles believes cookery is a good choice of activity because everyone can relate to it - it is topical, with so many TV cooking programmes, and it is therapeutic. In fact, Handmade's staff were given a choice of team-building activity, including possibilities such as adrenaline sports and theatre, but cookery won hands down.
The final reason that both course organisers and attendees give for cooking being so appropriate for PROs is that it revolves around two of their passions: food and drink.
As part of Waggener Edstrom technology division's annual away day, executive assistant Petrina Marks had to organise a cookery course.
It was her first assignment to pick an effective team-building event and, after some research and talking to colleagues, she decided that 'PR and cooking are the perfect match'.
She says: 'I quickly realised that PROs are all big foodies and, crucially, they also enjoy a nice glass of wine.'
BRADFORD & BINGLEY CAPTURES THE ORIENTAL FLAVOUR WITH JOURNALISTS
Course: Venturi's Table corporate cookery centre
Cost: £120 + VAT per person
Number of participants: 8
WHAT THEY COOKED
Starter: A selection of sushi rolls
Main: Yakitori and kushiyaki (skewered chicken and vegetables with teriyaki sauce) with shallow-fried tofu and vegetables with ginger sauce
Dessert: Caramelised oranges with toasted almonds; chocolate profiteroles
Rather than taking journalists out to dinner, Bradford & Bingley's head of group PR Nikki Aitken thought she would be much more adventurous and invite a group of Daily Mail personal finance writers to make their own dinner with her team.
She discussed the idea with them in advance and they were very keen to learn a new skill and do something different from the usual corporate hospitality dinner and drinking. The journalists chose to do the exotic sushi-making evening, rather than the more traditional Italian cookery night. In fact, Aitken found Venturi's Table by doing an online search for cookery schools that offered sushi-making. 'My objective was to have a bit more time together as a team, getting to know each other on a more personal level, and it definitely achieved that,' says Aitken.
The evening kicked off at 5.30pm with a glass of bubbly, canapes and a briefing, then the group set about preparing the starter, main and dessert. Each person had an opportunity to turn their hand to each course. An hour and a half later, the feast was ready and the group sat down to eat and drink the selected accompanying wine. The evening concluded around 9.30pm, when all the participants were given a booklet of recipes. 'Sometimes standing around having drinks with journalists can be a bit stiff,' says Aitken. 'This was much more relaxed, with much more natural interaction. And we all really learned a lot too.'
Aitken is convinced that using a little more imagination when thinking of how to entertain journalists pays off and makes for a much more memorable experience, as well as a good talking point in future.
As well as cooking, she has recently also entertained journalists through activities such as chocolate making and a cosmetics evening.
'Journalists are just as interested in doing something different as PROs are. It's a much better way of bonding than just going to some fancy bar,' says Aitken.
RECIPE STEAMED SALMON WRAPPED IN BACON WITH ROSEMARY BUTTER SAUCE
4 x 130g portions of organic salmon
10 thin slices of lightly smoked bacon
120g unsalted butter
100ml double cream
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 large peeled carrot
1 leek (washed)
150g fresh girolle mushrooms (or small button mushrooms)
16 peeled and boiled new potatoes
1. Wrap each piece of salmon with two slices of bacon and brush it with a little olive oil.
2. Place the fish in a dish, cover with cling-film and leave in the fridge for 12 hours.
3. Dice the carrot and leek into small even pieces and cook separately in salted boiling water until tender.
4. Mix vinegar, rosemary and cream in a small saucepan and simmer for a couple of minutes; then slowly whisk in cold diced butter a little at a time, making sure the sauce does not boil. When done, remove the rosemary and save in a warm place at around room temperature.
5. Place a steamer on the stove and bring to the boil.
6. Season each portion of salmon with a little salt and place them in the steamer to cook (allow 10-15 minutes).
7. Clean the mushrooms (if they are large, cut into quarters). Gently saute in a little butter until tender.
8. Warm the leek and carrots in the sauce. Add mushrooms.
9. Warm the cooked new potatoes, then add a little knob of butter and lightly crush them with a fork.
10. On a warm plate place a spoon of potato. Then place the salmon on top before gently spooning a little of the sauce and vegetables over the top. Serve immediately
Source: Cook School by Martin Wishart
THREEPIPE COOKS UP AN EASTERN FEAST
Course: The Cookery School
Cost: £135 per person
Number of participants: 10
WHAT THEY COOKED
Starter: Mixed Middle-Eastern mezze with homemade pitta
Main: Chicken breast chermoula with herbed couscous
Dessert: Rosewater and cardamom ice cream; coffee with homemade baklava
The inspiration to sign up to a cookery course came from founder of Threepipe Jim Hawker. 'Cooking provides a complete level playing field,' he says. 'We weren't asking people to build rafts or scale walls - it was something the agency could do together without feeling intimidated.
'Most of us genuinely couldn't cook, so everyone was enthusiastic to get involved and learn something new. It also allows for natural breaks, so you can have nice chats with everyone.'
Office manager Sarah Kaye, who organised the event, says Threepipe is a young office and most employees don't spend a lot of time in the kitchen, 'so this was really helpful personally as well as professionally as a team-building exercise'.
The PROs turned up at 3pm for a four-hour session and, on arrival, were greeted with a glass of Cava. 'This timing appealed to me because it's an activity that fits very easily into the day, especially as The Cookery School is around the corner from us. Other team-building activities often require a full day out of the office,' says Kaye.
The tutor split the agency members into groups to make a starter, main course and dessert before demonstrating how each was made. PROs were able to ask questions and take time out while cooking. Once they had made the three-course dinner, the room was transformed and a long dining table - laid with tea lights, wine and nibbles - took centre stage as the enthusiastic cooks took their seats to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
'Account executive Katie McDermott says: 'It was probably one of the most successful team-building activities we've done, and the best bit was that there wasn't actually any (office) work involved. We were all working together in the kitchen to achieve the same goal, but it was really chilled out and relaxed.'
SOME COOKING SCHOOLS
- Brook Hall Cookery School
Address: 9 Sheep St, Winslow, Buckinghamshire, MK18 3HL
Telephone: 01296 712111
Brief overview: Opened last year by Stephen Bulmer, who previously ran the Raymond Blanc Cookery School. It offers more than 20 one-day cookery courses, priced from £175 per person. It has a practical kitchen for 10 and a demonstration kitchen for 20.
- The Cookery School
Address: 15b Little Portland St, London, W1W 8BW
Telephone: 020 7631 4590
Brief overview: Two kitchens that can cater for up to 50 people at once. Two types of corporate courses: team-building and troubleshooting classes with psychologists, where a particular issue is tackled through a cookery exercise. Fee per person for team-building is £135. Website: www.corporatecookery.co.uk
- Cook School by Martin Wishart
Address: 14 Bonnington Rd, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 9JD
Telephone: 0131 555 6655
Brief overview: Team-building days for groups of eight to 12 people. The group has to produce a restaurant-standard meal to be served to invited guests in the dining room. Cost is £165 per person, which includes coffee, pastries, light lunch, wine and chef's whites and hat. Website: www.cookschool.co.uk
- Hazlewood Castle
Address: Paradise Lane, Hazlewood, York, North Yorkshire, LS24 9NJ
Telephone: 01937 535353
Brief overview: The 4AA-star rated castle offers cookery masterclasses to corporate parties. The £99 per person package includes a three-course lunch, a demonstration of dishes and a tutorial from 12pm to 5pm. Includes tour around the grounds and champagne reception. Website www.hazlewood-castle.co.uk
- Venturi's Table
Address: 6 Morie St, London, SW18 1SL
Telephone: 020 8875 7488
Brief overview: Two state-of-the-art kitchens, for up to 30 people each. Run by mother and daughter Anna Venturi and Letizia Tufari. Tailored menu and course for minimum of 12. Cost is £120 per person plus VAT (prices under review).