Culinary-Minded Team-Building Brings Everyone to the Table

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Walk into any party and you’ll find that everyone always congregates in the kitchen. Whether the guests are slicing or sipping, it’s where people tend to gather, so it should really come as no surprise that culinary-based activities are some of the most popular activities. From cook-offs and competitions to demos and mixology classes, nothing gets a group interacting quite like a culinary-minded team-building activity. Herewith, where to stir and swizzle with your group. 

CRYSTAL SPRINGS RESORT
Hamburg, New Jersey

As the largest spa and golf resort in the Northeast, Crystal Springs Resort is no stranger to limitless activities. But the resort’s culinary team takes team-building to a whole new level with inventive activities that will have your group talking about their experiences for years to come. “Our location gives us a lot of different aspects to play up,” says Anthony Bucco, executive chef. “Not many places can boast our mountain footprint. That in itself is captivating to teams coming to the resort.” 

The Open-Fire Experience  is the newest activity to hit the roster. Offered during warmer months as it is held in the Chef’s Garden, this activity divides the group into four teams with each team responsible for a different task: building and maintaining the fire; cooking over the fire; preparing the noncooked items; and foraging for ingredients for tea and other beverages. 

The Iron Chef Competition has resort chefs lending a hand as teams tie on aprons to cook full meals to be judged on presentation, taste, originality, best name and teamwork. Winners take home more than bragging rights, as each member of the winning team receives a bottle of private label wine. Teams prepare a bowl of chili for expert judging in the Chili Cook Off, where ratings are awarded based on color, aroma, consistency, taste and  the  effectiveness of  the  sales pitch as to why that team should win! “Groups love the competitive nature of our team builders, but above and beyond that they pull some fun and executable ideas for hosting social gatherings at home too,” says Bucco. 

Farming with GPS  lets groups explore the resort  guided by  a GPS unit to collect ingredients  for an appetizer. Choose your own dish or stick with favorites like guacamole or pico de gallo. 

Get your hands dirty with the Mushroom Inoculation, where teams  create mushroom spawns by prepping the logs, drilling holes, infusing the spores and closing them up with beeswax.  While it generally takes a year for the mushroom spawn to colonize and produce fruit, the teams are rewarded by the knowledge that they are producing a living organism. 

The  Cupcake Challenge  is a particular favorite, where teams receive  20 cupcakes to decorate. Each team receives frosting, fondant and piping bags to best decorate in a way that represents the team, the company or positions within the company. 

Crystal Springs also features a Mixology Class  focusing on cultivated and foraged ingredients and spirits. Each team is responsible for creating their own cocktail that is then judged on creativity, look, taste and balance. 

The Blind Wine Tasting Game tests knowledge of wine  under the guidance of a  resort sommelier. Guests are broken up into groups and sample two different wines (a red and a white) with the labels and bottle shape concealed. They have 15 minutes to guess the continent, country, region, grape and year of each wine. After the game, they can tour  Crystal Springs award-winning 75,000 bottle  Wine Cellar. Home to the largest collection of Bordeaux anywhere in the world, the wine cellar is a true treasure. 

NINETY ACRES AT NATIRAR
Peapack-Gladstone, New Jersey

Ninety Acres at Natirar is consistently rated one of New Jersey’s top restaurants so if you’re going to learn how to cook, why not learn from the best? Set in the former carriage house and garage on the estate at Natirar (now home to the newly restored mansion with indoor and outdoor event spaces), the custom-designed cooking school is outfitted with Sub-Zero and Wolf is a foodie’s fantasy come to life. There are a number of activities at Natirar provided for groups of 10 to 40 participants, while larger groups of 40-100 are accommodated in the Mansion Kitchen, a brand-new state-of-the-art production kitchen just across the lawn from Ninety Acres. 

Natirar’s Classic Team-Building Event allows groups to work in teams to create a fourcourse meal that is later paired with wines to enhance the group’s enjoyment of their efforts. The Kitchen Challenge is for the competitive set with teams sharpening their knives to create several courses that are then judged by the Cooking School’s culinary team. Similarly, the Small Plate Competition divides groups into teams to create two tapas from a mystery basket of ingredients. Interactive Cocktail Hour allows groups to participate in the preparation of several hors d’oeuvres while sipping on wines that have been paired perfectly with the menu. Guests are later treated to a dinner served to guests at the Cooking School’s farm tables—albeit this time the meal is expertly prepared by the professionals. 

Prefer to shake things up? Natirar also offers cocktail classes, competitions and wine educational sessions. “There is nothing in my experience that brings people together more than the activity of preparing and sharing food,” says Ann Bartholomay, director of culinary education. “People who come together as strangers will leave after three hours shaking hands and acknowledging new friends because of that simple shared culinary experience,” she adds.

OCEAN HOUSE
Westerly, Rhode Island

Set on the stunning Rhode Island coast, Ocean House recently upped the ante when it comes to food-minded events with its spectacular Center for Wine & Culinary Arts. “Specific to group [exclusive for a meeting or event] offerings, we extend a variety of programs and activity options in the Center for Wine & Culinary Arts including, but not limited to: fresh pasta-making classes, visiting local farms/foraging with our Food Forager, oyster shucking, grilled flatbread competitions, mixology classes and competitions, wine seminars and cheese pairing classes,” says chef Paul McComiskey, director of culinary education and food forager. Groups of 10-12 guests have exclusive use of the Center. “It really depends on the group and their mission for the program, but we tend to get the most positive feedback from the competitionstyle events, as they bring co-workers and colleagues closer together in a fun, challenging and competitive environment where they are learning something new,” says Glover. 

WINVIAN FARM
Litchfield, Connecticut

Set on 113 acres in the rolling hills of Litchfield, Connecticut, Winvian Farm is a singular resort with 18 private designer cottages, all with individual themes (you can even sleep in a helicopter!). From a 5,000-square-foot spa and heated outdoor pool to excursions ranging from fly-fishing, horseback riding, hot air ballooning and cross-country skiing, Winvian Farm offers a complete getaway. Award-winning dining is an integral part of the experience. Despite its New England setting, 70 percent of the food served in the restaurant is sourced directly on-site, thanks to 3 acres of organic gardens and four greenhouses. “The Cooking School at Winvian Farm was created as an experiential amenity for guests to enjoy,” says Maggie Smith, proprietor of Winvian Farm. Classes for up to 12 guests include hands-on experience while larger groups are accommodated in the Cooking School Kitchen with exclusive demonstrations by executive chef Chris Eddy and his team. “Chef Eddy’s passion for cooking comes through when he teaches,” says Smith. “His pasta courses have been a big hit.” 

New Jersey Meeting + Events magazine (now Northeast M+E!) held its second annual readers’ choice awards on Aug. 16, 2017 at MetLife Stadium. The evening began with a networking cocktail hour before the awards ceremony, emceed by Matt Holt of Arena Americas, began. Editor’s Picks were announced by editor Nancy DePalma before the readers’ choice award winners were announced by category.

 

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One of the hazards of having a job covering the meetings and events industry is that you end up viewing conferences and events in a very different light. Sure, I attend for the topic at hand, but I often find myself viewing the conference through a different lens. I’m often thinking about how the conference is organized and what is good, bad and just plain ugly.