4 tips for a successful staff competition

Friendly face-off

purdue gingerbread house

With cooking competitions spicing up reality TV, it’s easy to see how a little rivalry among staff could be a fun form of skill- and teambuilding. “We look at it as a morale builder,” says Robert Landolphi, assistant director of culinary operations at University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., which hosts an annual Culinary Olympics competition with teams from campus dining halls, catering and retail restaurants. “It’s an opportunity for our chefs and some of our kitchen assistants to get out there and show off their culinary skills.”

1. Set the rules

Clearly state rules in writing and communicate them with participants in advance, says Kris Klinger, assistant vice president of retail operations at the University of Southern California, which hosts an “Iron Chef”-inspired USC Culinary Competition for about 100 participants every January at its Los Angeles campus. “It’s paramount that everyone ...  know what the expectations are,” he says. 

The rulebook for Purdue University’s annual December gingerbread competition—which pits teams of 10-20 students and full-time employees against one another—outlines procedure, judging criteria and prizes, says Bruce Haumesser, director of culinary operations and executive chef. For example, teams get $250 for decorations and can begin work in early November. The first-place team wins $1,000 to purchase something that will improve kitchen operations or guests’ dining experience. The majority of the costs, which Haumesser estimates at around $3,800 total, come out of the director’s budget.

2. Stick to them

Nothing spurs hard feelings faster than the perception that some aspect is unfair. Enforce the guidelines consistently and avoid conflicts of interest when possible, Landolphi says. Rather than use campus staff as judges for UConn’s Culinary Olympics each January, which attract between 65 and 70 participants, he taps local food-oriented folks—restaurant chefs, high school culinary staff and food journalists—to avoid possible bias. Skill is held in high regard, so USC has two judges that are Certified Master Chefs and the third judge is the chairman of the American Academy of Chefs.

3. Market in-house and out

Promote the competition to staff early and often to maximize participation. Klinger emails potential participants at USC, but has found posters to be most effective.

If appropriate, make the competition a marketing opportunity by inviting the public. The first year UConn added an “Iron Chef”-inspired component to its Culinary Olympics, six teams participated; now, 15 to 17 teams sign up, says Landolphi. “The marketing and educational value for those attending the event is money well spent and rationalizes the cost,” he says. Up to 350 people have cheered on the chefs during past competitions, and Landolphi says the food cost—less than $2,000—comes out of a budget set aside for education and staff training.

4. Review and revise

“Something always goes wrong,” Haumesser says. “It’s just in the way you react.” Review what did and didn’t work while details are fresh. At Purdue’s inaugural gingerbread competition, for example, Haumesser only announced the first-place winners.

“Everyone got bent out of shape. They all wanted to know who was in second, third, fourth,” he says. “There were no sour grapes; they were more interested in knowing how they did as a group so they could do better next year.”

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