Cowell Culinary Chaos! Each year in January, we produce the Annual Staff Recognition Gala for this repeat client at a stylish downtown Vancouver venue. Traditionally, we have created completely customized events for them, and this Gala was no exception!
The purpose of the Recognition Gala is always to thank the contributions of this client’s employees for another year of success: Long Service Awards for employees who have worked for 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years; Remarkable Effort Awards for going above and beyond; and finally The President’s Award where the CEO publicly recognizes any individuals for their efforts in overcoming a particularly challenging situation.
We were originally brought onboard to spice up this annual event. Conventionally produced in-house, it had gotten a little, well, boring. It featured dinner and a DJ, with 45 to 60 minutes of speeches and awards in the middle. The now-stuffed guests were put to sleep, or headed for home to relieve the babysitter the moment that the night’s final award recipient’s feet landed off the stage. Attendance had fallen to below 10% of the company’s workforce.
With the bar set quite low, we knew we could produce a better event. However, the funds required to up the bar caused much hesitation in our client. In the end, he was able to trust our three decades of experience, and over the years, we’ve had to keep creating new notches as the bar goes higher and higher! Now, the way we help this client and her guests celebrate their Annual Recognition Gala is always new, fresh, ground-breaking, and packed with fun!
For this Gala, we knew we had to not only raise that bar to new heights, but also address head-on several years of less-than-satisfactory culinary experiences. Specifically, we knew that this event needed to be all about food. Great food! Interesting food! Fun food! Loads of food! A culinary innovation!
Hence, Cowell Culinary Chaos was born! Inspired by Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, this cooking competition was filled with crazy instructions and lots of running around, all resulting in something…delicious might not be the right word…being presented to the harshest of judges: the company’s owners and the Executive Head Chef of the hotel!
Our client is an auto sales dealership, specializing in three brands. Her employees being auto sales professionals, we’d noticed their deeply competitive nature. So, in designing this food-centric rivalry, we pitted the employees of each brand against each other. Teams were colour-coded and received magnetized word cards at Registration they used to fill in the blanks of giant magnetic recipe cards. We collaborated with the Executive Chef of the hotel to design three recipes with words missing, like “wooden spoon,” “chicken,” and, “onions.” Members had to work together during the 90 minute Cocktail Reception to complete their recipe, and then source their missing items from The Pantry, several sets of rolling racks placed around the ballroom filled to bursting with ingredients and tools.
But Buyer beware: both the word cards and The Pantry were stocked with decoys. So team members had to work out which words were even necessary!
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
You can imagine the Chaos that ensued, as words and ingredients were chosen, then rejected, then stolen from all around the room once a team realized how important they were to completing the recipe! An interesting twist this competitive crowd organically mixed into the prep instructions.
Team members brought their missing ingredients – if they could find them! – back to their brand’s cooking station, manned by their Vice President of Sales (their boss!) each assisted by one of the hotel’s Sous Chefs. The Chef VPs prepared items (words) based on how they were placed in the giant recipe card. For example, if a team member brought the “chicken” they had placed in a sentence instructing the cook to “dice the __________ into 1 inch cubes,” Chef VP cut the protein accordingly.
At the end of the Cocktail Reception, whether the recipe card made any sense whatsoever, all preparations stopped and all items were refrigerated in the hotel’s kitchens while guests enjoyed dinner – prepared by the Hotel’s highly trained professionals! – in another ballroom, followed by the Awards Ceremony.
After the last award was presented, an air wall opened to reveal that the three cooking stations had been transferred here. Along with the completed recipe cards that, all of a sudden, had a final section added at the bottom: the cooking instructions. So, the Chef VPs took up their aprons once again to finish off their culinary creations. Only to find that they were missing the last few ingredients required to season their dishes!
Sprinting to the Finish Line
Now is when team members realized why their centrepieces were made of things like salt, butter pats, parsley, paprika and other spices, even fancy service tableware. They were made of items the Chef VPs needed to cook, season, garnish, and even plate their entrées!
So team members had to once again spring into action to support their brand by bringing their Chef VP these last few required ingredients or tools. And because we wanted to infuse this Cowell Culinary Chaos cooking competition with competitiveness from beginning to end, we scattered these last few missing items around the room, not necessarily at the tables where each team’s members were sitting. That meant that guests had to find their ingredients at the tables of their opponents, and before something devious might happen, such as items mysteriously going missing!
At the end of the last 30 minutes allotted to cook, season, plate, and garnish 3 portions of their kitchen creations, the Chef VPs took turns presenting their final product to the judges: the CEO, the CFO, and the Executive Head Chef of the hotel. The judges in Hell’s Kitchen get to critique masterpieces created by professionals, with years of cooking experience, using all the latest in culinary equipment, and endless amounts of all possible ingredients. Our judges had to rate offerings made by auto salesmen, with whatever equipment they could find, and ingredients that might not even be right!
The Ballroom was filled with caterwauling, boos, jeers, and cheers, as guests shouted praise to their VP and slung spite to their opponents. Everyone was on the edge of their seats as the judges deliberated, and once the winning brand was announced, we’re certain the roar of the audience registered on the Richter Scale, so intense was the combined jubilation and disappointment. It didn’t matter what the prize was, though. Amongst this hungry, competitive crowd, Cowell Culinary Chaos was a winner of an event!
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this whole evening was that, once word had got around of what was in store, 110 additional guests RSVP-ed in the 7 days leading up to the Awards Gala! This was an increase of 50% from one week to the next, and an increase of 200% since we first produced this Gala ceremony! An obvious sign that we were producing events that, for this crowd, ticked all of their boxes! The perfect accolades for any corporate event producer.
As it happens, a collateral winner of this event was the venue. Although we have collaborated with the catering team at this particular property for many years, they had never once hosted an interactive cooking competition making use of their own cookware, utensils, ingredients, and even their Sous Chefs in a Front of House role. Similar to our client and her budget, the hotel hesitated, then trusted our relationship built over decades and said on multiple occasions: “only because it’s you, let’s do it!”
So not only could we etch another notch to hang our bar higher, so too could the hotel. Collaborating on this event pushed this venue to planning territory they’d never been to before, but they learned how capable they actually are, and how two event industry partners can work together, lean on each other, and draw from each other’s expertise to innovate a culinary experience that had never been done before in Vancouver!
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