Volume 16 • Issue 42 | March 19 - 25, 2004

Suzi O’Rourke and staff preparing for the evening’s event with financial advisors from JPMorgan Chase.

Bonding over the stove

A Tribeca kitchen draws co-workers for a bonding experience

By Sharon Hartwick

As Suzi O’Rourke’s guests arrived at her Tribeca loft on a recent weekday evening, she greeted each one. Then she handed out personalized aprons, part of a ritual she performs as often as four times a week.

Those gathering at her “Cooking by the Book” session were not a group of would-be chefs or enthusiastic cooks necessarily, but 25 personal financial advisors from JP Morgan Chase. All were female executives except for the lone male, Andy Ireland, a senior vice president and sales executive for the company’s 350 financial advisors.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said as O’Rourke helped him into his “Chef Andy” apron and his co-workers looked on with amusement.

Barbara Goodstein, senior vice president and segment management executive, was the only one in the group who had been through the program before and was looking forward to repeating the experience.

“Cooking was my idea. Getting everyone together was Andy’s,” said Goodstein.

For most of the participants, who spend their days managing portfolios for high net-worth clients, watching cooking shows is probably the closest they come to mastering the art. So this was an opportunity to create a four-course meal together that they would share later in the evening. They would also get to know each other better while slicing, dicing, stirring and sautéing.

O’Rourke, 52, founded the culinary school with her husband Brian in 1989. She began by offering cooking classes for individuals who re-created recipes from popular cookbooks. Often, the cookbook author or a well-known restaurant chef would attend.

But in the early ‘90s, O’Rourke was inspired by one of her guests to expand the concept to the corporate world. She started pursuing team-bonding and team-building events, initially with law firms and then with companies such as American Express and Pfizer. And as it turned out, creating great meals together became a recipe for improving relationships in the office.

“I knew something more could happen using the kitchen,” said O’Rourke, who had observed how the dynamics of personalities and good (or bad) working relationships could emerge over the hot stove.

Describing what she called a “culinary Outward Bound,” she related how one woman discovered through her experience in the kitchen that she was a “bitch in the office.” It lead her to a personal breakthrough.

By the late ‘90s O’Rourke started focusing more on corporate clients along with private groups celebrating showers, birthdays or other special occasions. Business was flourishing.

“Then 9/11—and crash!” said O’Rourke.

Not only did her business come to an instant halt, but her home became a meeting and triage place.

Friends and their children came by regularly as they tried to get their lives back in order. Firefighters from other towns camped out in her loft on and off for months. And the Red Cross often used her kitchen.

She was all but out of business for almost two years but with the help of loans from the Small Business Administration and her own determination, her business is now approaching what it was before.

As her guests gathered, they sipped wine and indulged in hors d’oeuvres and small talk. The two long tables in her dining/living room were set with white tablecloths, fresh flowers and fine china and glassware. And the bookshelves that lined the room showcased her collection of over 2,000 cookbooks, with titles ranging from Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook” to “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss.

Then it was time to get serious. After Goodstein and Ireland made opening remarks, O’Rourke, wearing a lime green chef’s jacket, hair swept up and with the demeanor of a teacher taking charge of her class (she has a master’s degree in education), took over. She split the group into five mini teams led by her staff of experienced culinary advisors, all standing by in their crisp, white jackets.

Joyce’s team would create the chicken piccata entree; Ben’s the sautéed radicchio salad; and Mary would oversee the spaghetti squash side dish while Teresa’s forces tackled the buttermilk mashed potato pancakes. Charmaine, the professional dessert maven, would guide her students through the intricacies of making an apple soufflé.

O’Rourke encouraged everyone to “think outside of the box. If you have an idea, try it. They won’t let you fail.”

Forget mergers and acquisitions, asset management and problems back at the office. Time to get out the knives and go to work. And be careful with those very sharp Wusthof knives, O’Rourke warned—and don’t imbibe too much.

“Let’s get cooking,” she said.

Within minutes, all were at their stations in O’Rourke’s state-of-the-art, 600-square-foot gourmet kitchen.

Stainless steel surfaces gleamed from everywhere, including four workstations, a double-sided Viking refrigerator and four Viking ranges and wall ovens.

For the next hour or so the corps of bankers turned their talents to the tasks at hand.

While some diligently learned how to peel the pith from an orange, others chopped chives, grated parmesan cheese, roasted pecans, sautéed cherry tomatoes and mashed or “riced” potatoes.

One team breaded the chicken breasts and whisked up sauces while another cored, peeled and pureed apples and beat egg whites until they formed stiff, glossy peaks. And almost everyone braved the challenges of using knives and learned how to cut, chop, slice and dice properly.

As the noise level increased, so did confidence. And by the end of the cooking marathon, they were ready to sit down to a great meal, toast their accomplishments and continue the camaraderie.

As Goodstein had predicted earlier, the experience was sure to be more productive than a “boring dinner” in the 60th floor corporate dining room.

Teresa Fox, who has freelanced as a culinary advisor for O’Rourke for two years, summed it up. “I never met one person who didn’t leave happy.”

Cooking by the Book, which is located at 11 Worth St., also hosts private birthday and anniversary parties and bridal showers. For information, call: 212-966-9799, or visit www.cookingbythebook.com.


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