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Are You Up For the Challenge?

The only way to grow is to challenge yourself, right? That goes for your culinary team as well. If you want your culinary team to grow and to prosper you need to challenge them. They need to feel uncomfortable, possibly insecure, yet supported, and pushed to get out of their daily routine, to believe in themselves, and to trust that no matter the outcome, the fact that they tried is the only way to better themselves.

We’ve found that the successful recipe to challenge our team has been to encourage their creativity, build their confidence, and let them compete in our culinary challenges. 

Everything Tuna Reuben. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events

Twice, and sometimes, three times a month for the first quarter of the year we post our challenges, and the results are astounding! Some of the best menu items that we’ve added to our repertoire come from these challenges. The growth that we see in our team and the confidence boosts are insane. 

Here’s how they work.

Determine what your menu needs are

We often engage our sales team to understand what they would love to see. Since they have the pulse on what sells, they are the best barometer to know what items need to be reinvented. 

Veggie Filo Candies with tamarind yuzu chutney. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events

Once you’ve determined your needs, pop them into a spreadsheet because you must be extremely organized. Suggestions can be as specific as: chicken or beef, hors d’oeuvres, embellished salads, short rib entrée presentation, plated or passed desserts—the possibilities are endless. I will use our most recent chef’s challenge as an example. We did an hors d’oeuvres challenge and asked for vegan and gluten free beef, chicken, and lamb hors d’oeuvres.

The challenge

For this example, the challenge read: 

For the challenges, which always occur on Mondays, we post a sign in the kitchen that describes in detail what is expected. The actual presentations happen a week or so later, giving our team enough time for R&D.

“Create one new hors d’oeuvres preparation from each of your two selected categories.” 

Truffled Forestier with black garlic aioli. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events

Each team member that participates (even our pastry team joins in), randomly selects two of the categories that we have put into a chef’s hat, and pass around. Last week we had 15 participants, which as you’d imagine was great, as we had 30 hors d’oeuvres.

“Hors d’oeuvres must be artfully presented, one bite, garnished and served as they would be at an event. Please prepare 24 of each so that we have enough for the judges to taste as well as a full presentation as it would be at a party on one of our hors d’oeuvre trays.

“Must have: Name of the item with a description as well as a typed recipe without your name as the judging will be blind. Feel free to ask the front office team to help type them for you. 

“Must be ready to serve at 1:00 p.m. on XXXXX.

“FYI…any special ingredients needed may be ordered. Please have order lists in by XXXXX at 1:00 p.m.

“Think outside of the box… we are looking for creativity, taste and style. Something that we do not currently offer, and that we can add to the menus now.”

Freeze Dried Buffalo Cauliflower Popcorn. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events

Once each chef has selected their hors d’oeuvres categories, it’s exciting to see the creativity start to flow; cookbooks and food magazines are covering their workstations as they dive in for inspiration. You’ll find them spending their breaks on the kitchen computers researching, others will be perusing the walk-ins and dry storage waiting for that item that will jump out and inspire them. 

What I love most is that while they all know that it’s a competition, they come together and help to support each other’s ideas, to make recommendations and champion each other. Sometimes they also deliver the not-so-great news which is that they think they may need to move in a different direction and try something else. The truly beautiful dynamic here is that they care about each other and the overall success of each person over winning the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, they all have egos and want to win, but what’s great is they want to win against something that is equally as great or better than what they are doing. Do you see what’s happening here? They are pushing each other to grow and to be better with each item that they make. As a business owner, seeing this camaraderie, internal growth, and bonding is all you could ever want for your team.

Challenge prep

In the meantime, while the chefs are creating their dishes, we do the following to get organized:

  • Judges are selected at random for each of the challenges from our operations and front office sales and marketing team; they always include the principals plus three additional team members. This is a coveted role to be in and once again helps to bring our team together.

  • Next, we select, also at random, the team member who will be making the presentations of the items to the judges. All are presented anonymously as to keep the playing field even.

  • Our conference room is set up with six judges’ stations to include their ballot sheets, a pen, waters, a trash can, disposable plates, and a photo light box to photograph all the items.

  • We purchase the winning gift cards, which are distributed at the deliberations that happen the following morning. For our challenges, we have a first-place winner that wins a $100 Visa Gift Card, second place gets $50 Visa card, third place gets a $25 Visa card, and fourth place gets a $10 coffee card.

  • Each individual hors d’oeuvres is judged on the following categories: presentation, taste, creativity, and recipe. Each category is given a score from one to 10 (10 being the highest score). The scores are added together to give a final score for that item. 

Challenge day

Challenge day is here, so let the games begin! The energy in the kitchen is so exciting! They are hyping each other up with each tray that leaves the kitchen. The judges assemble at their table and the presenter begins presenting the hors d’oeuvres one at a time, giving the judges ample time to photograph each item, taste, judge, and make notes. 

The chefs anxiously await the presenters’ return to the kitchen, trying to see if there is any indication of how they did. The presenter repeats the process until all the items have been presented. 

BBQ Barbacoa Taco Bites. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events

Meanwhile, after the last item is served, the judges sit to review and tally their scores and to determine the top four scores. At this time, they decide who will give the feedback for each of the items at the judges’ presentation the following day. Each hors d’oeuvre is thoughtfully criticized and we encourage the judges to speak the truth but in a kind and gentle manner, particularly if they are delivering bad news on a not-so-great item. We do this, not to discourage anyone’s future participation in our challenges, but because they need to hear the truth. Bringing a positive spin on something negative is always a better route to take and it makes it much easier to deliver when it’s being done blindly. 

Additionally, we share ideas for potential revisions that would make an item one that we would sell and ask those team members to go back to the R&D drawing board and to present the revised items within one week of the challenge. Our goal here is to have great new hors d’oeuvres to add to our menus, so if we think that tweaking one to get it there would be worthy of their time and efforts, we suggest it. Our other goal is to encourage our team to continue pushing themselves and not to look at this as a loss, but rather as a win personally and professionally.

And the winners are...

Time to announce the winners! Each of the winners is announced beginning with the fourth highest scored item. At this time, the chefs who made the hors d’oeuvres come forward and their identity is finally revealed. As a leader and a mentor to our team, this moment is thrilling to me as invariably the winners are not who we imagined. The boost of adrenaline and pure joy in their faces is amazing! What’s extraordinary is that two of the winners were team members that were the most hesitant to participate in the challenge and literally complained throughout the entire process! 

As I was walking back to the office, one of them pulled me aside to say ‘thank you’. She said she never imagined that she could ever win a challenge like this and that she was grateful that we encouraged her and didn’t give up on her. The best part is that she didn’t give up on herself and she accepted the challenge and went for it … clearly, she was up for the challenge and didn’t even realize it. Just yesterday she came to my office to inquire about when the next challenge will be. THAT is why we do these. She is now excited to contribute and to be creative and will hold her head up high when she sees her winning hors d’oeuvres featured at an event or showcased on our social media. Challenge accepted! 

 Robin Selden

Robin Selden

Managing Partner/Executive Chef, Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning, Stamford, CT

Robin Selden, Managing Partner/Executive Chef. Robin, Marcia’s daughter and the mom of twins, has guided the company’s kitchen for the past 16 years.  The creative force behind the design and inventive cuisine at Marcia Selden Catering. She brings panache to every occasion. Robin, an artist herself, imparts a fabulous design sense to every event.  Robin’s boundless energy brings a contagious joie de vivre to Marcia Selden Catering.