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Changemaker Series: Culinary Team Building Pioneer Suzen O’Rourke And Her Go-To Tomato Appetizer

Changemaker Series: Culinary Team Building Pioneer Suzen O’Rourke And Her Go-To Tomato Appetizer

My featured Changemaker is Suzen O’Rourke who is a pioneer in the field of culinary team-building and founder of a cooking school Cooking by the Book (or “CBTB”) in New York City. Suzi (as many call her) is also a dear friend and mentor. Suzi is one of the feistiest, most dynamic people I have ever met, and she has a heart of gold. I first met Suzi when my husband (then boyfriend) took me to Cooking by the Book for a culinary team-building event with his law firm. My husband heard about Suzi and her incredible hands-on program and felt she and I should meet. At the time, I had left my line chef position and was currently managing a restaurant on the Upper West Side. I tip my hat to my husband, who knew me so well. I loved Suzi at once and was enthralled by what she was doing at Cooking by the Book. I jumped at the opportunity to work for Suzi as a culinary advisor, even if meant moonlighting while managing a restaurant. Working as an instructor at CBTB was an incredible experience and I quickly became Suzi’s biggest supporter, inside and outside the kitchen. I eventually took over as CBTB’s General Manager and I was fortunate enough to work closely with this culinary team-building guru for 4 amazing years.

roasted tomato appetizer
Suzi O’Rourke

Suzi is a native New Yorker. She’s a food fanatic, a great conversationalist, and speaks her mind–which I admire. Born with a “passion for food,” Suzi started a cooking club in which friends were invited to help prepare meals consisting of recipes that Suzi had tested and vetted.  These casual dinner parties became so popular, she often ended up with a waiting list of friends who wanted to attend the next party.  In 1986, Suzi moved to a trendy food mecca in NYC, TriBeCa, and rolled her dinner party concept into culinary corporate team building 1988, officially launching Cooking by the Book in 1989. At CBTB she was able to combine her love of teaching, her talent for organizing interesting groups, and her passion for excellent food.

Although an incredible cook in her own right, (her sourdough bread is to die for) Suzi is primarily self-taught. Her secret to success, she will tell you, is her team of incredible, seasoned and devoted culinary advisors. Some of Suzi’s culinary advisors have been with her for well over 25 years, a testament to both who she is and the business she runs. Over the 30 years Suzi has been in business, other culinary team building programs have developed. But none offer the intimacy–and the family feel–of the program that Suzi runs from her spacious TriBeCa loft. Clients such as American Express, Cisco, Google, JP Morgan Chase, Nasdaq, NBC Universal, Tory Burch, Unilever, Web MD and almost every white shoe law firm in the country look to Suzi and CBTB year-after-year to help build unity and cohesiveness.

Although Suzi loves the CBTB team, she is herself a major draw for CBTB’s roster of clients. Her laugh is infectious, her determination is unwavering, and she simply won’t accept an “I don’t know how to do that” in her kitchen. She brings everyone together.

Suzi is an active member in Les Dames d’Escoffier, an invitational organization of women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality industries.  The mission is education and philanthropy. Suzi has also hosted cookbook author events throughout the year and CBTB was one of the official test kitchens for the Joy of Cooking overhaul in 1997 as well as the release of their special 75th anniversary edition in 2006. In her free time, Suzi can be found….cooking or baking bread, which has become a specialty. I can vouch for her incredible sourdough. I still hold out hope she will one day open her own bread shop; as my older son would say, she has some “mad skills” in that department.  But as the face of CBTB, welcoming, encouraging and bonding with each and every guest, she may not have time to run a bakery too.

roasted tomato appetizer
Suzi and her amazing culinary advisors.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzi for this feature, below are excerpts from our conversation:

Simmer + Sauce: Where did your “passion for food” come from?

Suzi O’Rourke:  The question is not really my passion for food but my passion to share food with others. This passion originates from losing my mother as a young child.  After my mother died, I went to stay with my Aunt Zell and Uncle Marty. They had 5 daughters and meals were always busy as you might imagine.  At home without a mother our house was deeply sad, while over at my Aunt’s house, there were tons of distraction and that lively commotion at dinner time.  My Aunt was a wonderful home cook and always welcomed me into her kitchen.

Simmer + Sauce: You are considered a pioneer in the field of “corporate culinary team-building,” can you describe what that term means to you?

Suzi O’Rourke: This term has evolved over the years as developed and then honed our events.  We started out calling our event Team Bonding, because that is what happens during our events.  In the kitchen when cooking together, people who sometimes do not know a lot about each other naturally ask questions and exchange ideas. Each question leads to another and you can literally see a team fuse together as they cook together.

One day I had an event for a large company and they asked if they could bring their facilitator.  I did not know what that was but of course I said, “Sure”.  When I saw how they were trying to ignite change through activities, I started to think about how the kitchen itself can be used to spark interactions through the kitchen experience. I sat down with my staff and we started to brain storm about different models we can offer companies who are interested in team building.  And we have some great ones too!

Simmer + Sauce: What do you think are the benefits of corporations doing culinary team-building?

Suzi O’Rourke: Cooking along with your office mates is an unusual activity.  During the day you generally experience the same interactions and have generally the same expectations. During an event, you may realize a new facet about someone you know for years that has opened your eyes to another aspect to their personality. Good or at least important to know! The secret to culinary team building is that everybody eats.  When planning a team building outing, often it may include wall repelling, bowling, or other physical activities — but cooking together provides just the perfect venue for everyone, athletic or not.

Simmer + Sauce: Although you were one of the first, there are now other culinary team-building programs out there, what makes Cooking by the Book special?

Suzi O’Rourke: In one word I will say “staffing”.  When I started CBTB I took several cooking classes from other avocational programs.  The general format was one teacher and maybe a couple of assistants, who were trained or wanted to learn on the job and traded their time for the free lesson.  Sometimes this was ok, but candidly it is never ideal.  If the class was only 3 hours, after an hour of instruction the participants were told to go and cook the recipes the instructor just demonstrated. I found this frustrating and it always raised the possibility for a culinary disaster.  I started my program with trained culinary staff.  In addition, my staff is incredibly skilled at communicating with the clients, no matter who they are, a corporate president or a summer intern.  I have the best staff in the country.  I know this because my clients tell me that! And my typical staff member has been with me for twenty years. That speaks volumes about the quality someone can expect when the experience and enjoy our programs.

Simmer + Sauce: Even with the best instruction, hands-on cooking events are subject to unexpected cooking mishaps. What is the worse event mishap you’ve had?

Suzi O’Rourke: Because I use trained staff, we have never had a failed recipe. Not once in 30 years and over 150,000 guests in our kitchen. That being said, I used to include pies on the menu.  One day, we were ready to serve dessert and while taking a 9” pie out of the oven it slipped out of the culinary advisor’s hands and landed on the floor. Well we made a very fast berry crisp and that was the very last time we had whole pie on the menu.  We now make individual pies and tarts. Lesson learned.

Simmer + Sauce: Who has been the most influential person to you?

Suzi O’Rourke: Oh, such a very hard question. I have been very lucky to have had several mentors in my career. If I must choose I would say my Aunt Zell. She was a surrogate mother to me and loved to cook. She was an excellent cook and experimented with New York Times recipes as well as using cookbooks. She was most discipline: “Clean as you go.” I live by that motto.

Simmer + Sauce: If you could have dinner with any famous chef (alive or deceased) who would that be and why?

Suzi O’Rourke: I would say it would be Irma Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking. CBTB has a deep history with The Joy.  We were the test kitchen for the last two revisions. We are intimately involved with the recipes and I also have read Ann Mandelson’s Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women  Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking. Irma was a pioneer in the American cookbook movement. I would love to know how she got the courage to develop such a tome and more details of her life.  I probably would cook for her!

Simmer + Sauce: What is the one piece of cooking equipment you could never live without?

Suzi O’Rourke: My 5-quart cast iron Dutch oven.  I use this to bake my sour dough bread!

When I asked Suzi for a recipe, she was quick to offer up this easy, delicious go-to favorite of hers. Titled “roasted tomato sauce” (although Suzi refers to it simply as “tomato goo“) this simple and reliable recipe belongs to one of Suzi’s closets friends (and chef), Michele Scicolon, and can be found in her popular cookbook, 1,000 Italian Recipes. Often served at CBTB events as an hors d’oeuvre, this rustic recipe is nearly foolproof. Be sure to file this recipe away for the holidays, it could not be easier to make and it’s healthy!

Roasted Tomato *Sauce*

October 22, 2018
: 4
: 15 min
: 45 min
: 1 hr
: easy

By:

Ingredients
  • 2 1/2 pounds round, plum, cherry, or grape tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
  • salt
  • pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil, parsley, or other herbs
Directions
  • Step 1 Place a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Oil a 13 × 9 × 2-inch nonreactive baking pan.
  • Step 2 Coarsely chop round or plum tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces or cut cherry or grape tomatoes into halves or quarters, depending on what you are using.
  • Step 3 Spread the tomatoes on the pan. Sprinkle with the garlic, salt, and crushed red pepper. Drizzle with the oil and stir gently.
  • Step 4 Roast 30 to 45 minutes or until the tomatoes are lightly browned. Remove the tomatoes from the oven and stir in the herbs. Serve hot or at room temperature.

I would like to thank Suzi for allowing me to feature her in my Changemaker series. This was a particularly special feature for me to work on as Suzi is not only my mentor but a very close friend to me, my husband and my children. Her talent, kindness, tenacity, and determination is remarkable and unending. She is one of the strongest women I know and I feel empowered by her just knowing her. Thank you Suzi for all the many things big and small you have given to me over the years, I am and will forever be, incredibly grateful.

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