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Cheeky Chef’s Team Scheme – Victor Pisapia

After succeeding as a chef and restaurant owner, Victor Pisapia came up with the idea of Cheeky Food Group, teaching people to cook and present food in teams.

Hannah Tattersall visits this dynamic entrepreneur’s kitchen to find him cooking up another successful career.

Victor Pisapia

Award-winning chef and founder of Sydney’s Rattlesnake Grill, Victor Pisapia, has just returned from an event in Sydney buzzing from the praise of a client. "She came up to me and said: Victor, I knew this was going to be good but I didn’t know it was going to be that good!" he beams. The client was referring to an inspirational event put on by Cheeky Food Group, a lively group of chefs and presenters of whom Pisapia is director, and whose speciality is team building with a twist.

Originally from the US, Pisapia set up six restaurants there before moving to Australia in 1994. With a teaching background in world education and history also under his belt, he decided he was ready for a new challenge. "I was wanting to do something different, re-invent myself again." He approached his good friend Leona Watson (now co-director of Cheeky Food Group) with the idea of starting up a business that would combine his love of food with his passion for teaching. The team building venture, Cheeky Food Group, is the result.

With music pumping loudly in the background and the knowledge that drinks will flow freely once the cooking is complete, groups of between four and 400 Cheeky novices are taught how to create gourmet dishes that are easy to prepare, and even easier to consume. The idea is that you can use these recipes once you leave "to create your own little restaurant at home".

Before an event Pisapia and Watson spend a lot of time researching their clients and the group’s team mission statement in order to make the team building experience as beneficial as possible. "So, when I go out to an event I already know everybody’s name, I already know what their objectives are for the event. And I know all their food allergies too!" he laughs.

The whole experience is made even easier by the team at Cheeky Food Group, who will come to your home, office, or arrange another venue and turn it into a kitchen for the day. After running through some basic safety rules such as how to carry sharp knives in the kitchen (blade down, close to your apron), clients are separated into teams where they are taught the correct way to chop garlic, peel prawns, and whip cream. "Most people don’t cook, or they cook badly, so this is their opportunity to ask questions of professionals," Pisapia explains. "Not everybody can go scuba diving. Not everybody can go paint balling, but they can all do food. It’s non-threatening."

As Cheeky Food Group’s clientele includes several large corporations, Pisapia says the challenge is to break down the barrier between the executive at the top tier of the company and someone working at a lower echelon. Whether it’s chopping onions or washing plates, the goal is to have all eyes weeping together and all hands simultaneously involved in the process. "It’s a fantastic leveller; brings people together. And that’s what it’s all about."

A Cheeky event, which can be booked for an hour, a day, or an evening, also has clients involved in the presentation of food, setting up tables and pouring drinks. Then the group sits down to enjoy the fine fare they prepare from start to finish.

Staffing & Growing

Finding staff who are as passionate about the business as Pisapia and Watson is not always easy. Pisapia finds word-of-mouth is usually the best way of recruiting people, and he is also a member of The Food Media Club of Australia, an association of professionals who share a love of food. "It’s not just chefs that we need, it’s presenters. The kinds of people who have to smile, have to communicate, have to be able to see that the clients are enjoying themselves. And if they’re not, they have to be able to bring [that client] back into the team. So that’s a bit challenging," he admits. "There’s a small window of people who can do that."

Watson agrees: "Chefs have to leave egos at the door and be able to throw a party as much as they need to be a diligent teacher. The focus isn’t on them as chefs (like a standard cooking class), but on the people themselves."

Cheeky teamFounded four years ago, the business has been doubling in size each year, taking on more staff, an office, storage area, and a van to move their equipment around. As a result of the growth, the focus of the business has changed too, with events now directed towards much larger clients. "We still do jobs for 10 or 12, but those jobs for above 80 are more our focus now," Pisapia says. "And we have to make sure that in this growth period we have all our systems in place so that we can actually do it properly without making ourselves completely crazy!"

As an entrepreneur, Pisapia is used to a bit of craziness, not to mention the risk. "If you have a good idea you actually have to sit down and brainstorm it, and you have to plan it as much as you can, and as an entrepreneur you have to take the risk. I think that I’ve taken a lot of risks; some have been fantastic and some haven’t!" He says he was very lucky with financial growth because not a lot of money was initially invested into the project. The company rented kitchens, vans, and anything else that was initially required for the project. "We put in such a minimum amount of money but immediately we were able to make money because we didn’t have any overheads." He’s also prepared to take risks on new projects, and admits there is that risk that you might not get the money back.

The most important thing during start-up, he says, is paying attention to your planning and getting systems in place that work for everybody. And communication is key. "Not being able to have that communication going with a staff member or even a client can be really bad."

Pisapia would like Cheeky Food Group to continue to grow, and looks forward to the possibility of expanding into other cities such as Melbourne and Brisbane, where a lot of corporate conferences are held. "We have to be really good at what we do and that’s the most important thing. A lot of people lose confidence sometimes and I think that’s very normal, but at the end of the day you’ve got to give yourself the chance to be successful. If you believe in yourself and take the risk, if you fall down you can get back up and do it again."

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