My business: the entrepreneurial chef
Allan Campion, founder, Melbourne Cooking Classes
Melbourne Cooking Classes was launched in late 2008. The aim of the business was to create hands-on cooking events and team challenges for corporate groups and businesses in Melbourne. The path I took to get to this business has been a tremendously diverse one.
My background has always been in food. I first got a taste for food preparation at tech school during cooking lessons. I was hooked on food from day one and started my chef apprenticeship a few days after my 16th birthday. I then cooked for six years with the Royal Australian Navy and travels took me to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and beyond. By my mid 20s I was in London working as a chef in boardrooms and private clubs. A return to Australia in 1990 saw me heading up food operations for The Melbourne Theatre Company.
Around this time I decided I really wanted to write about food as well as be involved in cooking for a living. Early success came with publications such as Epicure in The Age newspaper and Australian Gourmet Traveller. Within a few years I was co-author with Michele Curtis on a series of food guides and cookbooks including The Foodies’ Diary, In The Kitchen, Food with Friends and The Foodies’ Guide to Melbourne. To date we’ve published almost 40 titles.
This profile led me to being asked to run cooking classes at schools including the Centre for Adult Education (CAE) and the Queen Victoria Market. I also started running food based tours taking locals and visitors to Melbourne to my favourite food stores, produce markets and restaurants.
The result of this remarkable blend of work experiences meant that I had built a unique network of food contacts in Melbourne. I had come to know chefs, restaurateurs, chocolatiers, pastry chefs, cupcake designers and cooking school operators. I didn’t know it then but these contacts were to prove invaluable as my next business venture developed.
The spark for Melbourne Cooking Classes came in mid 2008 when I received a call from the director of a local graphic design studio. He was looking to have his employees attend a cooking class. The difference was, instead of just watching me cook and then tasting the dishes, he wanted them to be divided into teams and battle it out against one another in a cook-off.
During the class I was blown away by their eagerness to get involved in the preparation and cooking. They were keen to learn about the ingredients they were using, to get hands-on in the kitchen and to pitch themselves team against team to become the ultimate winner.
This one event led me to have a ‘what if?’ moment. What if there was a program of team building cooking classes hosted by some of the best chefs in Melbourne? And what if these events were hosted in amazing venues? And what if these classes were only available for private bookings?
I decided to touch base with my network of industry contacts to gauge their interest in being involved. An overwhelmingly positive response meant there was no going back – Melbourne Cooking Classes was born just a few months later.
The first program had just six classes on offer, but what these encompassed were innovative, interactive, affordable (and fun) food and wine experiences. As word spread about Melbourne Cooking Classes, it soon became apparent I would need to do more classes and invite more presenters on board as quickly as possible.
The program soon included pastry chef Pierrick Boyer. Pierrick has a wealth of international experience, and has worked alongside some of the most internationally renowned chefs including Alain Ducasse and Stephane Leroux. He has made Melbourne his home since 2005 where is his now sharing his knowledge and experience at the critically acclaimed Le Petit Gateau in the heart of the city (part of the RACV Club). Classes with Pierrick include creating your own croquembouche, macaroons, and modern French baking.
Arno Backes from the award winning Ganache Chocolate Lounge also came on board. Arno served an apprenticeship as a pastry chef at just 15 years of age and later completed a chocolatier degree at central Europe’s best school, the Master College in Germany. He worked for Marasus Petit Fours creating chocolates for the Queen of England and for prestigious hotels like The Dorchester and The Ritz.
With Arno I created the Chocolate Masterclass where participants not only learn how to taste and evaluate chocolate but they also get hands-on creating their own chocolate bars and chocolate truffles.
Inspirational cake lover Jennifer Graham also joined the program. Jennifer founded the Crabapple Cupcake Bakery in 2001 which started the cupcake craze in Australia. Her cupcake decorating classes are a great hit and Jennifer’s guests get to take home their own decorated cupcakes.
The program continued to grow when I secured the wonderful Pauline Leonard to host Team Building with Italian food and Meera Freeman offering both a Moroccan cooking class and a Vietnamese class. Meera has been a cooking teacher for almost two decades.
The birth of Melbourne Cooking Classes coincided with an explosion of cooking shows on Australian television. From The Cook and The Chef to My Kitchen Rules, Gourmet Farmer and Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam. Of course the largest of them all is MasterChef.
All of a sudden corporate groups wanted to get cooking just like George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston on TV. They wanted to step into a kitchen environment and be challenged to prepare a meal within set time limits. They wanted to step up to a preparation bench and be presented with the utensils, recipes and ingredients for specific dishes and see if they could prepare them under challenging conditions. The wanted to see if they could be a MasterChef!
When MasterChef began screening in July 2009 my business doubled overnight. Enquiries came from banks, accountancy firms, IT businesses, law firms, social clubs, medical centers, orthodontists and government departments. No matter the business type, everyone was keen to get cooking. And Melbourne Cooking Classes was ready and waiting for an opportunity such as this.
Within weeks, the most successful event was the Team Culinary Challenge. Here four national teams (Morocco, Vietnam, Spain and Italy) are created and each battles it out with a massive cook-off to see which is to be the ultimate culinary nation. Each team is given a series of recipes, all the ingredients required plus our chefs’ advice on the tasks involved. Teams familiarize themselves with the recipes, and then 90 minutes of preparation time is allocated to prepare the appetizers, main course and desserts.
Finally the teams sit down to enjoy the meal they have all just prepared from scratch. Dishes include Spanish paella with chicken and chorizo, chicken saltimbocca skewers, sweet potato and pea risotto and North African lamb kebabs. At the end of the event we reveal the triumphant culinary nation and prizes are awarded to the winning team.
The success of Melbourne Cooking Classes comes from a number of factors – amazing chefs and industry professionals who love hosting groups and sharing their knowledge; access to a range of venues from hidden warehouses and Italian restaurants through to chocolate kitchens and market-based cooking schools; plus the ability to create events where companies can confidently bring their team and engage with them in a very different work environment.
This often sees the CFO working alongside an office junior to create lasagne layered with roasted vegetables and freshly made pesto. Or the company’s sales reps and office managers learning how to perfect honey roast pork with a soba noodle salad recipe. There’s also the challenge of a group of people having to gauge each other’s skills and working out who is making each aspect of the meal in order for their team to be successful.
We strive to make each event a fun activity for all involved and certainly not a chore for those who are not skilled in the kitchen. This is where our hosts are crucial in reading each guests needs and responding accordingly.
From the moment the business started I have strived to provide an amazing service and advice to clients. I’m always available to clients from the first enquiry through to welcoming them to their event. We make the enquiry process as easy as possible by providing full pricing and event information online. This makes it quick and easy for a client to look over event options and know the exact costs, menu and chef involved. We also follow up with all clients to ensure they enjoyed their event and to supply copies of the recipes they prepared. We encourage clients to come and see our venues and really get a feel for how an event will run, and perhaps even see an event in action.
I have no doubt these factors have led to repeat business with many clients since 2008.
We also create and launch new events every six months. We recently welcomed wine writer Max Allen into the program and have created a food and wine Masterclass with him. Other events about to be announced include the Teams Mystery Box Challenge, a Hands-on Duck Masterclass and the Cupcake Team Challenge. This keeps it fresh and interesting for everyone.
I have absolutely no doubt the future for Melbourne Cooking Classes is bright. The overwhelming interest in food in Melbourne is continuing unabated. Chefs such as Neil Perry (Rockpool), Andrew McConnell (Cutler & Co) and Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde) are all investing in new restaurant ventures around town.
People are watching food television shows in the millions and devouring recipe books, food DVDs and cooking magazines like there’s no tomorrow. Also, the growth of Melbourne as a preferred destination for seminars and conferences has brought significant business my way.
In recent times Melbourne Cooking Classes has forged relationships with comparable Australian businesses in order to offer a wider mix of events. These include Melbourne Private Tours and My Ultimate Hens. I am sure this will be an important part of future business growth.
There are a number of things I have learned as the business has evolved these past three years.
One is that clients are like gold and they need to be cared for accordingly. Everything should be supplied on time, every time, from the initial enquiry to the post event follow-up. Every event has to be run as if it’s the most important one we’ve ever run. We have to give the client an experience in food and wine that really blows them away. They have to leave the event with smiles on their faces and a new appreciation of how easy and enjoyable cooking and eating together can be. Clients must also believe they chose the perfect event.
My industry contacts are immensely powerful and I’m always working at extending this network. I do this by attending new restaurant openings, keeping up to date with industry publications and reading food magazines from cover to cover. You just never know when you will need a chef who specialises in macrobiotic cooking or to utilise someone’s amazing hidden venue.
I have also learned that every event is an opportunity to learn how to improve our offer even more. Just a few small changes can improve the clients experience enormously. I also make sure that I keep up with current food trends and to take time out to think about the business on a regular basis. Finally I am very lucky to really enjoy what I do and to employ like-minded people.
I could never have imagined as a 16 year-old heading off on this journey into food that I would have such amazing opportunities. From cooking around the world and being involved in publishing, to being at the forefront of the food explosion by leading food tours and, of course, creating Melbourne Cooking Classes.
Today I have one of the best jobs in Melbourne. I get to work with amazingly talented people in one of the world’s best food cities and I couldn’t ask for anything more.