It didn't take Gwen Robinson long to figure out how to turn around her organization. Robinson moved to Cincinnati from Rockford, Ill., in 1995 to become president and CEO of the private, not-for-profit Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, which administers Head Start and provides job training and other services to low-income residents.
"The reason I came here was to re-engineer the agency," Robinson says, "and one of our biggest problems was low morale."
Everyone loves to eat, and Robinson had seen how everyone enjoyed big potluck dinners at her church. So she knew her agency needed a big staff feed. Most of her employees were women, and most of them cooked at home. Why not turn the tables and let the men cook for the women?
There were a few male grumblers in 1997, the first year CAA held its "Men Cook'' lunch at St. Agnes School cafeteria in Bond Hill. But 15 guys showed up to cook, and more than 200 employees gobbled everything they put on a plate. People ate, laughed and the grumbling ceased.
"The men jumped on it," Robinson says. "I thought they might do their little hot dogs and grilled stuff. But they took it to a whole new level. They did stuffed shells, Argentinian soup, all kinds of things."
The men loved to show off their best cooking and their female colleagues enjoyed eating it.
Josh's Baked Salmon with Ginger Sauce
1 cup Italian dressing
1/2 cup teriyaki sauce
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/4 cup water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Caribbean jerk seasoning
1 tablespoon dill weed
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup peeled and grated fresh ginger root
1 salmon fillet, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
Mix marinade ingredients in a bowl. Pour marinade over salmon in glass baking dish. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Remove salmon and drain remaining marinade into sauce pan. Rinse baking dish and place salmon back in dish. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees 25 to 30 minutes. (If you wish, broil salmon for a few minutes at end of baking time, leaving oven door partially open.) While salmon is baking, bring remaining marinade to a boil. Simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve salmon over rice with sauteed vegetables. Top fish with warm ginger sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
"None of my previous employers had done anything like it,'' says CAA community education director Donna Marsh, who arrived at the agency a month after the first Men Cook event, hearing everyone talking about it.
40 cook for 300
Last month, 40 men cooked for more than 300 CAA employees at St. Agnes. The men donned white caps and aprons and put out the barbecued ribs, grilled sausage, collard greens, cabbage, mac & cheese, chocolate cake, Kentucky "dump cake" and the rest. The chefs pay for their ingredients and the agency charges 50 cents per generous sampling of the food. Money raised helps pay for employee parties and events during the year.
Robinson schedules the lunches in February, on the same day as the agency's quarterly staff meeting. Some might argue those employees would be more productive working than eating and chatting, but Robinson believes the annual lunch more than pays for itself in goodwill.
"We as leaders and managers spend very little time letting employees learn more about each other," she says.
At this year's lunch, for instance, two CAA employees learned they were cousins. You can bet there was plenty of talk about that over chicken wings and iced tea.
And even though they do all the work (unlike all those other times in the kitchen, men clean up after this one), the men look forward to serving their colleagues, says assistant finance manager David Blake, who has served as cook coordinator since the first agency lunch.
"Even the guys who don't cook set up tables and serve drinks," says Blake, who stayed up late the night before making 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, pineapple-upside down cake and Santa Fe soup. "They all enjoy it."
The Men Cook event has never been competitive. There are no judges who hand out blue ribbons and no "people's choice" awards. Blake says the agency planned it this way, to encourage all the men to participate.
But there's usually one crowd-pleasing dish that stands out, and this year it was Josh Fletcher's Baked Salmon with Ginger Sauce.
"They went through that so fast," says Fletcher, a facilities manager who brought in three large salmon fillets with vegetables and rice. "My Italian blood was pleased."
It's a good opportunity for the male employees to bond, he says. But some of the men are hoping for a reciprocal event from the women.
Her employee lunch has gone over so well, Robinson has another idea: Why not invite other agencies and companies in Greater Cincinnati to participate?
They could host the rain-or-shine meal at the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center and charge a small admissions fee to cover expenses.
Folks would make their special dishes and serve it to strangers. Then everyone would sit to eat together and talk.
No one, including Robinson, is suggesting a big community feed could solve our problems. But at the least, it would bring people together in a good mood.
And we all know Cincinnati could use a long lunch and serious morale boost.
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