Cynthia Singer doesn’t like to cook. But she has no problem watching other people chop, mix and braise — in fact, she happens to enjoy it.
“I love to see how things are made, how they all come together,” said Singer, vice president of government relations at URS Corp., a technical services firm based in New York.
It’s folks such as Singer — high-level executives with an interest in food — that the Hay-Adams hotel in Northwest Washington is hoping to woo with its new “executive break,” an informal program that gives conference-goers and meeting attendees a behind-the-scenes look at the hotel’s kitchen operation.
“Everyone’s a foodie these days,” said Josh Short, the hotel’s pastry chef. “It’s not just chocolate anymore. People know the difference between bad chocolate, good chocolate and great chocolate.”
Programs like the executive break have become increasingly important at area hotels and meeting spaces as they vie for a shrinking number of government conferences and corporate events.
Even so, hotel employees say it is sometimes difficult to persuade meeting planners to find the time — and money — to add one more item to their agendas.
“We haven’t had enough people through here,” said John Graham, director of banquets at the Hay-Adams. “They’re usually on very tight schedules — they’re here for a meeting or a speaker and don’t have a lot of flexibility.”
Alison Okobi, the director of catering at the Hay-Adams, said the hotel hosted its first kitchen tour during a wedding reception two years ago. After guests finished dinner, they watched as chefs prepared Bananas Foster in the ninth-floor kitchen.
“They wanted something with a ‘wow’ factor, something their friends would remember,” Okobi said. “It doesn’t take any extra time, but they’ll remember it more than any other dessert or afternoon snack.”
The Hay-Adams has hosted a handful of executive breaks to date, including events for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Cornell University. The cost is typically $30 a person, Okobi said, a bit higher than the $18 fee for afternoon snacks such as cookies and brownies.
“It’s not like sitting in a nice dainty boardroom,” Short said. “You get to be in a real working kitchen.”
As industrial kitchens go, it’s a nice one. The 1,100-square-foot facility was built two years ago and has sweeping views of downtown Washington. The hotel plans to eventually host dinners inside the kitchen for groups of 12 to 14 people.
On Monday, Short made cherries jubilee for a group of 30 members of the Carlton Club, a group of local business leaders that meets at the Hay-Adams for lunch every week.
Executives streamed into the kitchen. Excited chatter filled the room: “Look at this!” “This is cool.” “Look at the gold leaf!” “Oh, what’s inside that?”
A few attendees told Short about their own (unsuccessful) attempts to make cherries jubilee at home. Others asked about the ingredients and filled their plates with pastries.
“This is a great idea because it promotes camaraderie, and it’s such an elegant setting,” said Maxine Champion, founder of Champion Strategies, a Washington-based corporate advisory firm.
Her friend, Singer, agreed.
“Usually I refuse dessert,” she said. “But this, it was worth the calories.”