It started as a bit of a laugh. After my food memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, was published earlier this year, friends who can't cook and won't cook asked if I could show them how to make some of the recipes. So they came, a motley crew, to my house. I taught them five dishes in a couple of hours and we ate a jolly lunch. They brought their own mates, new people, amiable strangers – some of whom had been dying to have meaty arguments with me about my "provocative" newspaper columns. It was exhilarating.
Then I took my spices and kit to do cook-ins in people's homes, sometimes as birthday treats. One of them was for Livia Firth, wife of the actor Colin Firth, and Colin's energetic mum, Shirley. From here, I have gone on to a few awayday sessions for small organisations.
Corporate team-building days are often based on getting people into outdoor situations to test their mettle and capacity to help others. Helplessness brings on strength. Cooking is an altogether different experience. It uses pleasure rather than pain to bring teams closer. It is indoors, gets people into a shared space, multi-tasking; it needs fast and good communication and camaraderie. Instead of top to bottom, information is exchanged horizontally, and trust appears to go up.
My hands are now turmeric-stained and my hair often smells of masala. I had tea with an MP at a café in St James's Underground Station after one of the sessions, and he kept wondering whether a new Indian had opened in the precinct.
The feedback has been encouraging – except for two women so far, who couldn't cope with cooking feasts because they are on strict diets. Most who have attended say it brought colleagues together – "much better than a piss-up in the pub, when you hide who you are". Some revealed unknown talents, others their vulnerabilities.
One arts administrator, for example, normally a "dogsbody", in her words, took charge and was soon organising the peelers, cutters and stirrers. Suddenly Ms Independent, she fearlessly experimented with the spices and encouraged the faint-hearted. Then the boss, a little self-important though nice, burnt himself and revealed the child inside him. His astounded staff came to his aid and nothing will ever be the same again. "Did you set him up?" asked one attendee. Now there's a thought.
The queen of such courses is Pinky Lilani. She has no equal. For several years this British Asian woman has opened her kitchen to a vast array of influential individuals and their staff. Her connections make one weep with envy. How did she become so spectacularly successful? She is a good cook herself, but that is not it. She seems to sense and meet some indefinable need. People see her as part guru, part friend, a deliverer of strong self-belief and great curries. Her new book, Coriander Makes the Difference is a spicy Chicken Soup For the Soul, with recipes and folksy homilies, garnished with "inspirational" quotes from a gallery of the great and good – CEOs of top FTSE companies, Baroness Susan Greenfield, Nicole Farhi, Cherie Blair, Lord Levy et al – who savour their relationship with her. Some may find it cheesy, but there is no denying her networking talents and business skills.
In 1991, Pinky started teaching evening classes in Indian cookery. One adult student had good connections with the pickle and sauce giant Sharwood's and helped Lilani get a consultancy with that firm. Soon she was sweeping through the doors of the rich, famous and powerful. They like food and authenticity, it seems. "Even when I am meeting MDs on the top floors, I always take them a box of my masala potatoes. And they really appreciate it. Teaching the skill of cooking is a way of transmitting generosity." It lets high-fliers escape their established roles.
On the training days, they arrive and get a short pep talk: "I tell them to be aware, true to themselves." Then they are taught the techniques of Indian cooking – the making of various sauces, steamed and smoked dishes."Each person is drawn in, hierarchies and formalities dissolve –it is amazing." I too have found that food becomes a catalyst, releases people as they gather around pots and pans.
David Rowles is another teacher-chef to watch. In a vast, yet homely, kitchen he teaches blokes – often professionals weighed down by all those expectations that make modern masculinity so hard and confusing. David runs Goose Crypt, a vegetarian café in Marylebone parish church, and I go in to wash up and serve. Learning new skills collectively in an easy atmosphere allowed the blokes to bond and reveal suppressed characteristics. I so liked David Rowles (he is languid like Bill Nighy) that I persuaded him we should try some joint cook-ins for our diverse clients.
Humans have cooked together in families, villages and neighbourhoods since fire first burst into their lives. All over rural Africa, Arabia and the East, planting, harvesting, pounding, storing is a collective activity – a necessary condition for in-group survival. In Europe, too, villages had the one wood-burning oven where people took their breads and stews to cook. Some Indian foods – like pre-fried papadoms for example – can only be made if many hands come together.
In all Sikh temples, even in Britain, simple, delicious vegetarian fare is made by women of the congregation every day. During Hindu and Muslim festivals, too, biriyanis are made for thousands in huge vats by singing ladies.
Harvard-based biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham recently startled readers with his intelligent speculations in a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
Cooking, he claims, pushed humans over the evolutionary threshold to leave our chimp-like ancestors behind. It changed the way we looked and acted, and brought in shared feeding. This transformation took place 1.8 million years ago. Others strongly disagree, because archaeological cooking artefacts date from around 700,000 years ago. Whenever it was, cooking is central to human progress. It enhanced cooperation, delayed gratification and planning and increased energy. It makes us who we are.
It could be that group cooking feels right because it links us to primordial human activity, raises ancestral echoes. In our individualised, automated, high-pressure times, it also seems to generate new mutualities and connections between professional men and women. In the heat of a kitchen you really don't want amateur Gordon Ramsay-style histrionics; people have to cooperate. And that is the big selling point of these courses.
'The Settler's Cookbook' by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown , published by Portobello Books, £9.99. 'Coriander Makes the Difference' by Pinky Lilani, published by Development Dynamics, £9.99
Recipes for success: The team-builders' favourites
Pinky Lilani's Mince with Spinach
6 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 lb/450g ground beef
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
2 teaspoons crushed fresh ginger
2 tablespoons coriander/cumin powder
teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon tomato purée
2 each of cloves, cardamon pods, small sticks of cinnamon, dried bay leaves (all used whole, for whole garam masala)
7 oz (200 g) frozen chopped spinach
Salt to taste
A handful of chopped coriander leaves
In a wok or large frying pan heat the oil and cook the onions until brown. Add the meat, and cook on high heat for 2 minutes, breaking it up. Add all other ingredients except for the spinach and the coriander leaves. Cook and stir over a high heat, and if it sticks keep adding 1 tablespoon of water at a time. Cook for 10 minutes. Add 2 cups of water and leave to simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. There should be very little liquid left at this stage. Turn up heat and add the spinach. Cook for another 5 minutes. Garnish with the coriander leaves.
David Rowles' Chorizo and Broad Bean Stew
from his Cookery Uncovered courses
6-8 picante chorizo sausages (cut into
slices 1cm-2cm thick)
500g frozen broad beans (fresh are better)
6 medium-sized potatoes (maris piper or new, if available, cut into bite-size pieces)
1 large Spanish onion (diced)
500g ripe tomatoes (roughly chopped)
3 cloves garlic (diced)
2 teaspoons sweet (dulce) Spanish smoked paprika (most supermarkets stock this)
2 teaspoons hot (picante) Spanish smoked paprika
750ml boiling stock (Marigold vegetable stock is best every time).
In a heavy saucepan fry the onions in olive oil for a couple of minutes on a high heat, add the garlic and potato, and keep cooking and stirring for 10 minutes.
Then add the chorizo slices, fry for a couple more minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes start breaking up.
Add the stock and both paprikas and bring the ingredients back to the boil. When boiling, put on a low heat to simmer for about 15 minutes until the potatoes are nearly soft. Finally add the broad beans and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's Baked Red Chicken
cup Greek yogurt
5 tablespoons tomato purée
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon paprika powder
1 teaspoon crushed ginger
1 teaspoon fennel and coriander seeds ground in a coffee grinder. You can, if you want, lightly toast them in a dry frying pan first.
Mix all the sauce ingredients and cook slowly in a pan for 10 minutes. Spread it over chicken breasts. Bake in a hot oven, 400F/200C , for about 25 minutes. Check that the juices are clear when you pierce the chicken with a skewer or knife. Stuff into pita bread with a green salad, sliced onions and fresh chopped chillies.