10 Tips for Killer Cooking Demos & Panel Discussions

Any chef or hospitality pro who finds themselves in the spotlight really can pull off a great cooking demo or discussion with some advance prep and thoughtfulness.  I’ve been a spectator at thousands of demos and panels all over the world, and I’ve sat on and moderated dozens of panels myself, so I’ve learned what makes a crowd-pleasing show.  I hope these pointers I’ve collected and handed out over the years help you pull off a kick-ass performance, because you definitely can!

Elena Arzak of the Michelin 3-star Restaurante Arzak in Spain begins her demo out front of the work station, prepared notes in hand, directly addressing and interacting with the audience at the 11th Annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress (Regina Varolli | CulEpi)

1 – Rehearse your cooking demo, don’t just get up there and wing it! Try cooking your demo dish in front of staff or friends, all while explaining the dish, the process, your restaurant, etc, making eye contact with your audience, and making witty, informative banter, under the pressure of a ticking timer. Ask people to throw you questions too, as many demos allow for Q&A with the audience. After your rehearsal, make notes for your demo that you can bring on stage.

2 – When it comes to hosting or participating in a panel discussion, research your fellow panelists and the topic. Make notes for introducing the panel, note specific questions or points you want to make. Contact fellow panelists in advance so you all get a feel for each other, how you interpret the topic, and what you’d like to get across to the audience collectively and individually, you’ll click better as a group if you do!

When I was hosting panels at the PX+ Hospitality Festival in England, I asked about the stage and discovered we’d be in an unheated barn sitting on bales of hay, I also checked the weather when I packed and saw it would be raining, hence muddy. I researched my fellow panelists and started an email conversation so we got to know each other and the topic. The result was a damn comfortable, great discussion that really engaged the audience! Left to Right: Me, Anna Sulan Masing, Alexa Welsh, Rob Rose, Martin Morales (Marie Holm for CulEpi)

3 – Know your audience! Are you presenting to a group of chefs and cooks? Industry professionals of all kinds? Home cooks or foodies? The knowledge-base of your audience can be key to whatever you may want to cook or discuss, so make sure you take the stage knowing who they are. You wouldn’t want to either go way over their heads or way below their skill level.

4 – Have discussions in advance with the event organizers to find out what’s their event theme or goals, their format, how strict is the time slot given to you, what equipment you’ll have on site. Ask if the equipment will be tested, if assistants will be provided, and if you can chat with these assistants in advance. For panels ask if you’ll be sitting or standing, indoor or outdoors, and even what you’ll be sitting on! This will affect what you should wear, because you want to be comfortable and confident on stage. Basically, know as much detail about what you’re getting into before you get into it!

5 – It’s second nature in your own kitchen to do your mise-en-place, so do it all to-go. Make a checklist of ingredients and tools you’re bringing. Clearly label all your ingredients and group them according to the steps you’ll take and each element of the dish you’re cooking on stage. Make sure your assistants know how you’re organizing all of these packed ingredients so they know exactly what you need and when you need it. Double check you’ve got everything when you’re packing it all up!

When Wylie Dufresne of Du’s Donuts did a demo at the 12th Annual StarChefs ICC, he brought literally hundreds of delicious donuts in various flavors to pass out to the audience, making his demo one of the event favorites! (Regina Varolli | CulEpi)

6 – If you’re doing a cooking demo, whenever possible, share samples of what you’re cooking with the audience. As an audience member, it can be a salivary glands’ worst nightmare when our noses can experience what you’re cooking, but our taste buds can’t! So whenever possible, hand out even a tiny tidbit, because everyone loves the demo they not only got to see, hear and smell, but to taste as well!

When “Modernist Bread” co-author Francisco Migoya did a presentation on bread at Claus Meyer’s Madhus in Copenhagen, he baked up fresh bagels and breads to share during the discussion, thus filling our mouths and our minds (Regina Varolli | CulEpi)

7 – The audience at a cooking demo is there to see and hear the chef. Sometimes there’s an emcee, and s/he should be careful not to invade the workspace, crowd the camera, or dominate the conversation. If you have a particularly present emcee, don’t just talk directly to them, looking only in their direction, you’ve got to engage the audience. Look up from your workspace or away from the emcee and make eye contact with the people sitting in the seats who paid to come and watch you work your magic!

8 – In a panel discussion, whether your the moderator or a panelist, be mindful of all the people up there with you, and make sure you’re not hogging the mic. Everyone up there with you has something meaningful to contribute or they wouldn’t be on the panel. Even without a stopwatch, you can do your best to give everyone equal time.

9 – Be prepared for the unexpected. When you’re on stage, you’ve got to be able to wing it. Imagine a burner won’t work or an ingredient is missing… what would you do? In a panel, really listen to the discussion as it happens, then engage and respond to new ideas even if they weren’t part of the plan. Sometimes the most exciting and memorable moments are the ones that happen spontaneously, so don’t let a strict agenda stop you from going with the flow.

10 – Be yourself. Be confident. You wouldn’t have been invited to give a demo, host or participate in a panel, if the organizers didn’t think you were worth putting on stage. You’ve got the goods, even if you feel nervous or are asking yourself, What am I doing up here? If you’re really nervous when you’re up there, or it’s your first time on stage, share it with the audience. Have a laugh about it. This really will ease the tension you’re feeling and your audience will relax and relate to you as a real person.

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