Cooking Up Success with Virtual Cooking Events

HARRISBURG, PA—Thanks in part to a second grade teacher, the Hilton Harrisburg has found a way to engage with its local community during the COVID-19 pandemic that goes beyond offering takeout meals. It is now holding interactive Zoom gourmet cooking lessons.

The idea for the events came out of corporate discussions at Greenwood Hospitality Group, the hotel’s management company, on how its hotels could engage with the local community. “Then the team at the Hilton Harrisburg brought it to another level,” said Tom Conran, principal, Greenwood Hospitality Group. “Given the fact that the Hilton Harrisburg has a very prominent position within the marketplace, we are a very forward-looking entity there. Our food and beverage prowess is at a very high level in the marketplace… To that end, if we wanted to engage with the local community and our clientele during this very difficult period, how would we go about doing it—as well as continue to position ourselves at the top end of the market from a food and beverage standpoint?”

Joe Massaro, general manager of the property, essentially got the idea from watching his daughter, who is a second grade teacher, adapt to teaching her students using an online platform. “I thought, ‘Can we do that with food and beverage, and if so, how might we enter that arena?’” he said. “Our wine dinner program seemed to be the appropriate way to start that conversation. There is a large following of folks locally who attend our wine dinners and we have a great connection with nationally known wineries and wine companies, so we just brought those all together to create this series.”

Massaro and Anthony Bianco, the hotel’s executive sous chef, worked with wine company Trinchero Family Estates to craft a program. “We chatted about what made sense in terms of a wine offering and what we were able to procure given the shutdown of our state system for wine purchasing,” said Massaro. “Once we understood what was available and how quickly we could get product, that helped inform us on what type of menu to create so that the pairings worked.”

They reached out to their wine dinner regulars and within a few hours, the first event was sold out. They immediately added two more.

Guests who sign up for the program come to the hotel to pick up the basket of ingredients they will need for the meal. “When it comes to the composition of the baskets, in most cases we are doing four or five courses,” said Bianco. “Each course is in its own to-go box with everything you would need down to just about salt and pepper. If there is a specific oil or spice we want them to use, we would provide that. The menu is pretty much driven by the concept and the availability of the wine. The first goal is to figure out what the diners are trying to accomplish.”

He wanted to make it as easy for the participants as possible—and more about the dining experience than the cooking. “We did not want it to be a cooking demonstration,” he said. “You can go to YouTube and learn how to roast a chicken. This is really trying to bridge the social aspect of dining and a little bit of that educational element. We wanted to create and produce dishes that when they are finished producing on their end and following the instructions, they are not turning around and seeing all of the dishes they have to clean.”

He continued, “They are not really working in the middle of a dinner rush, so we wanted to make sure we were providing them with the right tools, the right amount of mise en place, right down to the point where this is a lot more about plate composition, discussing flavor profiles and rationale and decision-making, and then allowing our wine partners to showcase their wines and talk about the tasting notes and everything along those lines.”

The menus are about more than the basics. “We are not teaching them how to make chicken parmigiana,” said Bianco. “Everyone has their own recipe. We are really going for it where we are doing a braised pork belly with a date and pork glace with vanilla and red bean salad. We are giving them some other things to think about while they are not just making traditional household meals, but almost showing the ease of how to put things together when organized correctly and what you can produce within your own household.”

Even though they have had success with the initial wine dinners, Massaro did not want the events to become repetitive. “What we didn’t want to do was have it become stale too quickly and have every date be the same format, so we chose different formats for different dates,” he said. “Rather than a traditional wine dinner every time, one is wine-making; one is a grilling event; one is a Sunday brunch; one is an Italian family dinner. These are all ideas that came from folks that attended the first three. They shared with us what type of events they would like to see.”