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Living in a virtual world: why home cooking classes work

We’ve all learned to live in a virtual world over the past year, but some experiences are more fun than others online – we signed up for a Cook Along with Sani Resort

Sani Resorts' chef George Vagionas and Alkioni Kloussiadis help agents make a Greek feast
Sani Resorts' chef George Vagionas and Alkioni Kloussiadis help agents make a Greek feast

When was the last time you went to an event in travel? Saw peers and pals from the industry in person? Like me, that’s probably now approaching a year ago: I did manage a handful of one-to-one meetings between lockdowns, but the calendar has been understandably bereft of the kind of real-life gatherings we used to be treated to on a regular basis.


As we reach the 12-month milestone since Boris Johnson’s declaration that we all “stay at home”, we have adapted as best we could to living into a digital world. It’s no substitute, but at least staying in touch with our travel community via social media, virtual events and Zooms has helped steer us through these sometimes scary and isolating times. They’ve given us a digital window into people’s lives while we await a real one.


But of course there’s also been much said about “Zoom fatigue”; that draining feeling you get after a few too many video-call sessions is a real thing. Unlike those old-school meetings, there’s often no real break or transition from whatever task you were doing beforehand to joining the video call, no leg-stretch or laugh with colleagues as you await the meeting – just moving from one screen activity to another, so the blood doesn’t really get a chance to flow. Even if you’re someone who worked from home before the crisis anyway, coping with this new level of digital engagement has been tough to take.


In a physical meeting, you might look down, look around, look at other things in the room, but with a Zoom/Teams session, you have to maintain eye contact and concentrate more intently on what’s being said because it’s happening on a small screen in front of you, which all makes it more draining. It’s polite to other speakers to show you’re still engaged on-screen, and this required intensity is another reason they zap more energy.


And that’s before tackling the anxiety of the technology itself: “can you hear me?” must be one of the most-used phrases of 2020, as we all mute/unmute or drop-out altogether as we lose WiFi. We’re also having to see our own faces more often, feeling self-conscious, perhaps worried about how we look, how our background looks and whether there will be interruptions, door knocks, children and pets wandering in and out, which all take their toll on our psyche – add to that the major stress of working in the travel industry during a pandemic of course.

Chef Vagionas shows agents how to prep the pork dish
Chef Vagionas shows agents how to prep the pork dish

From burnout to bakers

The trick then is probably to be aware and acceptant of all this, but try and inject some enjoyment into it where you can, and relax into whatever the meeting is for or about: “it is what it is”, as the kids would say.


On TED’s website, organisational psychologist and host of the TED podcast WorkLife, Adam Grant, says: “Everybody’s on Zoom burnout, so they’re looking for ways to be more playful in our video worlds. Play is a major mechanism for connection. Unleashing people’s imaginations and incorporating play — it doesn’t have to be long — could be used to keep people more engaged but also make them more creative and potentially innovative.”


With all this in mind then, I was excited to be invited with a group of luxury agents by Sani Resort to a Cook Along that would break the monotony and bring some lively activity into my kitchen and highlight just the level of engagement Grant advocates.


In the last 12 months, I’ve done virtual everything – quizzes, scavenger hunts, Christmas parties, live gigs, yoga, club nights, cider tasting, wine tasting, even terrarium making, but this was my first virtual cooking session.


There’s probably a reason for that: let’s get this straight, I am not – nor I doubt will I ever be – a cook, it’s a miracle I’ve made it through life this far. But I do love Greece, I was keen to see some agent faces, and I was prepared to make a fool of myself by attempting to keep up with the group and chef’s instruction. Plus, having been to Sani Resort more than 12 years ago with my sister and niece, I was happy to do something that would rekindle fond memories.


It was also great to see someone putting so much effort into an activity for agents, offering us all a lively interaction directly with the resort, with cameras set up in a kitchen there and beaming chef George Vagionas live into our laptops. He was wonderfully aided by ‘sous chef’ for the night, Sani Resort’s group marketing executive Alkioni Kloussiadis and in the UK, Sani’s business development manager Phil Shipman.


“The effort everyone went to for the amazing Cook Along was mind blowing and hugely appreciated,” Clare Levy, founder of Different Planet Travel, said after the event.


“It was a really lovely evening, and a great experience cooking alongside such great company – we so enjoyed the whole experience and the food tasted amazing,” mirrored Karen Pocock, co-founder Designer Travel.

Agents were sent all the ingredients they would need
Agents were sent all the ingredients they would need

Ready, steady – cook

Sani Resort has become a mainstay for the UK’s luxury agents and operators, offering a choice of five hotel concepts – Sani Beach, Sani Club, Porto Sani, Sani Asterias and Sani Dunes – in a 1000-acre reserve along the coastline of the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece.


Chef George has been executive chef of Porto Sani since 2017 and manages the daily operation of Sani’s Artemis restaurant and Byblos Caviar restaurant. He also caters for various options around the resort, including Sea Breeze All Day Bar and the private dining options.

The day before the Cook Along, a box arrived with all the fresh ingredients we’d need, beautifully prepared and presented, along with a bottle of wine (they clearly know agents and journalists well), and even an apron so we felt the part (or in my case, didn’t completely ruin our own clothing).


As the session progressed, we were given tips on dining across the myriad options at the resort and new culinary updates such as a strengthened focus on younger diners at the Poseidon, Olympos and Artemis restaurants, which will all now offer “kids’ corners” with a selection of healthy dishes curated by specialist Annabel Karmel.


This session was hardly child’s play, however. I’m not that organised in the kitchen at the best of times, and there was a lot to keep up with for my recipes for roasted mushrooms with flatbread, baked feta and a side of tzatziki. I know it sounds simple right…? But this was a “from scratch” scenario people.


We started off making the dough (the last time I did this was literally at school) for the flatbread, followed by creating the paprika, oregano, thyme and olive oil marinade and prepping the mushrooms (did you know you should peel the little buggers?), pepper and onions to soak in the marinade. Then came the lovely cool, yoghurt-based tzatziki (have you ever tried grating a cucumber?!), and also part of the meal was bougiourdi, or delicious gooey baked feta with tomato, green pepper, olive oil, oregano and more paprika.

Chef's final dish
Chef's final dish
And Mark and Stuart share their results
And Mark and Stuart share their results

I was doing the veggie option, others made roasted pork and we were all able to ask chef George and Alkioni questions about how we were doing things, and show our prep dishes to camera for improvement tips along the way, giving a fun interactive overview on how we were all doing.


Afterwards, my kitchen looked like a small tornado had blown through it. Some kind of maelstrom seemed to have whipped every dish and utensil out of its home to get involved with the Cook Along, but it was a brilliant two hours spent in at least some kind of company – albeit virtual. Plus, we had the joy of two hours’ undivided time from a chef, who would usually no doubt be flat-out overseeing all those culinary concepts.


We all said farewell and headed off to enjoy the dishes – I won’t be giving up the day job, but I do think the feta and the tzatziki were respectable and tasty efforts; I just wish there could have been someone to help with the washing up. One of the many, many things we’ll all no doubt appreciate once travel does reopen again.


The event testifies to how much effort Sani has been putting into agents over the last few months, with the company really ramping up during the toughest of times, and launching a dedicated sales office for Sani (along with sister brand Ikos) here in the UK.


During the pandemic, Phil, along with Andrea Keeble and Lee Barker have been interacting with agents, offering sales and training tools and working on useful partnerships so things can be full steam ahead across both the Sani and Ikos brands when the resorts reopen.


“It was amazing! The guys are smashing it – this was such a great idea and executed with perfection and quality,” said Mark Swords, director at Swords Travel, who cooked along with his partner Stuart.

What’s new at Sani Resort?

What’s new at Sani Resort?

Due to get off the ground last year, the Bear Grylls Survival Academy had something of a muted introduction to the raft of experiences on offer across the resort, but it’s hoped it can get into full swing this year.


Suitable for guests aged six and older, it offers a rare chance to learn Bear Grylls’ famed survival techniques, ensuring children stay active, get back to nature and learn a skill whilst on holiday. Kids get to go out into the wild, taking advantage of the 1,000-acre ecological reserve surrounding Sani and activities include lessons on camouflage and concealment, navigation and raft building.


Guests at the all-suite Porto Sani hotel will experience a €30 million refurbishment and re-imagined concept focused on families, with full-board now included as standard. The hotel completed its refresh last year, but this season will hopefully mean many more people get to experience it.


Good to know for families, the Little Guests Team has new entertainment and activities across the creche, kids and teens clubs, which are also undergoing a redesign. Developments include the implementation of The Curiosity Approach at Sani Creche, an international early years method that encourages children to be imaginative and curious. Meanwhile, the new Sani Play at the Kids Club aims to offer hours of creative fun with themes focused around Eco Explorers, Little Scientists, Carnivals and Celebrations and Little Chefs.

Foodie favourites

Foodie favourites

Among the many options across the resort are a number of restaurants headed up by Michelin-starred chefs such as Spanish and Mediterranean-influenced El Puerto by chef David Ibarboure, which opened last year, or Fresco, by chef Ettore Botrini, inspired by different culinary regions of Italy.


Then there’s Water Restaurant, in cooperation with three Michelin-starred chef, Mauro Colagreco, owner of Mirazur Restaurant, ranked as the top restaurant worldwide for 2019 in S.Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.


Meanwhile, a handful of the Greek options across Sani include the taverna Vosporos Grill House, where meats are slowly grilled on the rotisserie over charcoal, and Ouzerie, where Greek fare is presented with a contemporary twist. Another option is Pines, where a farm-to-table menu offers a choice of dishes created using fresh and mainly organic produce sourced from within 100km of the resort.

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