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Introducing Chefs in Schools

Putting nutrition, food education and great careers front and centre.

Chefs in Schools

When the government commissioned the School Food Plan and outlined how to improve the food culture and food served in schools, it found, perhaps not surprisingly, that school food is much better nutritionally than packed lunches. By increasing the take up of school food, schools not only improve the quality of food the children eat, but economies of scale mean that they can serve higher quality meals more economically.

Chefs in Schools is the brainchild of Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon Restaurants and a former governor of Gayhurst Community School in Hackney. Joining him are Headteacher, Louise Nichols and chef, Nicole Pisani. Their mission is to employ professional chefs to improve the quality of school meals, whilst educating and inspiring children about the benefits of cooking their own food from scratch.

The publication of the School Food Plan suggested far reaching goals including free school meals for all infants, cooking lessons compulsory for all children up to the age of 14, new food-based standards for school meals and a taskforce to improve the skills and status of workforce. Chefs in Schools is pulling out all the stops to put the School Food Plan into practice.

Nicole Pisani grew up in Malta and her family owned several restaurants. “I was destined to become a chef,” Nicole said. “I trained in Malta, spent a year in Sydney and Thailand before moving to England. I started in London in the kitchen of the Maltese owned Corinthia Hotel and worked my way up through the kitchens of Electric House, Modern Pantry and finally moved to Nopi, where I was Head Chef for two years.”

Wanting a change in career direction, not to mention more sociable working hours, Nicole was immediately impressed with the idea of Chefs in Schools and understood the impact on it could have, not just in one school but across London.

Joining them on the journey was cookery writer and teacher, Jo Weinberg, who is overseeing the launch. “After teaching cookery in my local Primary school in Somerset, I realised how little children were learning to cook at home, and how little families were eating together,” explained Jo. “I decided I wanted to turn my work life to finding a way of helping to fix this.” Jo met with Nicole, Henry Dimbleby and Louise Nichols and decided to take the brilliant work that had already started at Gayhurst and turn it into a model that could be rolled out to other schools.

Putting the Plan into Action

Jo stressed that the challenge of making the project work starts with finance. “Finance cuts mean short term savings via cuts to skilled staff in the kitchen,” she explained. “This leads to a longer term decline in production standards and therefore lunchtime income.” Forecasting the financial impact, and benefits, of the Chefs in Schools model is key for Headteachers and School Business Managers. “The will is there, but there is a fear of committing to the costs of change, in the face of squeezed budgets,” said Jo. “Education will always be the priority, so it’s about closing the gap between education and catering, having a Chef Educator who supports the curriculum and oversees the kitchen. The more engaged pupils are, the more ‘bums on seats’, the more financially viable the whole proposition is. This is vital, because Schools are constantly being challenged to be lean in everything they do, so you really have to paint the picture of an investment that pays multiple dividends.”


Fire in the Kitchen

Nicole went about upskilling kitchen staff at Gayhurst School so that they can now hold their own in any professional kitchen. “It was natural to me to reorganise the kitchen into a brigade system,” she said. “Once the stations were established, everything started to run more smoothly. Professionalising a school kitchen means that you become more efficient, and makes it possible to cook great food from scratch for hundreds of people every day. It’s very rewarding to see the whole school gather over your food.”

The impact on the children was immediate. “When I took on teaching the children to cook, I was able to marry together the food in the dining hall and the cookery in the classrooms, and it was plain to see how their attitudes to food were being changed,” Nicole said. “Chefs bring with them a natural passion and understanding of food and the central place it holds in everyday life. When a chef takes on a school kitchen, they can share this passion with the children and also the wider school community of teachers and parents. The impact is huge.” Nicole feels that food can be placed at the heart of the children’s day and the impact of this is a great culture in the dining hall, where teachers and children gather at lunchtime to connect and enjoy a delicious meal.

“Working in a school can be a great career move. You are using all of your skills in a purposeful way to feed people the most important meal of the day. I have to confess the hours and holidays are pretty great, too,” Nicole said.

A Great Career Change

Michael Healy went to Croydon College of Catering and subsequently worked for 25 years in and around London in a mixture of big busy west end restaurants and independent gastro pubs. He then started a small business called Foxychef Ltd. “The pressure of running the business was beginning to take a toll on my personal life as I was recently married and my wife fell pregnant, not a good mix for someone doing 80/90 hours a week,” Mike explained. “I couldn’t relax at home as I was constantly thinking about business.” Mike heard rumours about Chefs in Schools and began researching. “I fell in love with the idea of training kids about food through good healthy cooking at the school. I applied, got the job and haven’t looked back. I started in September this year and can honestly say it’s the best job ever.”

Mike truly believes in the Chefs in Schools project. “Children have had a rough deal when it comes to food in schools so I thoroughly enjoy showing them fresh and well-cooked lunches. Although we don’t please every child, every day, you can actually really see the change in attitude towards trying new ingredients and them wanting to learn a bit more,” he said.

Mike says that any chef wanting to make a difference should get involved. “I would say to chefs who care about the next generation; this group is so serious about what they are trying to achieve that it’s hard not to get hooked, and it’s so much more rewarding to put your skills and knowledge to good use than to make a rich restaurant owner richer,” he said. “You never know; some of these kids might grow up to be chefs because of what we do.”

Looking ahead

Chefs in Schools launched with a piece in ES magazine earlier this year, and had an incredible response from schools and chefs, who all wanted to find out more about the programme. Jo Weinberg said, “We are now setting up our training programmes in schools for the next couple of years. At the same time, we have created our Chef’s Alliance; a group of school chefs who gather to meet, share ideas and stories, and create a professional community of school chefs to support each other. Naturally, other chefs and schools hear about our work through word of mouth. We aim to be in 100 schools around the country in the next five years.”

We’ll be following the Chefs in Schools project on the blog over the coming months.

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