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Chef Nicole Pisani has transformed the food at a Hackney school. Now she’s joining forces with Thomasina Miers and Joanna Weinberg to get chefs in schools all around Britain. Lisa Markwell reports.

 

As a chef, how do you measure

success? A Michelin star, a good

review, a hefty tip? All of these are

significant, of course, but what about

450 children asking for seconds? Or

a headteacher remarking that exam

results have improved since you

started cooking the school dinners?

It’s certainly different, and

astonishingly rewarding, as Nicole

Pisani has found out. She was

the head chef at the Ottolenghi

restaurant Nopi until four years ago,

when burn-out was imminent. Now

she runs the kitchen at a primary

school in Hackney and is one of the

driving forces behind the idea of

putting chefs into schools – she’s an

evangelist for how a change of scene

can reignite your love of cooking.

Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca empire

just keeps growing. But Miers, the

mother of three small children,

knows how vital it is to nourish the

bodies and minds of the young, and

is acting as both a fundraiser and

ambassador for the planned not-for-profit

enterprise. Wahaca has raised

£10,000 through kids’ meals which is

earmarked as seed capital.

The third person involved in making

the idea a reality is acclaimed food

writer and author Joanna Weinberg,

who has worked tirelessly to get

things started.

For CODE, the trio came to the

office to share the story of this game-changing

idea. And later, Pisani

allowed the cameras into the kitchen

at Gayhurst Primary School to watch

her and the team create lunch for

their tough-to-please but easy-to-love

audience of 5-11 year olds.

 

 

Nicole, tell me why you made the change.

 

I actually didn’t decide to put myself

in a school, but I was getting tired of

hours at Nopi. I resigned, was told

that a school in Hackney wanted a

chef, and jumped in. When I look

back it’s like a blur of events, but

somehow it was the perfect thing to

do after restaurant work, it kept me

in the business – I needed a way to

still be in love with food.

 

 

So has what you serve changed over the years?

 

We had to start by producing

food that was similar to what they

were used to… So most of it was

breadcrumbed fish, a version of

chicken nuggets, and the vegetables

were really plain. Now they get

caramelised cabbage, or a whole roast

cauliflower on the table with mini

knives so they can cut it themselves!

 

 

I bet it wasn’t all plain sailing.

 

I no longer cook there every day, and

went in recently to find 450 children

crying in front of me. The chefs had

made mushroom tagliatelle - we had

done this three years ago and it had

been a disaster, but that had been

forgotten. The upside was that the

accompaniment was Italian lentils,

which they hate as well! But given

the option they were like “give us the

lentils, we don’t want the mushroom

pasta!” And I learnt that a great way

to make children eat something they

think they don’t like is to serve it with

something they really hate!

I always find the criticisms humorous,

I remember at Nopi if a customer

complained I wanted the ground to

open up and for me to fall in, but

with kids it’s different, it’s genuine

and from the heart. That’s what

makes it rewarding.

 

 

What do the parents think?

 

Some are supportive. Some struggle

because it’s not what they cook at

home - and the kids say ‘it’s not like

what we get at school’. Some are not

enthusiastic but feel that it’s a relief

for them because they know that the

children are getting a good meal at

school and so they don’t need to feed

them massively at dinner

Tommi: this is a real issue at the

moment, kids too hungry to learn.

Jo: and pressure on working parents

too. Even if you cook. I mean,

I struggle to think of something

nutritious and balanced…

 

 

 

 

It’s also about teaching, isn’t it?

 

The cooking curriculum is vital. It’s

about chefs going into the classroom

with all the different veg, to show

the children what it is, for it then

to be OK to be put on the table at

lunch and not be something that is

totally foreign to them. For the older

children, the cooking lessons were

like, right, we’ll get a firepit, we’ll

chuck on octopus - try to make things

exciting for them so it’s less about

dining and more about part of life.

The head teacher says ‘Nicole, the

world does not rotate around food’

and I’m like ‘actually for a chef, it

does!’

 

The staff at the beginning were

not on board. They were used to

getting ready-chopped vegetables, for

instance, and set in their ways, but

those who have stayed on have really

become a team. The kids now know

them by name – it’s no longer the

idea of just a dinner lady slopping

out food. It’s important, for instance,

that the chefs come in through the

main door; that they wear chef ’s

jackets. If a kid is talking, they must

say please and thank you. But on

the other side, they need to be doing

a really good job. The kitchen is

organised like a restaurant kitchen,

everyone has a section. I make them

say “yes chef ” because it’s what I’m

used to – they’ve come round to the

idea…

 

 

So you’ve gone from burnt out to super-enthused, and presumably learned new skills?

 

Well, if I go in and I know I have

to chop 40kg of carrots or use a

machine, I’ll opt for chopping, just

in case I ever need to work in a

restaurant again! And the teaching is

so rewarding. Also, having spent so

many years pushing - to push, push,

push for 11 hours - it’s really nice to

wind down, to be actually teaching.

And the long school holidays are

never not amazing!

 

 

 

 

Tommi, your interest is both professional and personal.

 

I’ve always been quite fascinated

about how our nation eats. I learnt to

cook simple, nutritious, inexpensive

food when I was growing up, so I

think I intrinsically understand that

good food is not about money, which

is where I think we’ve gone wrong in

this country.

 

I saw with great interest what

Nicole was doing and had just started

getting involved with a local primary

school that had a big outdoor space

and I’ve helped them develop it so

they could grow their own vegetables.

I spoke to the head at a school that

had turned itself around by changing

their dinners and I remember really

clearly what she said: the key to this

is that you have to put a chef in

the kitchen, because they think in a

different way. They are coming at it

in a completely different way from

just putting stuff on plates. They

think ‘what’s this food going to taste

like, what’s it going to look like,

what’s the pleasure?’

 

The government spends millions

of pounds on research into how

people have bad dietary habits and

they then think that the pleasure

of eating good food with good

ingredients that’s not expensive is

somehow fluffy… In fact, it costs the

NHS a third of its budget, on eatingrelated

issues.

 

If you establish a healthy

relationship with food in children you

are imbuing a lot of children with

an openly happy relationship with

food, that will lead to good health,

and good mental health - and well, I

think there’s an obvious correlation

between healthy eating and good

results, because your mind is being

nourished.

 

 

Jo, you’re based outside London. What have you noticed?

 

There is energy moving into school

kitchens in some rural schools (and

some in London). Chefs have taken

them over independently or parents

have gone into the kitchens, it feels

like there’s a surge in this whole

sector - of putting pride back in,

of energy surging out, to kids, all

over the place. This exciting belief

that good food through school can

change kids’ lives. We want to create

an alliance, not just of our schools

but all chefs in schools. A proper

community with meet-ups, recipe

sharing and ideas and a real hub.

And we’re going to create an awards

ceremony…

 

 

So if chefs want to learn more…

 

Jo: it isn’t something for chefs who

just want to give a bit of their time

to feel better. The schools need

committed chefs, it’s a career choice.

You give it two years as a full-time

job, and during that time you’re also

training up another chef below you

who can take over, for instance.

 

Nicole: Some chefs might be like me

and think after two years ‘right what’s

the next thing?’ but then you get

another friend of mine who’s had a

daughter and who is a school chef -

and she’ll stay there for 10 years.

 

Jo: three great reasons to get make

the switch might be to get out of a

stressful kitchen and avoid burn out,

to re-enter the world of work after

a career break, or to give something

back after, for instance, having

children yourself.

 

Nicole: I had a sous chef at Nopi who

said, ‘Nicole, this idea that women

get more tired than men, it’s rubbish,

cut it out, it’s just that men are more

egocentric. We’re not going to admit

it, but my legs hurt just as much as

yours’. So, I’m here to say, come over

the bridge, it’s OK on this side!

 

For more information, please visit chefsinschools.org.uk

 

This article was first published in Issue 14 of CODE Quarterly.




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