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Chefs in schools

Published 20 April 2018

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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