The restaurant chefs transforming school meals | Education

It’s the first Monday of the new term at Woodmansterne School in Lambeth, south London, after a difficult summer. Head chefs Jake Taylor and Sam Riches and their team are preparing lunch for the primary kids. “Monday’s not our most ambitious day,” says Taylor, putting the finishing touches to trays of bright looking pasta and salads.

Today it’s macaroni cheese, with pasta alla norma and gnocchi pomodoro, and homemade coleslaw and roast beetroot on the side. The vegetables are from top supplier Entremettier, the olives from Belazu. “We made focaccia from scratch,” Taylor says. “It’s the Sportsman’s recipe, which bakes it hard at the start and then turns it right down, so it has this nice crust.”

Many staff and pupils have not seen each other since the middle of March. Everyone is swapping stories of this strange year, glad to be back. The lunch is fresh, tasty, filling, empty plates are returned to the pass, one after the other. “It’s going well so far,” says Taylor. “But it’s only week two.”

Taylor and Riches found their jobs at Woodmansterne through the charity Chefs in Schools, which since 2018 has been working to show that, with the guidance of an expert chef, schools can provide fresh, nutritious, creative meals for a similar price, or less, than contract caterers. They currently serve more than 11,000 pupils in 35 schools across greater London.

Before they started here last October, the pair ran a street-food flatbread stall and Taylor trained at St John. The Woodmansterne job offered a chance to use food to do more than simply fill people up. “Sam and I have always been political and we were quite involved with the Occupy movement. We’ve always had high ideas about what we would do with food. We want it to be a force for social change.”

They joined at a difficult time. Woodmansterne had just tried a Chefs in Schools chef but it hadn’t worked out. Teachers were sceptical about the new regime as were the existing catering team, who were suddenly being told the food they had served for decades was no longer up to scratch, and they would have to learn new skills. (Taylor and Riches brought in two chefs de partie but other than that work with existing kitchen staff.)

“There was resistance,” says Taylor. “I’m 30 and Sam’s 29, so at first the staff were a bit like, ‘Who are these kids coming in and trying to mess with the programme?’ I think we’ve done alright, but I don’t really know. You have to earn those levels of trust and respect.”

One of their first acts was to put the wages up from minimum to living wage. They also had to negotiate with their new customers, 700 primary and secondary pupils used to a diet of pizza, chips, chicken wings and beige carbohydrate. “We’d done lots of mass catering, so the volume wasn’t the issue,” he says. “It was more the brutality of the kids. They tell you exactly how they feel.”

There were some early disasters. “We tried an 18-hour lamb braise, straight out of St John. I spent all day prepping it, and then got special permission from the school to leave the gas on all night. We served with creamy mash, watercress salad, and thought the kids would love it. Instead they were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ Tabbouleh was another bomb.”

There have been successes, too. Kale crisps proved surprisingly popular. Adem, who is in year 10, tells me the standard has improved. “Before it was kind of bland,” he says. “Pizza and paninis. Now it’s much more exotic and diverse, and the food has much more flavour. The presentation has improved, too.” Previously, meals were served in what Taylor calls “prison trays”. Now everything is on a white plate.

They’ve also tried to involve the existing staff in planning the menu. “Jacob was asking me about jollof rice,” says Naomi Owusu, who has worked at Woodmansterne for nearly six years. “So we’ll help him with the sauce for that.” She says the kitchen is a calmer place now. “There’s more fresh cooking. I think more schools ought to have this system. For some of these kids this is their big meal of the day.”

For Samantha Palin, the headteacher who hired them, the advantages of having chefs in the kitchen go beyond more nutritious meals. There’s less waste. Teachers are now more keen to eat in the canteen themselves, which means sitting with the pupils.

Lunchtime at the Little Jungle nursery in south London.

Lunchtime at the Little Jungle nursery in south London: ‘You give children the ability to connect to different people and cultural situations.’ Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

“It’s about modelling,” Palin says. “A lot of our kids aren’t sitting around a dining table and eating at home, so we want to make sure they’re doing it when they’re in school, and eating with other people.” She adds that having male chefs also sets an example about careers. In addition to Taylor and Riches there is chef de partie Dani Borico. “As a school in a multiethnic area we’re always looking for good male black role models,” says Palin. “He’s provided that.”

Venetia Barton, whose daughter Malinka has just started year two, says the chefs have been a vital addition to the school. “Children need to taste what real food is like, right from the start,” she says. “Malinka now says the school food is as good as my cooking at home, which was a bit of a shock.”

The price of a meal has risen to £2.30, mostly to accommodate the increased staff wages. The ingredient cost is 60p per meal. Palin says there’s no way she’d go back to the old regime. “It’s more than just the food on the plate. It’s the education that comes along with it. By the time the pupils leave at 18 you want to make sure they know how food can help keep themselves healthy, but also keep their brain engaged.”

Taylor says he felt they were starting to get somewhere, pre-coronavirus. “A turning point was when we started walking round the dining hall and talking to the kids about what they liked and didn’t like,” he says. “When they know you by name, they are suddenly more interested.”

School food became a talking point in the summer, when the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford forced the government into a U-turn. Boris Johnson had said free school meal vouchers would not be provided through the extended summer holidays, creating more uncertainty for families already disrupted by the pandemic. Rashford wrote an open letter to MPs, in which he described his own experiences growing up in Wythenshawe as the son of a single mother.

“My mum worked full-time, earning the minimum wage, to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table, but it was not enough,” he wrote. “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed. As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches.”

The next day Johnson announced he was reversing his decision. For some, it was startling to see a 22-year-old footballer routing the Conservative establishment. Others were surprised that the government would even suggest such a harmful idea in the first place. For Nicole Pisani, the co-founder of Chefs in Schools, the main emotion was one of relief.

Nicole Pisani, co-founder of Chefs in Schools

Nicole Pisani, co-founder of Chefs in Schools. Photograph: The Observer

“It was an alleluia moment, but also a celebration,” she tells me. “We’ve been lobbying and trying to get the government to realise the importance of this for years, so it was a relief that it was finally recognised. Marcus’s story brought home the reality of the situation. The government cuts back on all these schemes and people don’t realise how much they are affecting families. It takes someone like Marcus to say, ‘Let’s make a change.’ There’s no need for kids to go hungry.”

Since founding Chefs in Schools in 2018, Pisani has been on a crusade to improve the perception of school food. Where Jamie Oliver’s famous campaign in 2005 aimed to alter things from the top, through government edict, Pisani has started from the bottom.

It took off after a meeting with the Leon co-founder and government food strategist Henry Dimbleby, who was helping to find a chef for his children’s school, Gayhurst, in Hackney. At the time, Pisani was senior chef at Nopi, Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurant in Soho, but felt she was running on empty.

“Like a lot of chefs, I came to a point where I needed something else, physically and mentally,” she says. ‘I looked at the school job and thought, ‘Brilliant – I’ll work Monday to Friday, and school holidays, and they’re never going to call me on a Saturday.’ It started off being egotistical, with me thinking I just wanted to work fewer hours, but the moment the project started I realised it could be so much more.”

Calling in favours from her Nopi suppliers, she secured good quality ingredients. It was clear that the Gayhurst catering team was used to a different way of working to her brigade at Nopi, so Pisani trained them up. They started teaching pupils lessons that could never have happened under the old regime: cooking over fire, butchering chickens, making fresh pasta and soda bread and gyoza from scratch.

At the same time, the average cost of a meal fell from £1 to 80p. “It’s more expensive to hire a chef, but you are buying skills of budgeting, reducing waste and cooking tougher pieces of meat,” Pisani says. “Lots of restaurant cooking is about taking something you can buy cheaply and making it taste glamorously expensive. Buying bread to feed 400 kids cost £140. When we made it from scratch, including the labour cost, it was £40.”

Not everything can be brought in-house. “We tried roasting and pulling 60 chickens and realised it was too labour intensive. It’s about striking a balance: ‘What can I do that will be cheaper than buying pre-made pizza bases, but which isn’t going to drive the staff mad?’”

Other headteachers got wind of the scheme and asked if she could help find them a chef. Other chefs heard about the better hours and asked if she could find them schools to work in. The scheme quickly grew, aided by funding from the Fishmongers’ Company and other charities. When Covid struck, the question was how Chefs in Schools could continue when schools were closed. Anticipating that a government voucher scheme would be chaotic, they started providing hampers.

“Summer can already be a difficult time for families. We created a box scheme, half produce and half ready-made meals, with the idea that a box would feed a family for a week,” says Pisani. The boxes were available to parents whose children are eligible for free school meals. They also provided hampers to families that schools knew needed support but weren’t eligible for free meals. Between 27 April and 27 August they served more than 327,000 meals from five hubs, using food from restaurants Wahaca and Hawksmoor and food waste charities such as The Felix Project, as well as their regular suppliers. With what they learned this summer, Pisani hopes to be able to provide a similar service in future, pandemic or not.

While Woodmansterne is one of the larger schools that Chefs in Schools has taken on, the charity works on smaller sites, too. At Little Jungle, a private nursery in Dulwich, Elena Coates took over the kitchen earlier this year, after getting a diploma at Leith’s and a degree in nutrition at Columbia in New York.

“Ages two to five are critical in a child’s development,” she says. “What happens then can really impact how you are as an adult. The school focuses on letting children learn in an independent way, and I wanted to bring them that relationship with food. I try to limit salt and sweets, and make sure most of the desserts are fruit-based, but also introduce a variety of foods and not be too strict. Every child’s different.”

Head Chef Elena Coates and Sous Chef Liam Hughes with children at Little Jungle Nursery, south London

Head chef Elena Coates and sous chef Liam Hughes with children at Little Jungle Nursery, south London. Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

Juliane Caillouette Noble’s three-year-old son, Rowan, has been at Little Jungle for 14 months. “It’s a relief to know your kid is getting five-a-day at school so you’re not rushing to work out how you’ll get fruit and veg into them at home,” she says. “The kids engage with diverse ingredients. It also creates another talking point with Rowan. He comes home and can tell us what he ate. The other day we were talking about plantain, and my husband said to Rowan that it was ‘like a banana,’ and he replied: ‘No it’s not, it’s a plantain, I had it at school.’”

Exposure to different cuisines is helpful socially, she adds. “If they only have fish fingers or pasta, then things outside of that can become othering. You point to other people and think: ‘That food doesn’t look like my food and that food smells different.’ By eliminating that at a young age, you give children the ability to connect to different people and cultural situations.”

Charles Gabriel, Chef/educator at Stormont House School.

Charles Gabriel, chef and educator at Stormont House School. Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

For the pupils at Stormont House, in Hackney, a special educational needs (SEN) school, food can be fraught. “Sometimes I feel like a chef, but also a carer and teacher,” says Charlie Gabriel, who, having trained at River Cottage, has been head chef since November 2019. “Because of the nature of some of our children it is quite hard to cook for them. Some will have trauma towards food that’s cooked, which can make it difficult, and quite a lot have autism and struggle with change. I created a big moodboard in the dining hall, and took pictures of all the dishes, so if they’re uncertain they can just look and refresh their minds. That works really well. Food has become more of a talking point, and helps make the school into a larger community, which is good because some kids don’t have the best environments at home.”

Like Taylor and Riches at Woodmansterne, Gabriel tries to integrate the backgrounds of his kitchen staff. “We have one lady from Poland, a second-generation Indian and I’m third-generation Caribbean, and we all try to put our twist on the menu. When Ofsted comes around you don’t get a score on the food, but I think when you come to eat, it should be another lesson.”

When coronavirus eases, Pisani plans to continue the path Chefs in Schools was on before the pandemic hit. Its plan had been to move out of London, initially to Bristol. “We want to make sure the project stands on its feet in different areas of deprivation around the UK,” she says.

The big question is whether the scheme can be replicated on a grand scale, without the generosity of suppliers such as Belazu and Natoora, who provide so many ingredients at cost. Taylor says he used to pay four times as much for the same ingredients when he was at St John. Pisani is convinced the model is sustainable, and that networks of suppliers can be forged across the country.

“It all depends on relationships,” Pisani says. “It’s the question everyone asks. Can this work everywhere? We’re adamant it can.”

Back at Woodmansterne, Taylor shows me the menu for the rest of the week. Wednesday is chicken katsu, with pickles, slaw and shokupan – Japanese milk bread. Friday, as ever, means fish and chips: panko-crumbed fish from Brixham, served with triple-cooked chips, homemade tartare, minted peas and sweetcorn.

“We still need to work on the link between kitchen and classroom,” he says. “I want to get the kids interested in what they’re eating.” He would also like school meals to become compulsory, as it is in some other schools. Woodmansterne is currently around 60{2be9e0ed3ca9ccbec52b0231822c6f1fda346690d3a01794d48870672da60124} meals, 40{2be9e0ed3ca9ccbec52b0231822c6f1fda346690d3a01794d48870672da60124} packed lunches.

“It’s not that I want to force children not to have packed lunches, but I’d say 1{2be9e0ed3ca9ccbec52b0231822c6f1fda346690d3a01794d48870672da60124} of them satisfy nutritional requirements. Working here, you realise just how much kids are advertised to. I think with the focus on school meals and obesity and public health, now is a good moment to focus on policy.”

He has written a mission statement for the kitchen, with seven pointers and a few explanatory sentences. Points one to five are Provide, Promote, Introduce, Engage, Lead. Six is more surprising: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” “A bit of Marx there,” he grins. The seventh needs no explanation. It says: “We are here for the kids!”