Restaurant chefs are reinventing school dinners in the UK
Top chefs are helping transform school meals in deprived areas, serving up food that is fresh, nutritious – and, most of all, fun.
Food can either be medicine or it can be poison,” says Nicole Pisani, co-founder of Chefs in Schools, a charity that aims to improve school dinners, while also teaching children to cook. “It’s our choice.”
Eight years ago, Pisani quit her job as head chef at one of London’s chicest restaurants – Soho’s Nopi, which was set up by Yotam Ottolenghi – and made the unusual move to become a school chef at Gayhurst community school in Hackney.
“The reason I fell in love with food was to see people enjoy it and to feel like you’re connecting with someone because you’ve cooked for them,” she says. “But the longer you spend in restaurants, the less of that good feeling you get.”
The somewhat surprising move has paid off: three years ago, Pisani and Naomi Duncan launched Chefs in Schools. The project now has passionate, trained chefs in 44 schools across the UK, most of them in socially deprived areas, who feed around 16,000 children a day, as well as teaching them to cook.
“Cooking with children is what I love most,” Pisani declares. “You turn into a five-year-old yourself. It’s hard not to be happy.” When she first started teaching children – using recipes such as beetroot brownies and banana splits – Pisani was blown away by how enthusiastic they were.
“They were literally excited about grating cheese,” she says. “They loved going up and down the grater. I thought: ‘This is a lost workforce’.”
One of her favourite moments was teaching schoolchildren, aged seven to 14, to cook chicken with vegetable paella, in a fire pit, along with flatbreads and pizzas. “They loved it,” Pisani laughs. “Cooking on fire is one of the oldest ways of cooking. There’s something quite mindful about it.”
As well as teaching, Chefs in Schools runs school transformations, guiding schools that want to improve their kitchens. The organisation is also about to launch a school chefs qualification, a training course covering aspects like portion size, how to run a team, and how to monitor food waste. “The aim is to give school chefs more pride, show how important the role is, and for people to feel invested in cooking,” Pisani says.
Chefs in Schools, in partnership with the Leap Federation, also set up the Hackney School of Food last March, a school specifically designed to teach classes of schoolchildren, as well as adults, how to cook delicious, healthy meals.
“It’s really important that people know how to cook,” agrees Thomas Walker, head food educator at the school. “It’s an act of ownership in your life, because it helps your health and makes you feel good.”
The school has a large, bright kitchen, built in a renovated caretaker’s house, and an organic garden with apple and pear trees, a herb patch, honey bees, wildflowers and root vegetables.
Walker wants his pupils to know – tangibly – where their food comes from. “It’s this ‘seed to spoon, soil to mouth’ idea,” he says. “Meaning, we’ll pick something with the kids, prepare it, and eat it, it’s as fresh as you can get. I want them to realise that what we put into the soil feeds the plants, and they, in turn, feed us and give us energy.”
Walker’s classes are taught about nutrition, as well as learning technical skills, such as grating and chopping, and a variety of recipes. Children often love cooking bread most, Walker says. “We do lots of different bread recipes. It can get messy.”
Some children can be a bit sceptical at first, according to Walker, but he loves seeing them change their minds. For example, one fussy eight-year-old didn’t like most of the ingredients in a vegetable soup. But after cooking and trying it, “he came up to me and said, ‘that is the best thing I’ve ever eaten’,” Walker recalls. “His pride in making it himself was amazing to see.”
Schoolchildren are not the only enthusiastic cooks. Recently, Walker taught a man in his 70s, newly divorced, to cook for the first time. “He was so excited to go away and start his culinary career,” he enthuses. “You’re never too young – or too old – to learn to cook.”