The social chef

The social chef

Tony Mulgrew might work in a small high school in West Yorkshire, but his network spans globally, most recently taking him to a school kitchen in Japan, writes Morag Wilson

As I make my way up the tight winding hills of Halifax, West Yorkshire, on a beautifully bright and warm day (just weeks after the Beast from the East had postponed my visit), I finally come across Ravenscliffe High School and Sports College to meet with catering manager Tony Mulgrew.

It’s always quite strange when you visit someone for the first time in their workplace after years of knowing them outside of their day to day environment, be it at conferences or fancy dinners. Ravenscliffe is really a very special school. And while yes, it is technically a special needs school, there is a lot more to it than that; I think it’s an air of ambition.

Students are encouraged to be as independent as possible. Promoting independent travel to and from school is a real focus and the school’s Springboard employability programme provides over 40 students with vocational experience opportunities. The school has strong links with over 40 local businesses and more than 50 access a work placement on a weekly basis. Tony himself takes on work placements and even now has an ex-pupil, Ashley, as a fully signed up permanent member of staff.

But plans are afoot. After a tour around the school in which I’m shown lots of outdoor activities (including a fantastic partnership with the local allotment team who send volunteers every day to help maintain the gardens and greenhouses), cycling (even for wheelchairs), an enviably large kitchen garden, and cooking classes going on, we then move to an exciting new venture.

Spring Hall will be a dedicated sixth form building, ready to open in September, having already raised £1.7m towards the build and just £100,000 left to go. Not only will it provide state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities for students, it will house a community café where students will gain work experience and raise funds for the school.

Tony is really rather excited about it. “There will be 52 students but two to three working on a daily basis at a time,” he says. “They will be busboys, meet and greet customers, while in the training kitchen they will do all the prep.”

This summer will be spent finalising the menus, which Tony hopes to show off the great produce that can be found in Calderdale, sticking to his Gold Food for Life Served Here values.

“One of the menu ideas I have is using squeaky halloumi from Yorkshire Dama Cheese, a local business just a mile away from the school that came to our farmers’ market about two years ago. I will use their products on a grilled halloumi and rainbow swiss chard salad.”

Then, the plan is to sell every local product used in the dishes in the café. It’s an admirable community project and one that is destined to work. Not only will it give real life opportunities for students in a secure and safe environment, but it has the potential to bring in great revenue for the school. With our hard hats and high vis jackets on we look around this space; the sun beams through huge floor to ceiling windows that take up one entire side of the café, looking out onto the town’s sports track below. At the end of the room are doors that open onto a large balcony, perfect for wedding receptions. Oh yes, and that’s because the site is situated next to Calderdale Register Office.

“It’s a 10-minute walk to the town centre and a six-minute walk from Halifax bank’s head office,” adds Tony. I think they’ll be fine for trade.
And that’s a great thing because Tony’s dedication to local, sustainable food is infectious and one that head teacher Martin Moorman is keen to embrace.

Moorman took the school out of the local authority catering contract in 2012, ‘poaching’ Tony from Todmorden High School and giving him the assignment to revolutionise the school’s meals. He had heard of Tony and his passion for local produce and healthy eating, and that he was a key driving force behind the Incredible Edible movement in Todmorden.

It’s a good thing the school went in-house when they did, as soon enough, Calderdale pulled the plug on its 15 or so remaining school catering contracts.

“It was in April, just before Easter. They had 30 days’ notice, who was going to support them?” says Tony.

Once again, Tony’s skills in procurement were requested and he worked with the schools to retrain staff and help them source new suppliers and set up new contracts.

It’s just what he had to do when he arrived at Todmorden High School, his first experience of a school kitchen having been a military chef and worked in hotels and restaurants.

“I knew nothing about school food so I phoned the local authority and asked for some assistance on menus and suppliers. But I heard nothing and straight away, I knew that I wasn’t going to be supported whatsoever.” Even the school’s existing suppliers were reluctant to help.
“Within a six-week period I was taking over a new school kitchen, I was having to write menus that I had never done before and I was having to find all of my own suppliers,” recalls Tony.

Of course, all of that turned out for the best, as Tony managed to source brilliant local suppliers and gradually retrain his team to become less reliant on packets and more skilled in scratch cooking. In 2008 he discovered Food for Life.

“I thought, this is an organisation that wants to bring communities on board, celebrate local farms, good food, freshness, education, and they’re giving it away. That’s what I call good practice and that’s the support I need,” says Tony.

Today, at Ravenscliffe, he has suppliers from as little as one mile away to one in “the dark side” (Lancashire), but still only 22 miles away and worth the betrayal to Yorkshire, according to Tony, as the meat tastes great. The school garden supplies lots of produce and frequently he will be presented with batches of excess veg from the local allotment community.

Going global

Being so remotely based, Tony was an early adopter of social media as a work tool. It was he who reached out to me on Twitter three years ago to see if I’d be interested in hearing about a school kitchen exchange trip he had planned to Sweden with someone else he had met online, Lyndon McLeod. We sponsored Tony’s visit and the pair have formed a unique connection that is all about sharing best practice.

He is willing for anybody to contact him on Twitter for advice or support and most recently, it was a tweet from two men in Japan inviting him to see their school, Yokohama International School, that saw Tony half way across the globe dishing up ramen to 700 pupils from 55 different nationalities.

Set up by two Brits, Dragon Dining caters exclusively to Yokohama International School and places a huge emphasis on organic, freshly-made school meals. Because it is a truly international school, the meals aren’t all Japanese but take inspiration from countries all over the world. One day it might be lasagne (made with fresh pasta sheets), another day a roast dinner. But every Wednesday there are four noodle dishes on the menu.

“They were doing 500 portions of ramen, it was unbelievable,” says Tony. “All noodles are pre-cooked and portioned into bowls, stacked on trays and refrigerated until serving time. Then there are two huge stock pots, one with beef and the other vegetarian. The students come to the servery and the bowls are filled up, bringing the noodles back up to temperature. That was amazing to see.”

The trip was a real exchange of ideas. Barely off the plane and Tony’s email inbox was full of recipes from the caterer. While there he learned how to make types of bread from the kitchen’s dedicated Japanese baker (the kitchen was as international as the school – a Croatian head chef, two French staff and a spice chef from Bhutan), and saw the team batch-prep five-litre tubs of hummus before portioning them up for the freezer. Fresh herbs were brought straight in from the garden and a delivery of vibrant organic produce arrived ready to be cooked that day.

Tony wasn’t just put to work in the kitchen, he spoke to more than 300 pupils, did cooking demonstrations and visited some of the school’s suppliers.

Visiting schools abroad can be a culture shock, admits Tony. When he first visited Lyndon in Sweden he walked into a kitchen with six 20-grid Rationals, five walk-in fridges, massive boiling units and no fryers. And all of the staff were on full-time contracts. In a country where every child gets a free school meal. Of course, as we discovered when the pair spoke at the EDUcatering Forum it’s not all rosy there. Lyndon desperately wanted to learn more about sourcing local produce.

Training

But these experiences have allowed Tony to want for more at his school up on a hill and for others. While being self-managed gives him great freedom, he is all to aware that some schools are lagging behind because of their divorce from the local authority. His biggest gripe is the added responsibility for these staff with no changes to their contracts.

“Suddenly they are made a cook manager and they don’t get paid extra,” he says. “They have to manage the staff, do the ordering, the menus and nutrition, and cook the food. For 27 hours at £11,000 a year. That’s the mindset of some head teachers, and some cooks have never been given the support, training and more importantly, the money to do their job.”

In Japan, all of the kitchen staff were on full-time contracts, which allowed them to make more items from scratch. How often does that happen in UK schools?

“This is where schools really need to think,” says Tony. “If you want a really good in-house caterer, then your catering team should be just like your faculty team. Why do you think catering should be part-time?”

Tony is a huge advocate for training school cooks to do their job and that way, the quality of the food will improve. He inherited a team of staff who had no formal qualifications but has become a qualified trainer himself to be able to train his team on the job and give them skills they never had before (two of his team now have Level 3 in professional cookery). So confident is he in his team that he knows he can visit Japan for seven days or offer on-site support to another school kitchen and the meals will go out just the same.

“Every school has a training budget,” Tony stresses. “Ask the question, how much is allocated to the catering department for training and I guarantee you it’s nothing. That’s frightening – your teaching staff have to be highly qualified to teach students a curriculum that will lead them on to college or university and into the workforce. Yet it’s OK to have someone serving food with no qualifications or experience, on a minimum wage, and be feeding the future of the nation?”

Tony also believes that it’s important to visit other schools and share ideas.

“I think it’s vital that all cooks, chefs and managers visit other schools whether it’s coming for a chat or actually working in the kitchen,” he says. “Just to see what’s actually going on out there. The good ones are completely open and the really good ones have got support at head level too.”

Who knows where Twitter will invite Tony to next? But for now, he’s got his brand new café and school site to concentrate on and turn into a success. It will be a new challenge for Tony but one that he is keen to embrace and no doubt share his experiences with us all.