‘Chefs, not dinner ladies’ is the mantra of a new training centre for school cooks. Despite the major improvements in school meals that have taken place in recent years, images of unimaginative, poor quality school meals persist. By emphasising the professional chef status of school cooks, this initiative is designed to highlight the sheer professionalism and skill involved in school catering, writes Angela Youngman.
The Mandeville School of Food aims to be a training centre for school chefs nationwide. It will be based in London, and is backed by top names within the food industry such as renowned chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers, and Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon food chain and co-author of the School Food Plan. Nicole Pisani, a former head chef at Nopi, working with Ottolenghi, is running the centre on a daily basis with Louise Nicols, executive head of several London primary schools.
Pisani is already closely involved with school catering. She is head chef at Gayhurst Community School, providing meals such as baked fish in tomato sauce, beetroot brownies, fresh salmon goujons, sweet potato and spinach dahl, muffin cake with celeriac, parsnip, smashed beetroot and labneh. Small groups of children are even taught to cook in the school kitchens.
“Many primary schools have struggled to deliver any part of the cooking curriculum due to logistics and facilities,” says Nicole. “Our proposal is to convert the school house at Mandeville into a state-of-the-art school cooking facility equipped and designed to support food education at all levels. We believe that Hackney could become a trailblazer in an area of national concern. The kitchen project would raise health awareness in an area of high deprivation and bring the community together, united over food and a shared purpose.
“This is for everyone, not just London schools,” she adds. “Any person or school caterer that wishes to serve food in their schools made from scratch along with trying to source the best sustainable produce can get involved by just getting in touch.”
Initial reactions within the industry have been very positive on the whole. The idea of training alongside high profile chefs is popular, as this reflects the way chefs learn within restaurants. Even before the concept of the Mandeville School of Food was launched, Nicole and her colleagues Angela Church (a Masterchef contestant) at Mandeville Primary, and Oliver Pagani (former chef of Bocco di Lupo) at Rushmore Primary had been inundated with requests from school cooks to train alongside them, learning new catering methods and operational skills.
The involvement of such high profile names, and the training ethos, will surely help to raise the image of school catering. Jacqui Blake of Nottingham City Services, says: “The Mandeville School of Food is a good idea. It is about raising the profile of school catering. We do need to get the word out about school catering standards.”
It is a subject regarded as increasingly important within the industry as a whole. Many local authorities are participating in the LACA Workforce Development Standards. ISS Education, HC3S and CityServe Birmingham are among the caterers who have already made significant progress with this system.
Nottingham City Council has just completed their first year doing the LACA Worksforce Development Standards and believes that it is making a major impact on staff development. Jacqui says: “Benefits of participation have been improvements in the skills of our staff, especially in areas like management, finance, and wastage. An added benefit has been that by investing in our staff we do not have a huge turnover of staff numbers. We have found it has been a good thing to do and there has been a good reaction from staff and our customers. Our customers have commented that they have noticed a change in the staff and schools are very positive about it.
“Some of our supervisors were great cooks, but needed management training; while others were good managers but needed some extra practical skills developed. The standards ratifies skills and gives staff standards to aspire to. As an industry this was needed, as it opens up the boundaries of school catering. ”
The big advantage of the standards has been that it can be easily linked into existing training and appraisal schemes.
Jacqui says: “When it first launched, I looked at the programme of competencies set out and it struck me that they aligned to our appraisal scheme and would be suitable for our staff. We realised that to meet these competencies we would need some extra training, so we worked up our training programme.
“We started with our catering supervisors and put each of them though a programme which included management skills, financial skills and catering. They had to work directly with our executive chef. We had small groups working on the scheme so that some graduated every three months. We now plan to roll it out to assistant cooks this year.”
Angela Dodman, City Services Birmingham, agrees that the standards are proving extremely valuable. “Participation in the scheme is working very well as it gives more of a direction for our training,” she says. “Taking part quickly resulted in improvements to our training. Before this, we had no induction training system. Now, new catering staff are brought into the head office and trained on the spot. It will improve professional standards.”
One of the biggest problems for many local authorities is the lack of suitable kitchen facilities for training staff. Recognition of this issue is growing particularly with the advent of the LACA workforce standards, leading to the need for more training kitchens to be created. Within Nottingham, Jacqui says, they are looking to have their own training kitchen.
For many authorities, this may not be possible. Space and financial considerations may restrict their ability to develop new facilities. This is particularly true for rural schools and junior schools where space is at a premium. This could be where places like the Mandeville School of Food come to the rescue, providing a valuable resource for the school catering industry on a nationwide basis.
Chefs not dinner ladies – clearly there is still some way to go, especially in terms of consumer perceptions. But the trend is definitely upwards. As professional chefs, the task of providing healthy, nutritious food that is imaginative and appealing to children will never be easy. Convincing children to try new types of food, to explore and to understand food, is important and school chefs are determined to lead the way to a greater awareness of nutrition and good food.