I grew up in a sleepy village in Norfolk, I ate well as a child but not all that adventurously. I was 14 when Jamie Oliver descended on the nation’s schools and attempted to revolutionise our diets by banning the Turkey Twizzler and fizzy drinks from school canteens. He set out to do a noble thing and whilst our school canteens were rid of some heavily processed food for a while, we have unfortunately regressed. I remember the food largely being a non-event at my school, a meat and two veg type affair. Nonetheless, it was cooked from scratch and served by a battalion of friendly and wholesome dinner ladies. The lunch hall was a respite from the chaotic school day and we sat around tables, six abreast, as we scoffed down whatever we were given - there was little to no choice and certainly no packed lunches. Those moments were incredibly important for us, not least for the nourishing food on the plate but also for the social interaction. Away from the classroom, sat around the table, we had our own autonomous space. One that was uninterrupted from the berating of form tutors and the haranguing of science teachers. One where we could freely discuss politics, friendship, love and ambition. This, I went on to understand, was the real power and the true meaning of food. It’s a time we should cherish to sit down with people we love, or don’t, and spend our time investing in what we have done for time immemorial, connecting with each other.
At eighteen, I moved to London to study architecture only to promptly discover it wasn’t the subject for me. Instead I refocused my efforts on student radio and throwing squat parties. After leaving university, I worked, albeit precariously, as a freelance radio producer whilst moonlighting in Camden pubs - where I first met my dear friend and collaborator Sam Riches. After much discussion, we packed in our day jobs and started our own catering company where for four years we catered events and had a street food stall at both Netil and Borough Market. I took a sabbatical from the company for a year and went to work at St JOHN in Smithfield. It was here that I really learnt to cook, the ferocious pace of the kitchen and the thrill of service is something that will forever live in my heart as one of the most exciting times of my life. It was fabulously tough and as time went on I began to feel a little disenfranchised with the fine dining scene. Fine dining is ultimately about cooking for yourself and is at times a bit self congratulatory. What I really wanted to do was to cook for other people, ideally as selflessly as possible whilst making the largest impact in the process. I wanted to create those autonomous dining spaces I had enjoyed, for other people who needed it most.
One Sunday, a newspaper article caught my attention. A charity in London was offering chefs in the industry positions in school kitchens. The idea had been percolating for some time before one afternoon I found myself thumbing in my CV in a ‘contact us’ form on the Chefs in Schools website on the way to meet my aunt for lunch. When I arose on the other side of the tube at Hyde Park Corner I had a voicemail from Nicole Pisani, the founder of the charity, asking for me to give her a call back. The school in question was having a sudden change of hands and within a fortnight I was the head chef at Woodmansterne School in Streatham. Woodmansterne is what’s known as a Community School and what we would colloquially call a ‘state school’. There is a nursery, a primary and a secondary school on site and we serve between eight hundred and nine hundred students every day. Around 50% of the pupils are entitled to Free School Meals which gives you an indication of the economic hardships many of the families in the area face. Our mantra is simple, we cook quality school meals in house, from scratch and we put people before profit.
I was asked recently to give a talk about how we approach ‘sustainability’ in our kitchen. This got me thinking, and I’ve found the subject can quite neatly be divided into three main topics: staff, ingredients, and disposables.
The most important priority for me as the head chef is to look after my staff. When we first joined the kitchen the staff were on minimum wage and had been treated terribly by the contract caterer who went before us. They would be picked up and moved to different schools without a moments
notice, sometimes in entirely different boroughs. They did not get sick pay and their pay was routinely docked for minor infringements, such as attending hospital appointments. The first thing we did was to raise their wages and give them full contracts with pensions and sick pay. The cooks are encouraged to eat the food we cook, something they were previously forbidden from doing, and we work with them to put their stamp on the menu. On the current menu we have a beef rendang,
jollof rice and jerk chicken, all of which are based around three of our kitchen staff’s own recipes. I am a big believer in training so we offer any training that the staff want to do and I have a relatively easy job of convincing the school to pay for it.
The second is ingredients. We have tight budget constraints so we are forced to cook with the seasons and to up-cycle any leftovers we might end up with. We built a fermentation lab in the corner of our dry store where we make koji, miso, soy sauce and garums. We lacto ferment leftover vegetables and make pickles, preserves and sauces in house. It’s essential to relay the importance of this practice to the students so we link up with the science department in the secondary school. When they learn about fermentation in the classroom they get to come down to the kitchen for a practical lesson and we give them a tour and make a simple kraut or kimchi with them. They then take this away and get to eat their wares the following week. We regularly offer ‘small plates’ alongside the main meal, where they can try something new for free. We’ve had artichokes, rabbit stew, frogs legs and oysters amongst other things. When we first served them mussels a few of them ate the shells. It was a real moment walking around the dining hall hearing all the crunching and clacking and seeing the pure look of confusion on their faces. We now make sure to take the time to explain each new dish to them and let them know what’s edible and what’s not. We have a herb garden and large vegetable patch on the school grounds. We almost exclusively use all the herbs from the garden and we get a weekly bounty of fresh salad which we harvest with the pupils. Having them engage and be hands on with their food has an enormous effect on their willingness to try new food.
Lastly, our approach to disposables. A friend and fellow chef, Jack Feeny, wrote a wonderful free resource last year during lockdown called nomisenplastic.com - it is a guide on how to go plastic free as a kitchen. We have made many of the suggested changes, including banning cling film and instead using reusable tubs with lids, replacing food labels with masking tape and almost completely eradicating the use of plastic gloves for all but the slimiest of jobs.
Since joining the kitchen two years ago the fundamental quest to connect children to food and cooking remains the greatest challenge we face. Lord Northcliffe, the 19th century press baron, used to inform his journalists that the four subjects that could be relied upon for catching the interest of the public were: crime, love, money and food. But only the last of these is truly fundamental and universal.
Food has a good claim to being considered the world’s most important subject. It is what matters most, to most people, for most of the time. One of the great shames of today is our lost connection to food and our unwillingness to prioritise it for those who most need access to it. The state of food in nursing homes, hospitals and schools across our land leaves a great deal to be desired and it is time we addressed the barriers that people face accessing good food. Having big corporations bid for contracts in schools and create menus thats sole purpose is to produce as much profit as is possible, all whilst maintaining the illusion of giving a shit is quite frankly rotten to its core.
There is a better way and it’s something that I’ve realised our society is collectively yearning for. With the likes of Marcus Rashford bringing child poverty to the forefront of national debate last year, we have become increasingly aware of the widening divides endemic within our country. There are many great charities and organisations doing fantastic work out there. Chefs In Schools, Biteback and School Food Matters to name just a few and they are worthy of our support. If you are a chef, grower or farmer, consider connecting with your local school in some way whether it be through offering workshops or produce. If you are a parent or carer, you can get involved with the PTA group at your children’s school and find out more about its kitchen. If it’s not up to scratch then demand change.