You may be aware of former Nopi head chef, Nicole Pisani through her most recent cookery book, Salt Butter Bones. If you have children of school age, Pisani’s role in the campaign, Chef’s in Schools may also have hit your radar. However, if you are a chef immersed in the white heat of a restaurant kitchen and ready for change, you may like to read a little further.
We met at a recently opened London restaurant to discuss Pisani’s role in a new initiative, Chef’s in Schools. The charity seeks to improve meals for children across the UK by placing chefs in charge of school kitchens. When Pisani arrives, she is a calm tornado of hound’s tooth chequered assertion: Yes, I’ll have tea, no but not yet. Organising the space and those in her orbit, it is plain to see that this is a woman who gets things done.
The campaign is not without its dissenters. Pisani and Henry Dimbleby, whom the charity was founded with alongside Louise Nichols, executive head teacher of the Leap Foundation, have spent the afternoon in Parliament at a meeting called to discuss the innovative programme and encountered school cooks who feel that their work is not being acknowledged. “Chefs in Schools is not about the cooks,” says Nicole, “it’s about the food. Simply adding hot water to potato flakes is just not good enough and with training, we can improve that.”
Previously tackled by chef Jamie Oliver, improving school meals remains current. In the UK, childhood obesity continues to be on the rise. For many children, the school dinner provides their main meal of the day. In one school, Pisani discovered teachers resorting to takeaway pizza as the canteen provision were so bad.
Pisani rally’s her troops with the call, #better is possible. A drive for excellence has threaded its’ way through her 15 year career as a chef. Hailed by Ottolenghi as ‘the most exciting chef of our time,’ this drive still burns bright. Pisani offers good news for chefs. She has proved that school kitchens can offer an alternative to restaurant life and an opportunity to make a difference at a community level.
Inspired by a tweet
Cooking for 600 children at Gayhurst primary school, east London provided Pisani with a change that she was looking for. Four years ago, Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon restaurant chain, tweeted that he was looking for a cook to run the kitchen at his children’s primary school. It gave Pisani an idea. “I was ready to explore a different side to food, something other than a money making machine,” she explains, “I wanted to enjoy the pleasure of feeding people, rather than just producing plates of food for rich customers.”
Fridges not freezers
Pisani took the job and began running the kitchen as she would a restaurant, albeit with a set menu. Out went the processed food and prison-issue plates (literally: It turns out prisons and schools use the same indented plastic tray-plates when serving meals) and in came food made from scratch, served on real plates. Freshly-made bread and seasonal salads are piled high on the dining tables for children and teachers to help themselves. Grim banks of freezers packed with frozen food, were replaced with fridges in which fresh, locally sourced ingredients are now stored.
One of the key challenges Pisani faced was from her new team. “It can be difficult motivating people who are used to opening packets,” says Pisani. “Now, people get it. I’ve up-skilled the kitchen and my staff are keen to learn.”
Her challenge was not merely to persuade the kitchen to get on board. She also had to win the confidence of the children. She achieved this by appealing to their imagination.
“We’re gone from fish fingers to serving up a whole roasted fish which we carve in front of the children,” says Pisani, “They enjoy the theatre.”
Change has taken time. “I’ve learnt lessons the hard way. We tend to serve just two types of vegetables on a plate as three can freak children out. We always like to serve at least one thing that the children will recognise,” She laughs, “And we always hide the aubergines.”
Pisani has set real food at the heart of the school. “Food is the perfect medium for education,” explains Pisani. In addition to running the kitchen, she delivers weekly cookery lessons to the children. Some classes are taught over fire pits, dug for the occasion in the school yard.
The numbers have to balance
Pisani has proved that positive change needn’t cost more. Here’s the nub: money which was previously spent on expensive, processed food can instead be invested in the skills of a chef and raw ingredients. The sums balance out.
Based on her experience at Gayhurst, Pisani is now spearheading the new initiative, Chefs in Schools. Launched April 2018, the charity aims to place 100 chefs into UK wide state schools by 2023. As the scheme will incur no additional cost to school budgets, it looks like a sustainable proposition.
“I am no less a chef now than when I worked at Nopi.”
Incomes for chefs joining the scheme need not dip too significantly. Cookery lessons are part of the job remit and this helps to supplement their wage, securing a higher income than previously paid to school cooks. Of her experience and the scope for growth, Pisani says, “It is so important to love what you’re doing. Working is not only about earning a wage. I want to do a good job, serve nice food and keep my skills sharp. I am no less a chef now then when I worked at Nopi.”