The Caterer interview: Noelle Jones, Chartwells Independent

05 April 2023 by

The managing director of Chartwells Independent at Compass Group UK & Ireland is responsible for creating a healthy relationship with food for children in schools across the UK. She talks to Caroline Baldwin

You've looked after Chartwells Independent for the past two years, how has it been going?

I've worked for Compass for 14 years in two major roles, and prior to that I was in defence and government services, which was very different, but this sector I'm in now is the best I've worked in. I have great clients, great people and an amazing team, and some of my clients are beautiful schools with historical value. I absolutely adore it.

Every job is tough, but seeing children eating and enjoying it gives you real purpose to your day – there's nothing like the throng of a dining hall. When you work in schools you see the little ones in nursery growing up to be 18-year-olds and it's seeing that journey and realising that food is the one thing that touches everybody. Not everyone does maths or geography every single day, but all the children have lunch. It's about understanding that food tells a story rather than just fuelling them.

How different are independent school clients to state schools?

While independent and state schools might have different funding, the independent schools I look after see challenges in the same way as the others in terms of inflation – at the end of the day they all need to offer value. So from my perspective, I need to make sure we deliver excellence and experience.

What are the different types of schools you look after?

We look after the catering needs of 112 independent schools all around the UK: 50% are made up of large independent day schools and smaller prep schools, while 50% are large, complex boarding schools where we are feeding the children three meals a day plus snacks at break time.

For the boarding schools we need to deliver a home-from-home experience, which is very different to a typical lunch experience. We're the conduit to make sure that the child is being looked after pastorally through food, but also by providing that homely feel. Food is an emotion and happy children learn well, while unhappy children won't feel settled and will struggle to thrive.

We need to understand that each school is unique and faces different challenges in terms of finances and their market sector, and we need to understand the ethos and what the school is governed towards. It's not just about putting food on a plate.

Are these macro costing challenges having a knock-on effect on the Chartwells business?

Last year we had the most successful year over the past 15 years in terms of winning new school tenders, and I believe this is down to spending a lot of time as a business regrouping and focusing on delivering quality in everything we do.

We're seeing a number of wins from schools that didn't have contract catering before. This move to first-time outsourcing is because the schools need expertise, but also because of these costing challenges. Catering is complex and then you throw in inflation and labour shortages and not forgetting things like allergen management, so we're seeing schools outsource that risk to professionals.

But talking about the sales figures is vanity really – what I'm massively proud of is our team of 4,000 people who work so hard to support our schools and means we retain those contracts – last year we extended our current school contracts by 125 years of service!

Tell me about a recent contract win

Last year we won Westminster School in London after a competitive tender and started on-site last August ahead of the academic year. It's a junior and senior boarding school with more than 1,000 pupils and is set across a number of different buildings in the middle of London behind Westminster Abbey. The challenge there is around growth and all the different areas where students can eat on campus. Before, the food was just a by-product, but now it's really important and we need to be innovative, such as offering options reflecting what the children could buy on the high street.

How are you meeting this demand?

We have a new grab-and-go offering called Stir, and this is the first time we've done this at an independent school. It helps solve the challenge of space, but it also helps because these children have very busy lives, so instead of grabbing a sandwich on their way to an afternoon of rowing, they have access to good quality hot food similar to what they might find on the high street – it's like a Leon, with home comfort foods such as chicken katsu or pasta with meatballs. Instead of standing in the lunchtime queue, they can scan their ID card, pick up a reusable box called Eco To Go, scan that and take it away with them.

How are the reusable boxes going down with the children?

At Compass we have a net-zero pledge so we are acting responsibly, but really the children we are feeding are demanding we act responsibly too. They're very clued up on sustainability and where their food comes from and making sure we don't make mistakes in terms of packaging. The boxes we use can be washed 1,000 times and at the end of their natural life they're returned to the manufacturer to be recycled. They have a smart tag, which is scanned to the child's card, making them accountable to bring them back. We've been running the scheme since September and we've only lost 25 or so boxes out of thousands.

Do you get involved in educating children in terms of food and nutrition?

It's our responsibility to educate all children who come through a Chartwells school on food and nutrition, be that through pop-ups in the dining halls concentrating on sugar, telling them how to eat better during exam season or about how hydration can boost mood. For the little ones it's about food discovery and ensuring they grow up trying different foods from an early age and learning to socialise through food.

We also run specialised workshops for pupils that are tailored around the curriculum. Millfield school in Somerset, which is sports-heavy and has a lot of future Olympians, needed support to feed those children properly. Even adults think sportspeople need to eat a protein-heavy diet and have a protein shake after the gym, but in reality they can get that protein elsewhere. This education is needed at a young age so they can understand and have everything they need to make those decisions in adult life – it's about choice and guidance, not about forcing anybody.

We have also unfortunately come across some pupils with eating disorders. We're not medics, we're nutritionists, so we support by educating and by identifying these eating disorders. We train our staff to see the flags and hopefully we can pick out those little things before they become habit-forming, and pass that onto the school so someone can support them.

How has the typical school canteen changed in recent years?

People who haven't been inside a school for a number of years might be surprised! We provide everything from good, homely, comfort food through to a street food offering you might find in Seven Dials in London. We have festival menus with food similar to that at Nando's or Wagamama. The trend of creating experiences through food is definitely coming through to the school dining hall. Food isn't just about the food, it's about experience and socialisation, so the point of the dining room is to eat, yes, but to learn how to interact and talk while enjoying food.

Last year you were appointed lead ambassador of Compass Group UK & Ireland's Women in Food network. What does this mean and what have you achieved over the past 12 months?

We've grown the network massively over the past year to 500 people and we have now expanded beyond our initial culinary focus to represent all our female talent across every sector. The network has hundreds of members – not all female because it's about embracing women and we need allies around us – including frontline to senior leadership positions.

We work together to deliver the objectives, which include attracting diversity, supporting development and creating a safe and supportive environment. We celebrate people who do the everyday amazingly – just take Amy Duthie, the head chef of Haileybury College in Hertfordshire [see panel]. My job is to make sure I give our women confidence and ensure we're having proper conversations at a high level about things such as our menopause policy.

Success is when great women have come up through the ranks and they've been supported to achieve their potential in whatever they want to do – this could be anything from a cleaner who wants to move into a culinary role, someone in finance who wants to get into a leadership position, or making sure working mums feel supported by the business.


  • June 2020-present Managing director
  • May 2018-June 2020 Business director
  • January 2016-May 2018 Operations director
  • January 2011-January 2016 Contract director, all Compass Group UK & Ireland
  • June 2008-November 2010 General manager, Berkshire Rooms
  • 2006-2008 Contract manager, Compass Group UK & Ireland
  • 2005-2006 Operations manager, Whitbread
  • 1992-2006 General manager, Whitbread

Spotlight on Amy Duthie, head chef, Chartwells Independent, Haileybury College

"I am currently head chef at one of the country's leading independent schools, Haileybury College in Hertford, Hertfordshire.

"I manage a brigade of 17 chefs and provide breakfast, lunch and supper seven days a week to more than 1,000 pupils. This is just a small part of what we deliver as we also provide high-end events and sports teas for over 1,000 people at weekends, as well as also making sure our boarders generally have an amazing time at school with food!

"I started my journey at Haileybury while I was at school, doing part-time hours in the evening scraping plates, cleaning tables and scrubbing floors to earn some pocket money. I wasn't sure at this point what I wanted to do as a career, but having seen the passion, flair and creativity in the kitchen, I knew that's exactly where I wanted to be. I soon took a weekend job in the larder, making sandwiches and salads while completing my college courses, and I progressed from there.

"As my confidence and skills in the kitchen grew, I started entering culinary competitions, which I absolutely loved. I've won an internal Compass competition to become Junior Chef of the Year, along with many others, and I've been to Dubai and cooked for our clients at the Emirates Academy. I was also lucky enough to be chosen to go to Norway to fish in the Norwegian fjords, which was a breathtaking experience.

"I'm currently taking part in the Forward with Marcus Wareing programme, which has been a dream come true and has exposed me to lots of amazing chefs and techniques, which I've taken great inspiration from.

"I'm also a proud member of the Women in Food network in Compass UK & Ireland, which brings together females from across the business to support and champion each other as we look to progress in the industry."

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