The Chefs Adopt a School (CAAS) project teaches children the pleasures and benefits of eating tasty and nutritious food. Mark Lewis catches up with Robert Kirby, chef director at Lexington Catering, as he takes a CAAS session at Great Ormond Street hospital school.
"All right, back row: you've got to behave yourselves this morning, so no messing around."
Robert Kirby, chef director at Lexington Catering, is about to embark on a Chefs Adopt a School (CAAS) session at Great Ormond Street hospital school. Before he does, he's laying down a few ground rules.
"I know all your names. No, I'm not psychic; they're written on your hats. My name's Chef. If I ask you a question, you say ‘yes chef'. So, do you want to make a sponge cake today?"
"Yes chef," pipes the class.
"You can ask me questions, but only food questions - not ‘how long is the M25?' or ‘who is going to win the Premier League?'".
The Chefs Adopt a School (CAAS) project was established 20 years ago by the Academy of Culinary Arts to teach primary-aged children the pleasures and benefits of eating tasty and nutritious food. Participating chefs give up their free time to visit local schools and convey a little of the magic of food and cooking to kids. At worst, the experience teaches children a little more about the importance of eating well. At best, it inspires them to consider a career in hospitality in later life.
"A CAAS session lasts no longer than an hour but has a huge practical impact on the children," says Kirby. "In state schools it makes them stop and question what they are eating and underpins the importance of a healthy diet and of having the family sitting and eating together. It benefits the industry, the children, the country and its food culture."
Kirby's sessions at Great Ormond Street hospital are a little different. Some of the children are tired from the gruelling physio sessions they have come from; others are emotionally fragile at being away from home, or heavily medicated. All are poorly. The usual focus on nutrition is therefore relaxed in favour of enjoyment and distraction. CAAS classes give the children a welcome break from the wards and a sense of achievement at having created something themselves.
It's not just the kids that leave the classroom with a sense of achievement. Kirby has been hosting CAAS classes for eight years and would advise any chef to get involved in the initiative.
"I spend more time in schools now than when I was at school," he jokes. "It's the best side of my job and gives me instant returns without any of the pressures. It's a chance for chefs to give something back to the industry and inspire the next generation of chefs. We are the first to complain about the skills shortage, but we don't do much about it."
"Both in Great Ormond Street and in state schools, seeing the power of food and the effect it has never ceases to amaze me. Here, the class gives the kids something else to focus on for an hour and takes them away from what they're going through."
Kirby clearly has a soft spot for Great Ormond Street. Perhaps this stems from a piece of feedback he received after a previous class there.
The CAAS programme now reaches 21,000 children annually. This morning, 15 of them are sat in front of Kirby, wearing personalised paper chef hats. Live webcams are linking two more children, Joe and Oliver, who are confined to their beds in the oncology ward. "Big it up for the satellite boys," Kirby shouts.
At first the kids are coy, but Kirby's high-energy, participative approach soon draws them out of themselves. The class starts with a game of guess the fruit. As the kids identify mangoes, papayas and pineapples, Kirby talks about the benefits of vitamin intake, and introduces the class to the way their tongues pick up bitter, sweet, sour and salt tastes. Correct answers aren't always forthcoming, as when Kirby asks where blood oranges come from. "Blood?" ventures one little boy, tentatively.
A BUSY SESSION
Theory over, it's time for action. Kirby is packing a lot into his hour. His "chefettes" will be preparing sponge cakes, fruit tarts, chocolate brownies and flapjacks.
"I get them doing lots of things to keep the concentration up," he says. "The more interaction there is, the more you hold them and the more fun it is". Cleverly, he's chosen "touchy-feely recipes with colourful fruits, sugar, chocolate - all the things kids love".
To retain the kids' focus, Kirby also introduces a lot of theatre into the class, spinning caramel spirals from melted sugar, making slabs of marbled chocolate and carvings from fruit.
"Here's something right out of the 1980s," he announces at one stage. "Who wants me to make a swan out of an apple? I'll be ribbed by my team for this if it gets mentioned in Caterer." Sorry, Rob.
Soon, the children are piping out sponge mix and pushing fruit deliberately into it, squeezing cream into tart cases, dipping strawberries in chocolate and piling chocolate chips and cake decorations high on their creations.
There's a poignant irony about the class activities that I only appreciate when Kirby reminds the kids not to taste their dishes or even lick their fingers. Many of them are on special diets and some may be nil-by-mouth, so he has to apply a general rule of non-indulgence. This he does with a deft lightness of touch.
"No licking fingers or eating, or you'll look like me," he warns, turning sideways to show his estimable waistline in profile.
As the hour-long class draws to a close, parents and nurses arrive to lead the children away to wards and treatment rooms.
"Thanks for being wonderful chefs," Kirby calls out, as they return to the harsh reality of hospital life. It's hard to tell who enjoyed the session most: chef or chefettes.
- If you'd like to get involved with Chefs Adopt a School, call Alexandra Sinclair on 020 8673 6300 or eâfirstname.lastname@example.org
- Robert Kirby would like to thank Town and Country Chocolates and Chef's Connection for supplying ingredients used during his class at Great Ormond Street hospital