Nicole Pisani went from running Yotam Ottolenghi's kitchen to being head chef at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney, London. Not your average dinner lady, then, as Janie Manzoori-Stamford discovers
About a year ago I decided I needed a break from restaurant kitchens. I have been a chef my whole working life, and I had managed to work my way up in Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant Nopi from chef de partie to running the kitchen. It was an incredible place to work. I was inspired both by the food and the challenge of running a team of 15 chefs, most of whom were twice my size.
The unsociable hours began to catch up with me. I was lucky enough to have a book published [Magic Soup, Orion], which gave me a chance to see there were other options for chefs as well as working in restaurants. It's not unusual for chefs to take time off, usually to go and work for free in other restaurants around the world. If I'm honest, I wasn't sure what I was going to do, and then a friend forwarded me a tweet they had read from Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon and co-author of the School Food Plan. They needed a new chef at Henry's sons' primary school in Hackney. He asked did anyone know someone who might be interested? "It's perfect for you," my friend said to me. I had no idea.
I've always had a dream that involved cooking for or with children in some way, so I couldn't resist tweeting Henry back to find out more. In late January I took up the job at Gayhurst Community School through school caterer Ashlyns and embarked on the biggest challenge of my life. I am originally from Malta, so I didn't have any specific expectations because we didn't have school lunches growing up. I had heard about Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals a few years ago. There were definitely no turkey twizzlers in sight and Ashlyns is a caterer that is committed to sourcing produce locally where possible.
What I have been surprised to discover is the wide range of quality of food in different schools. It seems to be quite a lottery whether your children are lucky enough to be in a school that places importance on food. It's completely understandable in today's world of tests, but I am very passionate about how food can have a positive impact on children throughout their day. The more children have a good relationship with natural, real food, the healthier our nation is likely to be in future generations.
One of the hardest menu changes has been moving from frozen fish fingers to fresh fish. There may be nothing wrong with fish fingers nutritionally, but it has the effect of making lots of children scared of the real thing, which doesn't come in a regimental golden rectangle with a texture that bears no resemblance to fresh fish; the same goes for chicken nuggets.
Familiarity leads to liking. That's what a child psychologist who specialises in food told me when we met recently. It's true that when we are patient with a new dish, in time the children become familiar and are therefore happy to try it. It is the executive head teacher at Gayhurst, Louise Nichols, along with her team, who has made these changes possible. Her support is essential.
I can't say it is easy feeding 550 children each day, surrounded as we are by packaged food that is designed to hit all the right sensory buttons. But school chefs and caterers are working hard everywhere to give children the best food possible and I hope that we will continue to share our experience, recipes and knowledge with each other.
Nicole Pisani can be found tweeting from @happyfoodco and writing about food on www.foodforhappiness.co.uk
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