In the run-up to the first ever National Adopt a School Week in February, chef Albert Roux tells Sarah Howard, development chef at Adopt a School, about his passion for the UK-wide charity that educates, enlightens and enthuses children about food and hospitality
Sitting in the comfort of his office in Wandsworth, London, Albert Roux exudes warmth as he talks about the 27 years he has spent supporting Adopt a School, the national charity that teaches children about all aspects of food and hospitality. The teaching is delivered by industry professionals on a voluntary basis and run by the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. Roux's long-time commitment to the initiative has never wavered. "On the contrary," he says fondly, "my enthusiasm for it is even greater."
Roux has just returned from Scotland from the annual dinner he and his team put on at Greywalls hotel in Muirfield, near Edinburgh, where pupils from one of Roux's adopted schools, Gullane Primary, were invited to cook and serve a meal to their parents as part of his ongoing involvement with Adopt a School. Gullane is one of seven schools in Scotland that have been adopted by Roux and his team, and Roux personally visits each and every one.
He also makes a point of being at the annual dinners. "It never fails to bring tears to my eyes looking at the kids, just seven or eight years old. They are so proud, wearing their chefs' hats and aprons, shoulders up, showing their parents what they can do," he says.
"There are more schools now with their own gardens, which we also talk about. There's nothing more enriching in life than putting in a little seed, nurturing it and helping it to grow. It opens up their knowledge and understanding about where food comes from. I will keep on doing it until my last breath because I think it is great for the future."
You might think that more chefs and industry professionals would find time to visit their local schools, but numbers are still surprisingly low. So what does Roux feel it takes to encourage more of them to share their knowledge with schools?
"You need an attitude of making it happen. In Scotland, my team are 100% behind it. They go to the schools five or six times a year. They invite children to their kitchens as well, so they are very, very committed. I don't force them; my young chefs want to do it and pursue it with vigour. It is fantastic. What is also interesting for me is that a minister in Scotland told me they had seen what we do and started something similar. It's not been as successful as Adopt a School because there wasn't the same commitment, and to be successful you need commitment. You can't relate to the kids if you are not committed - you've got to be part of it. When I visit the schools, the children are happy to see me and that makes it a pleasure for me."
Roux can recount numerous memorable moments of educating schoolchildren over the years, but two stand out in his mind.
"One was a boy with autism, who came to me with an apple in his hand and said, 'Here, this is for you - thank you.'
"The second was when I brought in a live crab, cooked it, and asked a child who had never seen a live crab before, 'Do you want to try it?' 'No,' he said, 'I don't like it'. Then I asked him, 'How do you know if you've never tasted it?' So the young boy tried the crab - and then said, 'Can I have some more?'
"Some time later, I received a hand-written letter from him. 'Dear Mr Roux,' he wrote, 'when are you coming back? I like what you do. You introduced me to crab and now I've told my parents, we are going to eat crab!'"
Roux is passionate about urging other industry professionals to adopt a school of their own. He urges every chef to get in touch with their local school.
He says it also benefits his business "because parents come to me for tea or a special anniversary, and they may not have done so otherwise. But let's be clear, I do not do this to attract business, although it happens, it really does. Adopt a School knits the community together. I adore going into those schools and I get so much pleasure from it, and when I come out of the schools at the end of the day, I am a happy, happy man."
National Adopt a School Week
Leading chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers from the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts (RACA) are going back to school in February to deliver lessons about food and front of house to schools throughout the UK.
During the week, beginning on 6 February, schools across the UK will be visited by industry heroes, all members of RACA, who will be promoting food education and helping children to appreciate hospitality from a young age.
Albert Roux and chef Michael Mathieson of Chez Roux Restaurants will represent Scotland. Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons will visit their adopted school in Oxfordshire; and London will be represented by celebrated chefs Phil Howard, Giorgio Locatelli, royal chef Mark Flanagan and Adam Byatt.
In the south-west, chef-director of the Pig, James Golding, will visit a school in Christchurch, and RACA president Brian Turner will go back to his roots in Yorkshire alongside Michelin-starred chef Frances Atkins.
Dominic Chapman of the Beehive in White Waltham, Berkshire, will be representing the south-east, and Lucknam Park's Hywel Jones will return to his native Wales. East Anglia will be represented by Richard Hughes of the Assembly House in Norwich.
With industry skills shortages and the UK obesity crisis continuing to swell, the RACA is hoping its programme will benefit all involved and will be well supported.
National Adopt a School Week has already secured financial pledges from Lexington Catering, Continental Chef Supplies, Essential Cuisine, Woods Food Service, Gleneagles and Clapham-based restaurateur Adam Byatt. The academy hopes to secure more sponsors in the run-up to the event.
Adopt a School Trust
Launched as a national charity in 1990, the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts' (RACA) Adopt a School Trust informs primary children about food, cookery, food provenance and growing, healthy eating, nutrition, hygiene and the importance of eating together. Academy chefs and hospitality professionals deliver lessons ranging from taste and sensory sessions to advanced cookery and front of house in the classroom, in restaurants and on farms.
Adopt a School recognises that a child's development defines their future health and well-being. The programme tackles health inequalities by giving children the knowledge to improve their own health and well-being and supporting parents and teachers to embed healthy eating messages in schools and at home.
Members of RACA and trained guest chefs teach schoolchildren (around half a million to date) across the country about food in a holistic way, and give their time voluntarily. The organisation provides training to its members and others in the hospitality industry. Training is available to non-members (fees apply) who are inspired to get involved with the programme.
The charity receives no government funding and relies on the goodwill of its members, supporters and sponsors to raise funds for its work.