Chefs in Schools aims to train 100 professional restaurant-trained chefs to work in 100 schools by 2023. It’s a clear and admirable mission statement from the charity co-founded by chef Nicole Pisani — formerly of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi — Louise Nichols, the executive headteacher at Hackney’s Leap Federation of Schools and Henry Dimbleby, the food entrepreneur behind Leon.
Pisani is now executive chef at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney, having responded to Dimbleby’s call for a chef at his children’s primary school way back in 2013. The model at Gayhurst — derived from the patterns and principles of a restaurant brigade — was inspired by the School Food Plan. A government document focussed on improving school meals that Dimbleby co-authored with John Vincent, its mission was, and still is clear: “Flavourful fresh food, served by friendly, fulfilled cooks, in financially sound school kitchens.”
Chefs in Schools is the charity that has sprung from that mission, with two other schools in Hackney and two more across London signed up to the model piloted by Pisani at Gayhurst. Her work doesn’t just cover serving remarkable lunches, from family-style salads to bread baked in-house; she has also taught children to butcher whole animals and cook over fire pits. No Brats here, but a roster of notable patrons, including Wahaca restaurateur Thomasina Miers, journalist, food writer and chef Lisa Markwell, Leith’s founder and Bake Off spoiler Prue Leith, restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi and food writer and current Instagram sensation Diana Henry. A canon of London restaurants offer support by training chefs to go into schools, Smokestak, The River Cafe (interesting riposte, Ruth), XU and Dishoom among them.
Pisani is unequivocal on the drive behind her work at Gayhurst: the disparity between London — and Britain’s — irresistible obsession with food and restaurant culture and what is eaten at school lunch tables needs to be addressed:
The world we live in today is so obsessed with food. We have access to any kind of food we wish during any season and Instagram every meal - but in schools what we serve and teach our children does not mirror that. This is why I felt compelled to create a change. It’s more challenging than any restaurant kitchen I’ve worked in and the children are tougher than any restaurant critic I’ve come across!
Whether or not having access any kind of food during any season is actually a good thing is another debate for another time; ensuring that what children eat is nutritious, delicious and educational is something to strive for and protect. The economic disparities and structural inequalities in the UK are keenly felt at primary school and so often display themselves in food: access to high-quality, genuinely nutritious food should, really should, be something for every child. It’s also true that these disparities are often looked down on with sneers or judgement — Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up dissects this with eloquence and force — and Chefs in Schools’ refusal to judge parents and children trapped by these inequalities is to its great credit. As Dimbleby puts it:
Food-related disease and the misery it causes is one of the great problems of our time. Ensuring that every child eats well in school, develops a healthy relationship with food and learns to cook savoury dishes from scratch must be part of the solution. What Nicole and Louise have done at Gayhurst is extraordinary, and I am thrilled to be able to help spread that experience so that more children can benefit from it.
The charity may be burgeoning, and the kitchens may be small: what’s clear is that Chefs in Schools is a force for good with food as its conduit. Here’s to children eating well.