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The new dinner lady

The new dinner lady

I wish to start this blog by saying that I believe the perception of ‘dinner lady’ needs to change if we are really to embrace change in our schools. I believe that what we feed our children is important, and this makes us chefs, with just as much credibility as chefs you will find in restaurants, hospitals and hotels around the world.

As chefs we try and provide good food with the tools and skills we have and to bring either a smile, a moment of awe or even a feeling of warmth with what we put in front of the people we serve.

Looking back I realise I have always been someone who wants to feed people. I have worked in restaurants for the most part of my life but I have been happiest cooking for those who really need my food. I am also someone who loves a challenge. Working to reach the position of running the kitchen at top London restaurant Nopi was certainly that, and at times I thought impossible. In those moments when I feel my new challenge is unachievable, I remind myself that we all have to grow and by doing something new, you will always progress.

This leads me to explaining that I did not know anything when I started at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney. The volume of food threw me off. Working out the balance of keeping everything hot and not over cooking. Working out how to produce tasty pasta in big trays without it either going to mush or forming a solid brick. Cooking crunchy vegetables that are actually eaten by the kids. Faced with these challenges I quickly learnt that I had to start from scratch and have a beginners mindset. It was no use coming from a top end sharing-food concept-restaurant and working the pass for 14 hours – here I was cooking for 500 customers all at the same time and my making the carrots crunchy was not going to be the magic wand for making kids love vegetables! It turns out that the more they are mashed, grated and hidden the more chance you have of success!

Sometimes I miss the high energy of the restaurant kitchen, and feeling like you are in the center of a small universe that is working together to create an amazing experience. I think that school kitchens are too often sidelined when it’s so important what children eat. The head teacher at Gayhurst has brought the kitchen into the heart of everything the school does; this term we will be helping with food education. Local chefs and food producers are coming in and contributing their skills and time, including teaching us how to bake sourdough for the children every day.

This gives us a chance to improve the food we serve our children and share the passion we chefs and most parents have. It gives us a chance to use food as a way to engage children (you should have seen their faces when we gave them edible flowers), and teach about sharing and respect. And we get to learn from the children too. It’s amazing how, with time and patience, they will gradually let go of their preconceptions and give new things a try, even when it comes to vegetables!

Find out more about the Soil Association's work with schools through the Food for Life Partnership.

Nicole Pisani is a London chef who made her name at Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant Nopi. She recently quit to work in a school kitchen in Hackney.