The aim of charity Chefs in Schools is to improve the health of children by transforming school meals and food education. The charity, which started in 2018, does this by recruiting chefs to work in schools or by training existing catering staff.
Currently, Chefs in Schools works with 80 schools in London and plans to expand into other areas
of the country.
Nicole Pisani, co-founder and Executive Chef says “We believe school food is vitally important to a child’s education. Our mission is to encourage and enable schools across the country to serve great, creative school food that doesn’t just fill them up, but feeds their imagination too. Any school can
use our service. They tell us what their vision is and we’ll help them achieve it, whether it’s having
a farm or alfresco eating.”
Nicole sees the dining room as an extension of the classroom. “It’s all about getting children excited about food and making sure they are encouraged to try different ingredients. You need to put children at the centre. Their experience of food at school sets them up for life. If a child is carrying a tray with their main meal and dessert and can’t carry it properly, the ice cream may slip into the peas and this makes them cry. It might put them off ice cream or peas for life.”
In 2014, Nicole hit the headlines when she took over the school kitchen at Gayhurst Community School in London’s Hackney. Prior to this, she was head chef at the acclaimed Nopi restaurant in London. While writing the School Food Plan with a colleague, Henry Dimbleby (a governor at his children’s state primary Gayhurst Community School) posted a tweet asking if anyone would be interested in taking over the school kitchen. “I decided to apply as my body was telling me to slow down,” she says. “I didn’t know about school meals as I was brought up in Malta and we used to go home for lunch.”
From her first day at Gayhurst, Nicole realised how meaningful and rewarding it was to work in a school “and that I was making a difference. I wanted to serve food that was made with love and from scratch and that everyone would want to eat. I also had a better work/life balance.”
Her first job was to retrain the school cooks using the restaurant brigade system, so sections were introduced and job descriptions were changed into head chef, sous chef, chefs di parti, kitchen porter and so on.
“Staff who came into the kitchen to serve the food felt disconnected, so we all started prepping and serving together so they would feel part of the team,” she says.
Gayhurst Community School became the model for Chefs In Schools, formed by Henry Dimbleby, Nicole Pisani and Louise Nichols, executive head teacher of the Leap Federation of Schools, which includes Gayhurst. It is backed by some of the country’s leading food influencers such as Prue Leith and Yotam Ottolenghi.
In a collaboration between Chefs in Schools and Gayhurst, Nicole and Louise set up Hackney School of Food. Nicole says “The concept is that a child can pull up a carrot from the school’s gardens, cook and eat it on the same day.” Described as a “field to fork” cooking school, it trains school chefs and offers food education to children and communities in Hackney.