Nicole wasn’t cooking for paying guests but 500 hungry schoolchildren
It was her first shift in a new kitchen and having worked as a head chef in some of London’s leading restaurants she knew just how important a glowing review was.
Before long a queue had formed in front of the bin and all that could be heard was the scraping of forks on plates as diner after diner scooped their practically untouched five-herb couscous into the rubbish.
Nicole wasn’t cooking for paying guests but 500 hungry schoolchildren who, judging by the pile of food in the bin, were about to give her a review that would make razor-tongued critic Jay Rayner blush.
“Some of the children hadn’t even tried the food, they just saw the flecks of green and that was enough to turn them off it,” says Nicole.
“I knew there and then that I had my work cut out.”
It was 2015 and Nicole had just left her job as head chef at restaurateur and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi’s Soho restaurant Nopi to become a cook at Gayhurst community school in Hackney, east London.
Some of the children hadn’t even tried the food, they just saw the flecks of green and that was enough to turn them off it
Nicole wanted to create change – to revolutionise school lunches and to help children develop a taste for a wide variety of flavours and foods.
Over a period of three years she introduced a whole host of items on the menu including seaweed, samphire and even octopus.
So successful was her cooking curriculum that along with Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of healthy eating chain Leon, Nicole has now launched Chefs In Schools, a charity which aims to train 100 professional restaurant chefs to work in 100 schools by 2023.
The initiative, which is supported by some of the UK’s leading foodies including Prue Leith of Great British Bake Off fame and Thomasina Miers, co-founder of restaurant chain Wahaca, aims to transform school lunches and provide cookery lessons for pupils to give them the skills to create healthy food from scratch.
“There is so much choice out there – fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables that can be transformed into tasty dishes – but currently school dinners don’t reflect that,” says Nicole.
“We really need to teach children from all backgrounds that there is more to food than beige breaded fish and chicken.”
Nicole Pisani has gone through trial and error with her dishes
One of the charity’s main aims is to combat the worrying junk food- related health statistics for children.
Today nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese.
Twenty per cent of 10 and 11-year- olds and nine per cent of four and five year-olds are obese while 34 per cent of Year 6 pupils are overweight.
Last week celebrity chef Jamie Oliver joined Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall in front of of MPs to discuss initiatives that will help fight childhood obesity, which he described as a “catastrophe” and a “national security issue”.
The duo called on the Government to curb the relentless advertising of high salt, fat and sugar products to children.
“Childhood obesity has been dominating the headlines for years now,” says Nicole.
Apparently some of the children didn’t bother eating the food and threw it in the bin
“But tackling this problem once and for all isn’t just about swapping junk food for vegetables. We need to give them food education from a young age.”
Prue Leith agrees, saying: “We need urgent action to ensure more children eat better and food education is an essential part of this in every school curriculum.
“The Chefs In Schools’ model makes it easier for school leaders by bringing experts into the school community and bringing food and cooking to life for children from an early age.”
Nicole – originally from Malta – has a CV which reads like a good food guide with stints in The Corinthia Hotel, Soho House and the Modern Pantry.
But it was at Nopi where she made a name for herself cooking Middle Eastern and Asian- inspired dishes that packed a flavoursome punch, such as tea-soaked lamb cutlets with jalapeño salsa.
Rising from chef de partie to sous chef and eventually to head chef it was under Ottolenghi that she would learn the vital skills needed to transform Gayhurst’s kitchen.
“I started to manage 14 people and learn about costs, the importance of good, sustainable suppliers and – most of all – the importance of a great team,” says Nicole, 37.
While she loved working for Ottolenghi, the 80-hour weeks proved punishing.
“After two and a half years at Nopi I was exhausted,” says Nicole, who lives in Hampstead, north London.
“The 14-hour days really started taking their toll and I knew that I needed a break.”
After spotting a tweet by Leon’s Henry Dimbleby, stating that his son’s school was looking for a new chef, Nicole applied for the position.
“I was drawn to the freedom that it would provide – freedom at weekends and school holidays but also freedom in terms of what I wanted to cook – or so I thought.
Gone are the fish fingers and they’ve been replaced by freshly cooked squid
“The night before my first day I definitely had that back-to-school feeling – especially as I hadn’t actually cooked in more than a year.
“As a head chef I would call orders, garnish food and check the presentation was perfect. All of a sudden I was in a foreign kitchen having to cook for 500 schoolchildren between the ages of four and 11.
“Producing good food for that many children is a really tough formula to crack – especially for a restaurant chef used to cooking for a few dozen tables per night.
“I also went from having a team of 14 highly trained chefs to a team of just six people.”
The school matched the salary that she had been earning at the restaurant and the first few weeks were trial by error.
The first dish Nicole served to her pupils was definitely an error.
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“I made a tasty couscous with about five different herbs but I quickly learned that the children didn’t want any greens in their food. They wanted burgers, pizzas and frozen fish fingers, not fine dining.
“I also had to learn not to take it personally. Seeing them tip away meal after meal was hard for me to swallow but I knew if I stripped back the cooking and introduced small changes over a period of months I could eventually re-train their tastebuds.”
She met the children halfway by shallow-frying hake but with a healthy spin by coating it in a coconut and pumpkin crumb.
“I have watched them go from eating frozen fish fingers to homemade fish fingers to fish without breadcrumbs and now we cook a whole hake in tomato sauce so that when they line up to collect their food they see a whole 5kg fish, which they love.”
Now the children’s tastebuds have blossomed to enjoy samphire, edible flowers, mussels, squid and even octopus.
“But my big breakthrough came in the form of one little boy with Down’s syndrome who refused to eat anything at first.
Today nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese
“I soon realised that if I invited him into the kitchen to play chef, stir his pasta and add a bit of garlic to the sauce, he would then happily eat the whole plate.
“Another little girl used to cry whenever I presented her with any vegetables whatsoever. Now her favourite food is seaweed.”
Nicole also reduced costs in the kitchen by introducing meat-free days and cooking with fresh ingredients.
She now works to a budget of just 80p per child, proving that healthy food doesn’t necessarily mean expensive food.
But the biggest pay-off of all is the children’s reaction to her cooking curriculum. “We grow mushrooms in the classroom, make our own chutney from vegetables grown on site and also make our own soda bread.
I explain to them that it’s a healthy option because it only has four ingredients.
Nicole also reduced costs in the kitchen by introducing meat-free days
We also butcher whole chickens and cook over fire pits in the playground.
“It definitely makes the kids more aware about where their food actually comes from and it has spiked their interest in nutrition.
“Before, they were terrified of anything that was not coated in breadcrumbs so the fact they are now eating a fillet of fish in a tomato sauce is not only a big win for me but a big win for their health.
“Almost four years down the line the children are now taste-wise where I thought they would be when I first started at the school.
“Regardless of obesity, every child deserves to be fed with food from scratch and to be taught about nutrition in a fun and interactive way, instead of having knowledge forced on them through adverts or campaigns.
“Knowing you are making a difference every time you go to work is a beautiful thing. Feeding children’s imaginations through their tastebuds really does feed your soul.”