With 600 small and demanding diners to feed in an hour each lunchtime, Nicole Pisani has her work cut out for her. Her previous job as head chef at Ottolenghi’s restaurant Nopi had its pressures, but Gayhurst Primary School is her biggest challenge yet. With a tight budget and a goal to inspire and nurture children through food, Nicole has a daily ambition to ensure that 600 brightly coloured plates are scraped clean.
‘We are not sure if the children are eating more vegetables or quinoa,’ says Nicole, ‘but the difference we have seen is that food is becoming part of our life at school. Teachers come to show me the photos of their dinner and try recipes at home, the children write me letters asking for specific food (olives and pizza mostly) and the parents feel they can come and talk to me and explain their worries. Saying all of this it is important to say we still have bad days where things go massively wrong, but it is nice to see and feel everyone involved trying hard to make this work.’
A blackboard written up with the children’s individual requirements and dislikes is part of the careful plan, and Nicole organises tastings with parents and teachers to spread the word about home cooking and healthy food. ‘Obesity is on the rise,’ she says, ‘and you can make food the enemy or make it part of life.’ Her thoughtful approach extends to the way the kitchen is run – all eight staff are trained in every task, and jobs are rotated to avoid boredom and increase a sense of involvement. When Eat Hackney visited, Nicole served up the day’s lunch: beetroot spring rolls, succulent chicken, thin slivers of potato cooked in rosemary and Eton Mess. It was superb.
Nicole hopes that more chefs will be inspired to help look after our children’s health. Click here to try one of her Biblical scale recipes. Eat Hackney says three cheers to Nicole for the love and care she brings to her work. As a footnote, a primary school in Eat Hackney’s home town of Stirling is pioneering a regular daily run for kids, another simple but essential way to give children the healthy happy lives they deserve.