Nicole Pisani: Transforming School Food and Food Education

ADMIRED WOMEN

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The world’s best chefs appear to have figured out how to be creative. They attract international attention for their willingness to defy established rules and push boundaries in order to challenge – and seduce – the palates of restaurant patrons and critics alike. And they earn their Michelin stars by striking a delicate balance between day-to-day operational excellence and the inventiveness of their cuisine.

Chefs may become interested in cooking because of a creative desire to transform raw ingredients into something that elevates the human experience. However, when it comes to finally designing a menu for themselves after training and the grind of working your way up the line, they are frequently torn between the kind of cuisine they wish they could serve and the pressures that every restaurant is feeling in the current climate.

The main facet that every individual tries to maintain in this sphere, even in a state of turmoil, is providing gastronomic satisfaction as a form of happiness. A chef bears this responsibility; as a significant profession in hospitality, he or she must present top-notch qualitative edible subjects for a mesmerising experience. This artistic profession is made more inspiring by a glimpse of compassion and generosity.

Chefs in Schools is an excellent example of how kindness can be beautifully blended into food and then served. It is a charity co-founded by Nicole Pisani, a chef who has brought about a much-needed food revolution that was never implemented.

Nicole comes from a family of restaurant owners, so her desire to work in the hospitality industry was inevitable. The organisation focuses on schools where a large number of children receive free school meals. It aims to assist these schools in transforming their lunch and food education programmes.

Taking a risk?

While working on the School Food Plan, Henry Dimble by tweeted to see if any chefs were interested in taking over the kitchen at his children’s state school. Nicole was the Head Chef at the renowned Soho restaurant Nopi at the time. But her inner compassion persuaded her to seize this risky opportunity, and she applied, eventually being hired by Louise Nichols. Louise, Henry and Nicole set out to create Chefs in Schools.

The first change she implemented was to retrain school cooks using the restaurant brigade system, teaching them to cook everything from scratch and bake bread on a daily basis. She then took over the cooking programme, teaching the kids how to butcher whole chickens and cook over fire pits in the playground. This work became the foundation for Chefs in Schools, and it is now used to help other schools completely transform their school food and food education standards. “Every school day, we reach over 20,000 (and counting) children,” she claims. Though this charitable work began in London, it is now spreading throughout the United Kingdom. It currently has 58 locations (individual schools) and a total of 10 employees. Nicole now wants to include as many people as possible who see the Chefs in Schools vision as their own and want to be a part of the transformation. She has also encouraged them to cook their favourite foods.

Nicole Pisani: Transforming School Food and Food Education
Nicole Pisani

"One of the perceptions we're attempting to change is the importance of the job of a school chef or cook,"

Passionate about Food

Nicole founded her charity to increase knowledge of how to run schools’ in-house food provision and to improve quality. Initially, Nicole and her team were contacted by both principals and chefs. Then she realised it would be extremely beneficial to connect these two entities in order to see the benefits of having someone who is passionate about food in the centre of the school day. Now she is attempting to change the perception of school food by elevating the status of school kitchen teams; “they feed millions of children every day, so why not offer them the training the role requires?” she asks rhetorically.

The charity is attempting to foster a positive relationship with food in both the dining hall and the classroom. “We train all school kitchen teams and feed 20,000 children with balanced and nutritious meals every day,” she proudly mentions. Her efforts are not only changing ‘what children eat,’ but also ‘improving social mobility,’ by assisting children in concentrating better in class and thus improving attainment levels and health. “The greatest cost to the NHS is food-related, so both society and the NHS benefit. This is our unique selling point, motto, and mission,” she asserts. In addition, the charity’s mission is to be the leading voice in school food, inspiring and enabling schools to serve the best food possible within their budgets. “We work as a team across the school community to promote a good school food culture and ensure that each school has a food vision that they implement for their children,” she says.     

During the time of the Great Exodus

The COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in lockdown, was the most severe blow to the hospitality industry since the Great Depression. Staying afloat in the whirlpool of losses and layoffs was a huge challenge for every business. Lockdown and Brexit caused a staff exodus, resulting in wild fluctuations in salaries. This was a problem for Nicole as well, and it became difficult to find and retain employees. “On the plus side, restaurants have been working more sociable hours,” she says with optimism. As schools were closed due to the pandemic, she and her team were forced to innovate in order to continue assisting those they support, which included the development of a hamper programme that delivered food hampers to families eligible for free school meals.

Between September 2020 and July 2021, a total of 12,210 hampers were distributed. These hampers included fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables, as well as meals prepared by caterers affiliated with Mission Kitchen and Migrateful. Though the charity does not rely on technology to target the customer experience, it does use technology to help run the kitchen in a sustainable manner. The training is provided through an online platform called Sideway, which has indirectly helped school kitchen teams gain online confidence. “The workforce is on average between the ages of 40 and 65, so online training has not only helped them in their work environment but also enabled them to live a better quality of life, for example, online shopping and online banking,” explains Nicole.

Work-Life Harmony and Creativity

Chefs frequently improvise combining elements from different dishes or proposing new dishes to clients that have not yet been fully defined. Unfortunately, with the rush of the sitting, it is difficult, if not impossible, for cooks to be creative during regular work hours.

True creativity necessitates dedicated time for this activity. To put it another way, in order to do creative work, chefs must remove themselves from this type of pressure and work at a different pace, which they choose in a calmer environment outside the kitchen where they are not disturbed. After all, creativity needs a time and place to happen. Individuals who are under pressure and lack the time or a quiet place to think outside the box should not be expected to produce truly creative outputs.

The charity’s chef’s alliance provides a network of support to chefs—the same network that supports every in-house school in the country. In the future, this will be a social enterprise that provides purchasing, health and safety support, and training – giving schools the assurance that they can rely on an independent, mission-led support network while allowing chefs to experiment creatively. “While respondents were understandably enthusiastic about the work/life balance available working in a school, including during the holidays,” Nicole says, “working with children was by far the biggest motivator.” Working in a school kitchen, according to Nicole and her team, can be a creative, life- and family-friendly career choice for a chef. “One of the perceptions we’re attempting to change is the importance of the job of a school chef or cook,” she adds. This is a workforce that not only feeds children on a daily basis, but also has the potential to shape a lifelong relationship with food. Chefs for Schools accomplishes this while allowing chefs to pursue creative endeavours. “You will be able to innovate and be creative, and you will be recognised as experts in your field,” she assures aspirants.

Nicole and the team hope to demonstrate that anyone with a plan and good intentions can help to improve the world. That is precisely what she hopes to achieve through her charitable efforts: to educate children and chefs while also spreading a message of kindness, compassion, and generosity. An endeavour worthy of acclaim.

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