LLancashire hotpot isn't quite what I had in mind. To be honest, I was expecting something a little moreI how shall I say?I Poncey. When the NHS let Loyd Grossman and chums loose on hospital menus, the result was all pan-seared this and lightly coddled that. So it seemed reasonable to expect that when St Aidan's Church of England high school in the North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate hired a leading local chef to run its new in-house catering operation, the cuisine would be similarly haute. But Spag Bol? Toad-in-the-hole? Lancashire hotpot? Memories of gruesome gravy and gristle come sluicing back.
"Children get more choice as they move through school," the deputy head, Steve Hatcher, is explaining. He points out the brie, bacon and red onion baguette, the Indian hors d'oeuvre salad and the carrot and coriander soup with crunchy croutons. There are wedges of melon and slices of pineapple, and the chef's special is a freshly prepared vegetarian pasta dish.
"But I absolutely guarantee," he says as a catering assistant spoons creamed turkey, sweetcorn and spinach over his waiting jacket potato, "that whatever you choose will be excellent quality."
He would say that, of course. Steve has done more than anyone at St Aidan's to slam the door on contract caterers ("All they're interested in is making pound;20,000 a year out of us") and transform the provision of meals into an exercise in successful home-cooking. But excellent quality in a Lancashire hotpot, served up for pound;1.50, inclusive of "fresh carrots"?
I don't think so.
Which is why, when I shake the hand of an affable 44-year-old called Trevor Whitehead half an hour later, I have one question for him: how did he take the classic school dinner turn-off and serve up a dish to write home about?
"If you have the right quality of ingredients," he says, "then you'll do it right. That lamb you had today - neck fillet at around 40p per portion - came from a butcher whose children go to this school, so he's not going to give me anything he wouldn't give his own children."
And the carrots? How come they tasted like, well, fresh carrots, for heaven's sake? But to answer that question, you have to understand what has happened at St Aidan's.
The headteacher, Dennis Richards, fills in the background. "We'd had contract caterers for five years. But it was that bad, we spent the last part of the contract thinking: 'We can do this better.' Even if we made a mess of it, it couldn't be worse."
So three years ago, when the contract ran out, St Aidan's took the plunge and set about finding somebody who could serve them the good, wholesome food they yearned for. And they went about it in a rather unusual way.
Applicants were asked to bring along pound;5's worth of ingredients and show what they could do with it. And Trevor won hands down.
"He had experience in all types of catering, having worked for many years at one of the most prestigious hotels in Harrogate," says the head. "But as well as the skill factor - and when it comes to cooking, he leads from the front - there is an expertise factor in that he knows how to deal with suppliers."
In the bad old days, deliveries might arrive at 4am and be left on the doorstep. Now, Trevor checks everything and sends back what he doesn't like, just as he would have in a four-star hotel.
And it's this change of ethos that has made the difference, says the head.
"His attitude is that the catering staff are on the front line, and if the customers - customers, not children - don't buy their food, then they are out of a job."
Which, by all accounts, never seemed likely. From a low of 500 meals a day in the chips, chocolate and fizzy drinks era of competitive tendering, the operation now provides around 1,750 nutritious lunches, to say nothing of 150 breakfasts and 200 after-school snacks.
"There was a 100 per cent increase straight away," says Trevor. "But it's taken us three years to get to where we are today."
And where they are today is a model catering operation that "takes" pound;2,500 a day and is therefore financially independent of the education service, but which has had tangible spin-offs in terms of school morale and student demeanour. "We have proved that if you give children a nice environment and fantastic food, they can only react in one way, and that's positively," says Steve Hatcher. "The staff would all agree that children are better behaved at lunchtimes and calmer in the afternoon."
Steve's mention of a "nice environment" is something of an understatement.
For the school governors threw their weight behind the project by borrowing nearly pound;500,000 in order to re-equip the kitchen to Trevor's specifications, refurbish two eating areas as a sixth-form cafe and Year 7 dining room, and then build a brand new restaurant for Years 8-11.
With its white walls and elegant, bentwood furniture, this startlingly light and airy space attracts close on 1,000 children a day, not to mention staff, who now eat in as a matter of course (including the head, who brought in sandwiches for every day of the previous five-year catering contract).
"We wanted something that would say to the children: 'This is pure quality,' " says Steve Hatcher. "Now, they actually sit and eat and converse. And the benefits in terms of improved social skills are there for everyone to see."
By introducing a swipe-card payment system, the school is able to monitor children's food and drink intake and alert parents if anyone shows signs of filling up on cakes. The emphasis throughout is on quality and nutrition.
In fact, rather than trying to play the fast-food outlets at their own game, St Aidan's opted to go in the opposite direction, banishing sweets and drinks machines ("Within two months of our starting, chocolate sales had plummeted anyway") and only serving chips on Thursdays.
"There were those at the time who thought it was a risky policy," Steve admits. "But today, the vast majority of sixth-formers choose to eat in at lunchtimes, despite being free to go into town from Year 11 onwards." The proof of the hot pot, it seems, is in the eating.
Steve Hatcher is happy to help schools improve their catering. Email: stevehatcher @btconnect.com How to improve the school dining environment in a cost-effective way is being researched for the Department of Health's Food in Schools programme. Results expected next year.
1 What's on the menu today
This is a typical St Aidan's weekly menu
Barbecue pork steak with egg-fried rice
Traditional beef and chunky vegetable stew, Yorkshire pudding and boulangere potatoes
Dessert: Apple and blackberry crumble and custard
Chinese chicken with soft noodles or traditional roast leg of pork, apple sauce, roast potatoes and broccoli
Dessert: Baked rice pudding with apricot sauce
Chilli con carne with steamed basmati rice or traditional sausage, crushed potatoes, carrots and onion gravy
Dessert: Banoffee pie
Chicken burger, fries and house relish or tomato and vegetable parcel in filo pastry and a soubise sauce
Dessert: Chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce
Lasagne with mixed salad. Fish cakes, minted new potatoes and garden peas
Dessert: Traditional hot dessert and custard
Plus - lighter options
Cajun chicken baguette with salad and a sweet, hot salsa Fresh salmon and prawn salad with dressing
Freshly-made cream of forest mushroom with garden tarragon soup and crusty roll
Jacket potato with sweet and sour veg