Chef's special talents bring a dash of panache to the kitchen

10th December 2010 at 00:00
Pupils in Fife are developing a taste for haute cuisine, thanks to a force majeure in cooking

The Wild Taste van, a deli on wheels, visits the chef at Falkland House School in Fife roughly once a month to sell him wares. But here, its produce comes under the careful scrutiny not just of Adrian Stirling, but curious pupils too.

"The idea is to get them interested and let them know there is more to the world than mince and tatties," says Mr Stirling. "If I find something they've not had before, I'll buy it and put it out for them at meal times as a taster."

Pupils have tried purple potatoes and venison. Pea shoots, lemon balm, red basil and all kinds of wild mushrooms from king oysters to winter chanterelles have featured in the chef's experiments. Today he has bought a "superb" chorizo, "special pasta" and some smoked cheddar for pupils to try.

The "innovative practice" in the school kitchen was singled out for praise in a recent report by the Care Commission.

Mr Stirling arrived at Falkland two years ago, with an impressive CV. He was trained at Gleneagles, worked in a Michelin-star restaurant in France and was head chef at the Byre Theatre restaurant in St Andrews, when it reopened in 2001.

He took the job knowing full well that the toughest people to cater for are the elderly and the young. Arguably, the pupils at Falkland are more challenging still.

The school caters for boys with additional support needs, including autistic spectrum (particularly Asperger's syndrome), social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and Tourette's syndrome.

Today, director Stuart Jacob and social work manager Sheena Murray are awaiting the arrival of a nine-year-old who has not been to his local primary for two years. He is typical of the kind of child who might attend Falkland, they say.

"The pupils here could easily slip through the net," says Ms Murray. "They are not creating major issues in the community, but neither is life going smoothly. They might have been banned from their local swimming pool because they lost their temper with somebody; they are probably friendless, excluded by the other children because there is something `different' about them."

If the nine-year-old enrols, he could be the school's first 52-week placement. Until two months ago, Falkland was a 39-week-per-year school, but it is adapting to make itself more attractive to councils when budgets are tight.

When Mr Stirling arrived at Falkland, he was warned that pupils did not like change. They can be texture-sensitive or smell-sensitive, says Ms Murray. One pupil could not stand the smell of cheese, for instance, and another survived on a diet of lentil soup, carrots and peas.

Determined to educate their palates, Mr Stirling started to introduce tasters at meal times - baby squid stuffed with pork, for example. Before his arrival, lamb had been a tough sell - the pupils had seen too many frolicking in nearby fields. But now he can serve leg of lamb and get a 95 per cent uptake. He also says all pupils take lemon with their fish and chips, after they were told that lemon breaks down the fat.

Mr Stirling had no experience of working with children other than raising his own son but, by sharing his knowledge about food, he has made some firm friends. The pupils have built herb gardens for him out of old pool tables in the courtyard to save him the walk to the vegetable gardens, and he has welcomed them into his domain.

Today Kieran, 12, is helping out. He is making meatballs with mince, egg, onion, Japanese breadcrumbs, parmesan, anchovies, smoked Spanish paprika and pine nuts. As they work, the chef introduces the boy to a pestle and mortar, explains that the Japanese breadcrumbs open up the meat balls so they are not too heavy, and that parmesan, while full of flavour, contains little fat.

Callum Clegg, 13, worked in the kitchen with Mr Stirling after winning a school competition. "It was an honour to work with such a great chef," he says. "It's a great school and the dinners are gorgeous. I've never tasted anything like it."

Praise for Mr Stirling's cuisine is echoed by the older boys. Callum Halley, 15, says: "Before, it was more kind of like ordinary, but not nice ordinary. It was boring."

Mr Stirling has also branched out and delivered lessons on table etiquette, introducing the pupils to the wonders of fish cutlery, the butter knife and grape scissors. And he has contributed to science lessons about bacteria, explaining the precautions taken in the kitchen to ensure they don't fall ill.

This is an easier job than running a restaurant, Mr Stirling admits. He is no longer working evenings or weekends or 15-hour days, but that's not the main reason he enjoys it. "I mainly like seeing the children and seeing them coming on. You begin to see the influence you are having on them."

Feedback from parents has been positive. Academic qualifications are important, but so are the social skills that Mr Stirling is helping the school to develop, says Mr Jacob. "Sometimes we forget just how significant it is when families are able to go out for a meal together for the first time in years."

Unfortunately, the new recruit expected to visit the school today has got cold feet. This was to be expected and is not unusual, says Ms Murray.

One thought occurs: maybe they should tell him about the food?

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