Pamela Jamieson

31st May 2013 at 01:00
The prizewinning chef whose local authority has recently been awarded the gold Food for Life catering mark from the Soil Association reveals what's on her menu, the importance of children's feedback and the secret base of her popular curry. Interview by Emma Seith

Tell me about your school?

I'm the catering supervisor at Cumbrae Primary in North Ayrshire - a small school on the Isle of Cumbrae. It's the kind of place where you know all the children's names - there are about 76 children at the school from a wider population of 1,300 people on the island.

What's a typical day like for you?

I arrive at 8am and I'm by myself until 11.15am, when Aileen, the catering assistant, comes in to help set up. So I go in and make the dessert, whatever is on that day - apple tart and custard; chocolate fudge cake - and then prepare the veg. When the orders from the students come in around 9.30am, I prepare the main meal, which could be steak casserole and new potatoes; breaded fish and chips; chicken pie with baby potatoes - it just depends on the day. The teachers take the children's orders first thing, so I know exactly who I'm cooking for and there's no wastage. Service is at noon. I prepare everything from scratch.

How many children have a school meal?

Uptake is quite high - usually 50 to 55 children.

That must mean you peel a lot of veg...

I'll let you in on a trade secret: we have a machine for that.

How much choice do the children get?

They used to get two choices of main meal, but since North Ayrshire gained the gold Food for Life catering mark, we go for quality over quantity, so at my school they have the choice of a main meal, sandwich selection or the baked potato on that day. They get offered salad, bread and milk as well. Everything is freshly prepared, organic and sourced locally. Tuesday is our vegetarian day.

What's the most popular dish?

There are two. Chicken curry and macaroni cheese - the macaroni cheese is, of course, now cooked using organic milk and pasta. And the curry is apple and onion based, so they're getting a good dose of veg - it's just hidden.

How hard was it to adapt to the changes brought in when North Ayrshire decided to go for the gold Food for Life catering mark for its school meals?

It was well managed. Everybody knew in advance what we were going to be buying in and how the new menus were going to be implemented. Because it's only 15 minutes on a ferry over to Cumbrae, we have the same suppliers as the rest of North Ayrshire. On Arran, though, they use a local butcher and dairy.

You trained to be a make-up artist - how did you get into this?

I've always loved cooking - I remember my dad teaching me how to make pasta. When I was at college, I was full time but only in three days a week. I did gymnastic coaching in the evenings for sportscotland in Inverclyde, which gave me an interest in nutrition, and I was the sales manager in a card and gift shop in Largs, which meant I was familiar with the management side. I knew how to do the books, invoicing and ordering.

You were recently named Scottish and North East school chef of the year. What did the competition involve?

You had to prepare two courses for #163;1.50 and it had to be nutritionally balanced and appealing to an 11-year-old, so there were two students on the judging panel. I did ravioli filled with ricotta and pesto, served with a rich tomato sauce and a parmesan bread stick. For dessert, I did shredded wheat pancakes with a honey and raspberry sauce. The children tasted the ravioli and gave feedback. It was something I came up with because pasta is really popular with the children and they also really like pizza, so I tried to make sure those flavours - the cheese and tomato - were in there. The children also helped me to design the marketing board for the competition - to show how you would present the meal in school. Presentation is a big deal because it needs to look good and taste good for someone to enjoy eating it. I'm always interested in getting the children's feedback on their school dinners. Every six months or so, I'll send out a formal survey for them but I get informal feedback every day and there's always a suggestion box out so that they can make comments. If children have something to say it's important to listen to them - they are the customer.

Do you work with teachers to try to get children interested in food and cooking?

Although we work off set menus, we are allowed to run themed days. Our school recently looked at the different kinds of food eaten all over the world. It ended with children voting for which country they would like their school dinner to come from at the end of the week. We got quite a few different requests - one child voted for sushi from Japan. But the most popular choice was Mexican. We've also done a Country and Western theme and special menus for Valentine's Day and Red Nose Day. This month we are starting to get the children into the school kitchen. We've done smoothie-making classes in the past, but the cooking classes are a first.

What's your favourite meal?

I like chicken curry and ravioli - although, thanks to trying to balance the flavours and get the quantities right for the competition, I have had that quite a lot recently.

Personal profile

Born: Glasgow, 1987

Education: West Kilbride Primary School and Largs Academy, both North Ayrshire; HND in make-up artistry, James Watt College, North Ayrshire; various catering qualifications since joining North Ayrshire Council as a catering supervisor

Career: Catering supervisor at Cumbrae Primary, North Ayrshire.

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