Sizzling success

24th November 2006 at 00:00
School meal takings have soared as heavenly gastro grub has kicked Jamie Oliver into touch. Jan Trebilcock reports

A hot crispy stonebaked pizza comes out of the oven on a long wooden paddle on one side of the servery, while a wok sizzles with beef, vegetables and noodles freshly stir-fried in front of a hungry audience. Or perhaps you're tempted by an exotic mushroom and green bean risotto; pasta with broccoli, walnuts and mascarpone; or a large helping of chicken tikka masala complete with a piece of coriander naan.

A sophisticated big city bistro? No, this is typical lunchtime fare at Southfield School for Girls in Kettering, Northamptonshire. Southfield is bucking the trend on school dinners. While thousands of pupils elsewhere are rejecting school meals in the wake of the new national healthy eating regime, takings here are up.

Just six months ago, the school kitchen was a liability, serving unappetising meat pies, hot dogs and chicken burgers that no one wanted to eat. "It was minging," says a Year 10 student.

Southfield had tried the approach adopted by Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, but found it wasn't foolproof, standards slipped after a while and recipes didn't suit the Kettering palate. "The kitchen was losing pound;45,000 a year," says Sue Dunford, headteacher. "Takings were just pound;100 a day and there were regularly two full bins of waste."

Now the school has its own resident professional chef and on-site caterers Cucina - and takings top pound;800 a day.

Bags of chopped fruit, savoury pinwheel pastries, flapjacks and smoothies are served for breakfast and breaktimes. Bread, pasta and pizza dough are freshly made daily, along with live yoghurt and fruit smoothies. Main meals are made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Salads, paninis and sandwiches, pots of fruit and desserts are on offer, as well as homemade flap-jacks, muffins and cakes. Hot meals range from pound;1 to pound;1.75, sandwiches start at 85p and there are fresh fruit and flapjacks from 60p.

The new regime is a brave venture on both sides. Cucina, a small company based in St Albans, is more at home in the hotel trade. But when it comes to good food and education, Cucina and Southfield are talking the same language.

"As a sports college we aim to emphasise a healthy lifestyle, giving girls the message that being active and eating well means they will do better in the long run," says Sue.

Steve Quinn, managing director of Cucina, is keen to work with the school to educate about food: "The dining room is usually the only area of the school that doesn't teach, but we are changing that," he says.Andy Morris, a professional chef with two AA rosettes, has trained staff to work the "hotel way", where a chef produces a dish from start to finish. "We put the chefs on the counter so they can answer questions about the food and encourage the girls to sample new things. It encourages good relationships and we soon find out if something isn't working.

"We bring in unusual produce such as pomegranates and dragon fruit for the girls to try. And we've been supporting the curriculum too. During the school's European languages week we added dishes from France, Spain, Italy and Hungary." Andy buys from small local producers where possible and grows his own herbs. "We use seasonal and organic produce where we can and won't accept anything substandard. Fatty meat has been returned to a butcher."

The kitchen produces 50 or 60 items a day, catering for almost 1,000 pupils, plus 140 teachers and support staff. Food is also sold from the tuck shop hatch and a trolley at breaktime. "Choice is vital," says Steve.

"If you give pupils tempting imaginative choices you can get them interested in good food."

But how does the new regime go down with hardened vegetable-haters? "Realistically we can't seduce everyone into eating their quota of fruit and vegetables willingly," says Steve. "So we have devised 'stealthy eating' with Dr Mabel Blades, a nutritionist. "We slip vegetables and fruit into recipes where they'd be least expected. Kebabs made of minced lamb also include minced onion, carrot, courgette, and peppers. Baked beans go into the pastry of the breakfast pinwheels, pureed vegetables into sauces and shepherd's pie, smoothies into cake mixtures, apple and banana into the flapjacks." Cassie Watts, a Year 13 pupil, is the students' healthy living rep. She was one of the students who took part in selecting Cucina.

"It has been a dramatic change," she says. "People love the new food.

Before, no one in the sixth form ate in the school canteen, now about three quarters do. Some of my friends who don't like vegetables are eating them now, because they hide them."

And Cucina is already expanding its services. Pupils and teachers can take home a 14 inch pizza for pound;5 at the end of the school day. Spit roast chicken and portions of pasta with sauces will soon be on the takeaway menu. Three local primary schools will be offered food produced in Southfield's kitchen from January. "We are taking a retail approach modelled on Marks Spencer. We don't see ourselves as a school meals company, we are a good food company," says Steve.

"If the food is good it sells. If they don't like what's on offer they will be off to the corner shop or the chippy for their old favourites."

Mick Radia from Rex Hill Store, the local corner shop, agrees. "The girls don't buy sandwiches and snacks from me as much - but I still do a good trade in bright blue ice poles!"

Food for thought

February 2005 Jamie Oliver launches his campaign to ban junk in school meals.

May 2006 Government announces new standards for school food.

September 2006 Interim food-based standards introduced alongside a package which includes pound;240 million to subsidise ingredients and pound;2m to set up a network of training kitchens.

Rebel mothers Sam Walker and Julie Critchlow start a delivery service through the playground fence offering fish and chips, hamburgers and fizzy drinks, to pupils at Rawmarsh Comprehensive in Rotherham.

November 2006 Prue Leith, food writer, businesswoman and charity founder appointed as the new chair of the School Food Trust.

September 2008 Full set of food-based standards to be introduced to primary schools and by September 2009 in secondaries.

Food, glorious food

Cucina's lunchtime menu is split into six sections: First, Live!, Love, Last, Juice Boost and Vegetables

A typical day's menu looks like this...

First Bacon shallot green lentil soup

Live! Marinaded lamb kebab with salad, pitta bread and coriander yoghurt, or baked orechiette with tomatoes and mozzarella

Love Roasted loin of cod with parsnip crumble and caramelised red onions or vegetable moussaka with crispy aubergine topping

Last Mincemeat jalouise with home made vanilla sauce or fresh superfruit salad

Juice Boost Kiwi skinny dip

Vegetables Lyonnaise potatoes, roasted butternut squash

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