'You look like you're floating, but underneath you're paddling like mad'
Five minutes into the competition, Katherine Breckon sent cheesecake mixture flying, droplets of creaminess dripping from her chef's whites.
"Everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong," she said. "As I lifted the bowl, I nudged the mixer dial. It splattered me with cheesecake, just as the judge stood there."
Mrs Breckon, school cook at West Cliff Primary, in Whitby, was one of 11 finalists in the School Chef of the Year competition, held last week. The 10 dinner-ladies and sole dinner-man whipped up four portions of main course and dessert. All had to be suitable for 11-year-olds, all had to be nutritionally balanced and, most dauntingly, all had to cost less than #163;1.25 a head.
"School chefs are a much maligned part of the industry," said Steve Oram, food development chef at Nestle Professional and chairman of the judging panel. "The stereotype is of a very scary-looking lady dressed in a white pinafore. But they have real skill. They have a passion for feeding children. And they can make four plates for under a fiver."
As they rushed to produce their meals, contestants were interviewed by judges and filmed by the Local Authority Caterers Association, organiser of the competition.
"You were aware of other people, but you just focused on what you were doing," Mrs Breckon said. "You get your head in the zone and don't think about what's going on around you."
"It's paddling-duck syndrome," said Suzanne Duncan, cook at Irvine Royal Academy, Ayrshire. "You look like you're floating, but underneath you're paddling like mad. It's all a bit Masterchef-y."
As the competition progressed, Ms Duncan was increasingly struck by the calibre of her competitors. "After the regional heat, I was quietly confident," she said. "Then you realise that the other 10 chefs here are as good as you. And you think, 'Ah.'"
Mrs Breckon, for example, gave up a job in a local hotel restaurant to work at West Cliff. "A lot of kids go home and have a microwave meal," she said. "They will say, 'I want an apple,' and be pointing at an orange. But at school, everything's made fresh every day. If you can get them interested in food and in cooking, that's a skill for life."
It was while working at the hotel that Mrs Breckon learnt to make the sugar twists that accompanied her lemon cheesecake. Despite her initial spillage - "It was just nerves, I think" - she was awarded the runner-up prize for best dessert.
First prize for the entire meal went to Ms Duncan for her turkey kebabs and summer salsa with a strawberry, rhubarb and ginger cheesecake. "Turkey is a bit like a dog," she said. "People think it's just for Christmas. But it's very cheap, and has proper protein content."
She will receive a #163;500 cash prize, a professional chef's knife and the opportunity for further training. "I believe you're born with a natural ability to put flavours together and blend tastes," she said. "I've never known life without cooking."
MAKING A MEAL OF IT: FACTS AND FIGURES
- 39.3 per cent of primary pupils eat school lunches and 35 per cent of secondary pupils.
- School meal average prices: #163;1.77 for primaries, #163;1.88 for secondaries.
- 75 per cent of primaries have full in-house kitchens, while 6.5 per cent have mini-kitchens; 13.5 per cent have meals brought in from another site, and 3 per cent only offer cold food or free school meals. In secondaries, 94 per cent have full on-site kitchens.
- Nutritional standards introduced in 2008-09 specify that at least two portions of fruit or vegetables must be provided every day. No more than two deep-fried foods are allowed per week. Salt cellars are prohibited, as are confectionery items such as chocolate bars and chocolate-coated biscuits. Source: School Food Trust (www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk).