Jehn Richardson, Sous Chef at The New School, explains the pitfalls of mushroom protests, the challenge of allergens and menu writing that can all be part of a school chef’s day.

Setting aside time to discuss the menu is something Sophie, the Head Chef, and I always find time to do – bringing our ideas and inspiration we have had, perhaps a recipe we have come across or something delicious we have eaten. Then the tricky part, deciphering the allergen and dietary requirements, figuring out what swaps to make including making sure the recipes are nutritionally sound as well as delicious. When writing our menu we must also consider seasonality, upscaling recipes, budget and most importantly whether we think our young people will like it!

Jehn (l) and Sophie (r) are making meals inclusive and overcoming mushroom trauma

Jehn (l) and Sophie (r) are making meals inclusive and overcoming mushroom trauma

We set out lunch in the middle of the table, family style and tend to serve foods in their “deconstructed” form so the young people can pick and choose what they want to eat. We are currently completely gluten free, nut free and mostly dairy free which helps to keep our meals inclusive. As someone with food intolerances, I understand the joy of being able to eat the same meal as everyone else at the table. We serve sweet foods like fruit, yoghurt and banana bread with the savoury, so it’s not seen as a “reward” or “hierarchical food”. We would like the young people to follow up on their own appetite cues. Sometimes you feel like eating sweet before savoury and that’s okay. It’s a part of creating healthy eating habits. 

One of us stays in the dining hall each lunchtime so we can talk to the young people and find out what they liked or didn’t that day (ie. coleslaw). We keep an eye on the scraps bin for this reason also. As the weeks go by we are getting a better understanding of what’s popular (gherkins apparently) and what’s not (coleslaw. What’s not to like about coleslaw?). 

An afternoon of prep was once interrupted by a protest march by Class 2, with placards made in Art class, “no more mushrooms, no more mushrooms”. We haven’t served mushrooms since, proving that every now and then, protests do work. As we chat over lunch we also get suggestions of the food they’d like us to cook. 

For the first few weeks we were serving only vegetarian or pescatarian whilst we sourced a supplier of good quality meat. Several of the Class 2’s asked if they could have meat so we were happy to buy some organic mince for a bolognese. During a closing circle one Friday, the young people, en masse, requested sausages. So we managed to surprise them the following week with sausages, creamy mash and onion gravy. I didn’t know the joy and excitement sausages could bring until that day.

Sophie and I will soon start food education so we can share our knowledge of cooking and nutrition. We want to impart an understanding of food with the young people and to inspire their creativity and interest in the kitchen. We look forward to realising the ambitions of The New School, we believe nutrition to be very important, especially to young people. It helps their energy and concentration levels, and in turn helps their performance and enjoyment at school.