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From River Cottage to School Food

Charlie is cooking up a storm at SEN school

Charlie Gabriel, former River Cottage HQ chef, is using his contacts and know-how to put top quality produce – including the freshest of fish caught on the Devon coast – on the plates of a special needs school in London.

Rewind a few years and Charlie wasn’t sure what his future held. University hadn’t worked out and he didn’t know what to do next. A weekend in Devon changed that. Charlie went on the Build & Bake Pizza Oven course at River Cottage HQ and fell in love with the idea of a career in food. He asked if he could join their team, started at the bottom and hasn’t looked back.

Charlie says: ‘I started out as a pot-wash at River Cottage, in Devon, and worked my way up through the ranks. What I learned there, informs how I work now. We’d go out to the gardens, see what looked good and we’d cook it that day. Everything was seasonal and the menus were always changing.

‘I moved to London and joined a large corporate caterer – I went from cooking for around 60 people to over 4,000. It was a big change and I enjoyed it and learnt a lot but, for me, cooking is about giving something back. I was following Chefs in Schools on social media, I liked that it was making a difference and having an impact, so I got in touch.

‘The majority of the students at the school have autism and textures of food and flavours are really important. The food they’ve had has been similar, lots of soft textures, vegetables without any crunch. I’m changing things gradually. Little steps like not boiling green beans for as long so they have some colour and crunch and we’re baking the bread. We’re making big changes too. Breakfast has been totally transformed within weeks. It used to be toast and beans, sometimes bacon. Now we have a porridge bar with fruit. Every Monday and Wednesday are veggie days and that’s going well.

‘Our tomato sauce is one way we’re reducing food waste. Monday, it’s for the pasta sauce – say a vegetable lasagne, leftovers are used in the pizza sauce on Wednesday and if there is any going spare I can freeze that to use the following week.

‘I’m working with my old suppliers – I’ll call up my fish supplier who works with the day boats and he’ll tell me what’s in the waters that week. We had whiting, which cost a bit more than the processed breaded fish they used to get before, but as we made the vegetable side dishes from scratch, it cost less. It was also really good fish from a great producer. The children loved it, having a fillet of fish really appealed to them and made them more aware of what they are eating.

‘People might think working in a school kitchen isn’t creative but 100% it is. I get to deal with suppliers and seek out good produce. It’s good to have that freedom to write your own menus and be creative. The children are really vocal too and will be honest about what they like and don’t like. I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they try the food and learning something new – that’s a highlight for me.

‘We’re lucky to have a roof garden here too, with raised beds and a BBQ. I’ll be helping the gardener grow produce that we can use in the kitchen. The children will help us turn it from seeds, into something they can eat. I think that’s key for cutting down food waste. If they know the effort that’s gone into getting something onto a plate, I think they’re more likely to eat it and less likely to throw it away.’