In the Spotlight: The LACA School Chef of the Year
Steven Cross, head chef at Park Community School in Havant, Hampshire scooped the national title of LACA School Chef of the Year 2019. The competition celebrates and highlights the professional standards of school chefs.
Steven Cross is all about making a difference.
“Children should have at least one nutritious, tasty meal, which they actually enjoy, every day – and it’s my mission to make sure that happens,” says Steven.
Head chef at Park Community School since June 2014, Steven’s passion for serving pupils first-class food is demonstrated by the awards he and his team of 10 staff and three apprentices have achieved: LACA Secondary School of the Year Award 2018; four EDUcatering Excellence Awards and Bronze, Silver and Gold Food for Life Awards from the Soil Association.
For The LACA School Chef of the Year competition, he pulled out all the stops by producing his dish of Rocking Moroccan Chicken – marinated chicken char-grilled and served with homemade Moroccan flatbread and roasted harissa vegetables, garnished with mint yoghurt, nasturtium, chilli and mint – followed by a dessert of North African rosewater and cardamom cheesecake, accompanied by blood orange, chocolate and mint for the competition.
“I love Morocco and so I wanted to inspire and challenge the children’s taste buds by making something different than the norm,” explains Steven. “This dish is very tasty and has an amazing bundle of flavours, which most children I have tested it out on, love!”
The panel of judges, who attended the final held at Stratford-upon-Avon College, Warwickshire in March, awarded Steven with the title because of his “high level of talent and skill” within a competition which had extraordinary culinary creativity.
Steven and his team prepare almost 500 meals a day for 11-16 year olds in three locations.
There is a food van located in the playground which serves grab and go food such as hot sandwiches, pasta pots and homemade pizza. Inside, there’s an outlet that offers a range of sandwiches and fruit pots to rival high street offerings.
However, it’s the dining room where they serve hot meals which is the busiest venue. The menu, like his award-winning dish, aims to encourage pupils to eat international food which they wouldn’t necessarily have tried before.
“We have Indian, Korean, Japanese and Brazilian days as well as a classic British day,” explains Steven. “I want the pupils to change their eating habits and try more food than just fish fingers and chips. Granted, we do get the odd pupil who screws up his nose when he sees the food, but once they have tried it they admit that they like it, and for me, that’s a job well done.”
Steven is also conscious that the meals he serves may be the only hot one some pupils have that day.
“Our area is the most deprived one in Hampshire,” says Steven. “Fifty per cent of our students are entitled to free school meals, so I make sure the meal they get from us is not only nutritious and tasty, but opens up their minds to new cuisines. It may be the only chance they get to experience them.”
Every Thursday evening Park Community School serves a hot meal for pupils and their families. They also provide a holiday hungry club where they serve a daily meal, host a Sunday roast once a month and serve lunch on Christmas Day.
Pupils that eat the hot dinners are also encouraged to eat them in the dining room with their peers and teachers.
“We’ve gone back to basics and produced a dining room which has a homely feel to it,” explains Steven. “We want pupils to put their phones away and instead chat and interact with their friends and teachers, just like families used to do over their evening meal.”
Steven believes that since the pupils have been eating a substantial, healthy meal at lunchtime it has improved their academic capabilities.
“They are ready to learn and able to retain their knowledge,” adds Steven. “It makes an enormous difference.”
Steven also consults at six other local Hampshire schools to help them move over to a fresh food service and take their catering in-house.
“Not all schools were using fresh ingredients or even practising basic prepping in the kitchen like chopping veg,” says Steven. “I’ve tried to up-skill the existing staff and placed a school standard food menu so they know what food they should be cooking.”
Steven’s passion for food started at a young age where he was always cooking at home with his mother, also a chef. After studying at his local catering college he was offered a placement as a royal chef at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. He then worked at a number of fine dining establishments including Langrish House Hotel and Michelin-starred restaurants 36 on the Quay and JSW Restaurant.
Now in its 25th anniversary year, The LACA School Chef of the Year competition is the flagship event for school chefs to showcase their professional skills. It is organised by the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA) and is sponsored by McDougalls and other major brands.
Second place went to Matt Betts from The Mill Academy in Barnsley for his dishes of Matt’s marvellous mackerel tacos and strawberry supermousse with shortbread bat biscuit. Third place went to Josefine Austin from Beacon Hill Primary School in Hindhead, Surrey for her dishes of Swedish meatballs and pineapple tart.
The 2019 champion received a £1,000 cash prize and The LACA 2019 School Chef of the Year trophy. The winner also won a work experience trip and an invitation to a calendar of high profile catering industry engagements between 2019-2020. The national second and third place winners received cash prizes of £500 and £300 respectively.
“I am so proud to have won the national title and I am fortunate to be part of a great team within Park Community School,” adds Steven. “All of this just goes to show what a good job school chefs do, day in, day out, up and down the country in providing tasty, nutritious meals for millions of children.”