St Olave’s A-star Menu
Gone are the days of chicken nuggets and chips with everything! Now, school dinners are not only healthy and tasty, they could rival most restaurants. Take Stock spoke to Alston Harris, chef manager at St Olave’s Grammar School in Orpington, Kent about nutrition, street food and his ambition to raise the bar even higher next term.
St Olave’s Boys Grammar School has 1,300 pupils which includes a mixed sixth form centre. All meals are catered for by Alston and his team of 12 – including another full-time chef and baker – who are all employed by Independent Catering. Alston, whose career started in hotels – including The Ritz – is passionate about the high standard of food they serve.
“Everything is made in-house,” said Alston. “We have two kitchens – the main one is in the school where everything is cooked. The sixth form kitchen is only equipped for cold prep and serving, so we transport all the hot food from the main kitchen over in heated boxes.”
The aim of Independent Catering – and Alston – is to produce good, healthy food to restaurant standards.
“Thankfully, people have woken up and realised that chips and processed food isn’t what we should be feeding children – nutritious, filling food is what will get the best results out of them,” said Alston. “People still have a poor perception of school dinners. So before the year starts we have an open day for all the new starters in Year 7 and their parents, and it includes a taster menu. You can see the look on the parents’ faces when they see the quality and variety of dishes that are presented and them thinking ‘that is not what was served in my day!’”
But the pressure to maintain this high quality of meals is a daily battle. “Unlike an average restaurant who can charge up to £15 for a main course, we can only charge £2.25,” admits Alston. “That means we have to produce good, healthy meals within a constant budget restraint – and that can be a challenge!”
So how does the team do it?
“We use cheaper or smaller cuts of meat and seasonal ingredients,” explains Alston. “For instance, lamb is a lot cheaper in spring so we only have it on the menu then for our roast day. For our chicken tikka masala, instead of a corn-fed chicken that they’d use in a restaurant, we make it with chicken breasts and leg – so use light and dark meat. On some dishes – such as chicken tikka or our sandwiches – we can make money and then we use that to balance out the budget and support more expensive dishes such as roasts. The key is to include plenty of veg and potatoes with the meal.”
One thing that is clear is that the pupils of St Olave’s are very well fed! Breakfast – served from 8am – is available to all pupils and consists of bacon rolls, granola, fruit pots, pancakes and cereals. Then, during their 20 minute morning break pupils no longer race to a tuck shop but the dining room where they can feast on taster portions of street food to keep them going. Pulled pork subs, jambalaya, noodles and potato wedges are just some of the options available.
“Our aim is to innovate pupils’ palates with new and on-trend food – and street food is hugely popular. They love it!” said Alston. “It’s perfect for a break-time snack because with limited time, they can just grab and go.”
Lunch is served at 12.40pm. Every day, there are two main meals on offer – depending on the day, it could be chicken tagine, roast beef with all the trimmings or fish and chips – made from scratch and served with fresh vegetables and salads, and a dessert. There is a daily vegetarian option; mushroom cannelloni or sweet potato and butternut squash, for example. Carb options include jacket potatoes, couscous or pasta, as well as a selection of sandwiches and paninis.
“Nothing is fried except for our fish and chips on a Friday which is treat day – even our wedges are baked,” said Alston. “All of our menus for the term are on the website so parents can go on and see what their child is eating.”
As well as reassuring parents, this helps Alston and his team keep on top of dietary requirements and allergen restrictions. “We have allergen lists dotted around the dining room so the pupils know exactly what is in their food and whether it is safe for them to eat it, and parents also inform me,” said Alston. “Because no cash is exchanged all payments are handled through our till system, where all dietary requirements are noted. When the pupil goes to pay, if they have bought something they can’t eat but may not necessarily realise, such as a prawn sandwich, it will flag up at the till and they’ll be told.”
All the sandwiches are available with gluten-free bread and one of the daily main courses is gluten free too. Their lemon cake and lime courgette muffins are sugar-free – chocolate bars, crisps and carbonated drinks are not available – instead, pupils are encouraged to buy a bottle of water with their meal, and any treats, like cookies and cakes, are all homemade by the bakery chef so the level of sugar being added is carefully monitored.
Alston knows if his dishes work or not from his biggest critics: the pupils.
“If a dish gets eaten up and all the plates are empty then I’ve done my job,” said Alston. “But whereas the children are the first to tell you how much they enjoyed their lunch, they are also the first ones to tell you they didn’t!”
Alston meets with the school council – made up of the head boy and prefects – each quarter to discuss the menu. “We’ll go through things that they like, what they want to keep on the menu and what they don’t like. Kids expect a high standard of cooking and don’t want the same old stuff,” said Alston. “Street food and foreign influences are something they now request. Children are more open to world flavours and dishes and want to be able to experience it – especially as many won’t eat that at home. I’m from a Caribbean background so I decided to cook my jerk chicken for them but was worried it would be too hot – it wasn’t. They loved it!”
Alston is already preparing for the new term in September. “Anything that the pupils can ‘grab and go’ is still popular so we’ll be doing more of that; from salad pots, pasta to street food,” said Alston. “We have 100 more pupils next term so my goal will be to keep inspiring them through healthy, innovative and flavoursome food that will not only fill them up but inspire them.”
Feed the World
Bring to life World Food Day in your school on 16 October. The global initiative is to end hunger for every child, woman and man around the world by encouraging school chefs to produce exciting school meals that will inspire children to change the world.Visit www.ufs.com/worldfood for recipe ideas