Top of the Class
Head chef Danny Holder left an award-winning restaurant to take up the challenge of creating restaurant-style food in a school. His unique and winning formula has cooked up top marks from pupils, teachers and parents at Moorland School in Clitheroe, Lancashire. He shares the secrets of his success with Take Stock as he looks forward to the new school term.
Nestled within the Ribble Valley on the outskirts of a market town, Moorland is a hidden gem. With 196 pupils, of which 55 are boarders, the school has an excellent reputation academically and creatively thanks to its elite football programme and elite ballet programme. In August 2014 when head teacher Jonathan Harrison turned his attention to nutrition, his aim was to offer his pupils the best food too.
“When Mr Harrison shared his vision with me I knew it was something I wanted to be part of,” said Danny. “Teaching pupils about nutrition and making sure they understand what they are putting into their bodies is crucial. After 11 years working at The Millstone at Mellor I never dreamed I’d end up working in a school, but when Mr Harrison explained that he wanted fresh, homemade food – as good as any restaurant – to be served to his pupils I saw it as an exciting challenge.”
Danny had to source his own team of two chefs and three kitchen assistants before he could set about creating a new menu.
“To make the new concept work I needed chefs – not cooks popping processed food into an oven – kitted out in chef whites with rules like any kitchen,” explained Danny.
Danny and his team prepare a breakfast menu for the boarders which consists of choices such as granola and muesli or smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Their busiest time is lunch which caters for three sittings; juniors, middle and seniors and then an evening meal for the boarders.
“For lunch we serve soup of the day, sandwiches, a hot deli sandwich, salad bar, two hot options, one halal option and a vegetarian one too. We also have vegetables, pasta and jacket potatoes,” said Danny. “We don’t have chips, fish stars or anything processed on the menu, everything is made here inhouse: from the biscuits to the sauces, it is all homemade.”
He serves homemade delights like cottage pie, chicken curry, and beef goulash finished off with traditional desserts like sticky toffee pudding, cheesecake and chocolate tart.
“We don’t discourage the kids from eating ‘comfort’ foods – we just make them healthier. For instance, our chicken curry is made without oil but with stock and we add crème fraîche. If we do burgers we make them from scratch and serve them with sweet potato fries. We don’t believe in saying a pupil can’t have chocolate but because we serve the children we have some portion control so to a degree can monitor what and how much they eat.”
The team mix it up with fun and exciting choices. As well as a fancy fish and chips once a month they do a Tuesday Toastie and Danny’s Delight – chilled chocolate ganache in a glass to which the pupils add hot milk to make a hot chocolate!
Aware that most children have limited palates, Danny’s aim is to open their taste buds to new flavours and tastes.
“We served kedgeree for breakfast and to our surprise the kids loved it – so I’m now thinking of trying out kippers! Our Thai dishes Beef Rendang, Thai Green Curry and Katsu Curry along with our chicken and sweetcorn spring rolls go down a storm,” said Danny. “I do something as simple as using Diane or pepper sauce instead of bog-standard gravy, and I’ll serve champ potato instead of normal mash. It’s wonderful to witness the children’s curiosity – and reluctance – but once I’ve explained what is in the dish they eat it – and love it! As a team we take the time to talk to the kids and build up their trust. It’s as simple as that.”
Danny’s accommodating, friendly and open attitude has not only made him top of the class with pupils but parents too.
“Parents notify me of their child’s dietary requirements and I’ll adapt the menu or make something specific for them,” said Danny. “I always put the menu for that day on the blackboard so if there is anything the kids can’t eat they will tell me in time – but if it’s simply a matter of them not liking the sound of a dish that’s different. We don’t want to overpower or force them to eat something but will encourage them to try it. Most of the time they like it when they do and the odd one who doesn’t I make them something else. And when a parent tells me their child will never eat a vegetable at home I promise them that by the end of the year they will. And I’m right.”
To be able to make the food he wants Danny, like most chefs, has to work to a budget so uses the best local suppliers.
“People think the freshest local stuff is the most expensive but that is not necessarily the case,” said Danny. “I did my research and searched for the best suppliers to suit my budget. I use seasonal fruit and veg and source the cheaper cuts of meat like blade of beef that by braising for long enough is tender and gives you a great flavour. I grow herbs but eventually I’d like to grow our own veg so we are as self sufficient as we can be.”
Overall, the response has been positive.
“I love it when the pupils finish their dish and then run over to ask me what was in it and what flavours I used,” said Danny. “Even the teachers are fans. Before, they brought in a packed lunch but now they are first in the dinner queue! Kids are our biggest critics. If they like it they’ll tell you and if they don’t they will too!”
Danny and his team have brought the standards of a hotel kitchen to a school and his aim is to become an award-winning school kitchen.
”This is more than a job to me. Moorland is a family and it makes my day seeing the kids enjoying the food. That’s what I’m here for.”