Brookwood and Our Lady’s Abingdon: a perfect partnership

Lucinda Reid visits Our Lady's Abingdon to discover how they have embraced a café culture with their new dining facilities

At Our Lady’s Abingdon (OLA) there is more to the school than meets the eye. I was invited to visit the school to see their new dining facilities and as I waited for my tour I observed my surroundings. The school was bright and airy with a contemporary feel, the walls adorned with impressive artwork from the pupils. To the left of the reception area was a café, which I would later discover is Café Mall, a special area for the sixth form students. When I met Simon Hughes, Bursar at OLA, and Sue Parfett, Managing Partner at The Brookwood Partnership, Simon pointed out the café and explained that it was also used at the weekends for those having swimming lessons. To my surprise, I realised that I had been sitting next to a swimming pool, which was unexpectedly placed at the entrance of the school. Like I said, there is more to this school than meets the eye. 

OLA was founded in 1860 by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order which began in Dublin in the early 19th century by Catherine McAuley. In 2007, the school devolved from the order and created a new charitable company. Simon joined the school in 2002 and witnessed these changes, as well as the school becoming co-educational in 2009. When walking around the school it is hard to ignore its history, but I was interested in OLA’s decision to modernise their dining facilities, with the help of The Brookwood Partnership and Catering Design Group…

Before we discuss the new dining facilities, how did OLA’s relationship with Brookwood begin? 

Simon Hughes: The previous contractor had been with us since 1998. We wanted to improve the quality of the food and focus on the children’s nutrition so we went to tender four years ago. We knew that Brookwood was the right fit for us as we felt that they would always deliver what they set out to do. We are very pleased that we chose Brookwood and parents have said that they are delighted with the change. 

What was the dining experience like before the refurbishment 

SH: It was functional but it wasn’t very comfortable, it was just doing the job. My daughter was a pupil at OLA and she even said, “Can’t you do something about the dining room, Dad?” 

How would you describe the dining room after the redesign? 

SH: The space has been transformed and it now has a really nice feel. The pupils also are much more comfortable and linger for longer at lunchtime. We have also noticed that the Year 10 retention for lunches is up, although we are in the process of making lunch compulsory for all years, except sixth form. 

During the redesign, were there any challenges? 

SH: I thought that the plan for the lighting was ambitious for such a short time frame, but the whole team was phenomenal and it was a bit like DIY SOS! I would visit the dining room and there would be lots of people working hard. 

Sue Parfett: I think the challenge with the dining room was that the previous proposal involved changing the building, so once the decision was made to keep the building as it was, the biggest challenge went away. 

SH: I agree, as moving the kitchen and all the drainage would have been a huge project and actually, it missed the point. We wanted to create a dining experience and the redesign achieved that. It is a very clever design and the ambience is great. The lighting gives you a reason for being there. I remember sitting in the dining area on the very first day, and it was a great feeling. It also fits with more of what the pupils want and where they would eat at the weekend. They are into the café culture and the new facility suits that contemporary feel. 

Did the menu change once the facility was complete? 

SP: Michelle Lawrence, Chef Manager, designs the menu and Simon then approves them. We always change them to coincide with the natural seasonal breaks. 

SH: Michelle is a real find. Her role is key to the successful operations of the school’s catering. She is very attentive. 

Does the catering team get involved with other aspects of the school? 

SH: There is a concept called Fisherman Finn, which Brookwood co-ordinate. They get a whole fish and fillet it to show the younger pupils and it really engages them. 

SP: Yes, the idea is to show the children that fish doesn’t automatically come with breadcrumbs. 

How does Brookwood cater for all the ages? 

SP: We use the same food but present it in different ways. For example, there are different ways of presenting spaghetti Bolognese depending on the age. Plus, with something like chicken curry we would remove the spice for the younger ones or use tikka spices. 

How do you cater for a variety of preferences? 

SH: There is always a vegetarian option on the menu and as a Catholic school, there is fish on a Friday. Actually, this shows Brookwood’s sensitivity as they came to tender on a Friday, so everything they presented was non-meat. 

Do you have anything further planned for the dining facilities? 

SH: We are very happy with what we’ve got but I would quite like to spruce up the kitchen and add some up-to-date equipment. 

SP: Absolutely, and if you are looking at the kitchen then you have to look at the menu first and see if the equipment matches that. It isn’t always appreciated that when you design a kitchen you have to start with what you want to offer. 

So, how would you sum up this project? 

SH: We are very pleased with the end result and I think it works well with the space we have. We don’t have acres but we have made the most of what we’ve got and played to our strengths. We are very different from our competitors, but by being different, that’s what makes us interesting.