New on the menu

From a waste-busting superhero to the rise of sixth-form cafes, Simon Fry rounds up the latest trends in independent school catering

There may be nothing new under the sun, but catering companies supplying independent schools are serving up some shiny innovations now the summer term is here. The reduction of food waste, the wish to offer older pupils a high-street-like food experience, the current popularity of baking and superfoods and a desire to celebrate overseas cuisine have featured or will feature in numerous tasty initiatives. It’s not surprising, then, that one company reports winning new contracts with schools seeking similar pupil engagement.

Children around the country will soon learn about eco-friendly food production thanks to an exciting initiative. “According to Wrap (the waste management experts) food waste can cost the education sector around £250m a year,” says Kate Martin, managing partner of the Brookwood Partnership. “As school caterers, we are continuously seeking out ways to lessen the impact we have on the environment. This is why we have a dedicated team to ensure we operate sustainably. Reducing food waste is an issue with which we can influence and educate our teams as well as the pupils. Next month, our on-site catering teams will engage pupils in our third annual Planet Matters Day. Held on the fifth of June in conjunction with World Environment Day, this company-wide activity provides the opportunity to promote and celebrate our environmental programmes. 

“We know children really care about their environment and that they can take small steps which can really make a difference. So, new for 2015, is our latest initiative against plate waste – Captain Wasteless. Developed for preparatory school pupils, and to continue the success of other waste initiatives, our award-winning superhero will help to promote a plate waste campaign and help educate young pupils. Having achieved a 47 percent reduction in food waste from other initiatives, we envisage that Captain Wasteless will increase this reduction further. Still only in its initial roll-out, the initiative is already having a positive impact with one site recording a 10 percent reduction in food costs and another school reporting a 41 percent reduction in waste.”

The rise of the sixth-form café continues to be a popular trend in catering for the independent schools sector, according to Kevin Hopper, general manager client services, independent education at Harrison Catering Services. “Harrison has refurbished and relaunched a number of these cafés in the last two years and several other schools we work with have plans to refurbish over the summer,” he said. “They have become a real focus for bursars and heads when considering new contracts because they offer a wide range of benefits. For students they give the sixth formers, who want to be treated more as adults, a place all their own where they can relax with their friends. This in turn allows the catering provider to introduce a food and beverage offer more like that which students experience on the high street. Sixth-form cafés can really mirror the high-street coffee culture, keeping the students on site, which many schools want to encourage.”

Kevin identifies benefits from sixth-form cafes accruing to schools. “They can help with retention as students move from year 11 into sixth form and also help schools keep pace with students’ changing tastes as they move toward university. Additionally, when dining space is at a premium, offering another service area can help reduce congestion. The café space can then also be used for different types of events outside of the school day, such as parents’ evenings and during summer schools, creating additional income streams, providing further funding for reinvestment in the food service or used to support other school activities. Finally, competition for prospective students remains stiff in the sector. Independent schools are competing against each other and top maintained schools and academies, so they seek to differentiate themselves in any way they can. A sixth-form café can be a real point of difference for a school when marketing itself to prospective parents and students.”

“Instilling a love of good food goes far beyond helping pupils to make healthy eating choices. It’s about engaging with them and involving them in the process towards a healthier and balanced diet,” says James Goodwin, Wilson Vale chef manager at the Mount School in York and current holder of Independent School Caterer of the Year in the Educatering Awards 2014.

Food is an integral and exciting part of daily life at the school, where James manages 17 staff and a busy catering operation for 400 pupils ranging in age from three to eighteen, including 100 boarders. For example, he holds regular bread-making workshops championing and supporting the Real Bread Campaign. Freshly baked focaccia, ciabatta, malted wholemeal, semi-sourdough, soda bread and many more breads now appear on the menu every day.

Similarly, a recent sushi workshop proved very popular, with Japanese dishes including salmon and vegetable rolls, spicy salmon rolls and salmon nigiri. Says James: “All our chefs across our 25 independent school contracts have been trained in real breading skills, sushi-making and many other craft skills, and everyone is encouraged to share them with pupils.”

Wilson Vale’s independent schools portfolio now represents 25 percent of the business, which employs 550 staff nationwide and has a projected turnover of £22m for 2015.

Food theatre, unusual ingredients and healthier fast food are all trends currently sweeping the dining halls in the independent school sector.

At contract caterer Holroyd Howe’s independent schools, there has been a sharp rise in demand for handmade grab-and-go options over the last few years, with sixth-form cafes and tuck shops revamped to offer healthier homemade snacks and drinks. This trend for healthier fast food is increasingly popular because it makes school food more accessible and enticing for pupils.

The trend continues into the dining hall, where vibrant salad bars are filled with superfoods, ancient grains such as quinoa and lean protein, and street food stations offer freshly cooked noodles, Vietnamese pho and grilled chicken kebabs. Offering such a wide variety of cuisines at each service also helps to address the needs of an increasing number of international students and of specific diets.

Independent school catering has also become increasingly influenced by restaurant and hotel culture, where presentation is as important as the quality of the food. More time is spent designing visually engaging food displays, and menus often include fine dining options such as duck breast with caramelised red onions and chocolate fondant with homemade ice cream.

Sodexo continues to go from strength to strength, winning several contracts in the last 12 months. In September it started providing catering and hospitality services to The Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, Middlesex and in January began a five-year contract providing catering services at Wycombe Abbey, Buckinghamshire. Rhiannon Wilkinson, headmistress of Wycombe Abbey, says: “Sodexo is committed to using healthy cooking practices, the promotion of a balanced diet and use of ingredients which are sustainably and ethically sourced. We are confident Sodexo will take Wycombe Abbey to new culinary heights.”

Sodexo’s catering is in safe hands, according to Jeremy Alderton, managing director, Independents by Sodexo. “Our chefs play a vital role in delivering great food every day to Independents by Sodexo customers and we are committed to developing their culinary skills. Chefs of all abilities have the chance to develop their skills through our craft-training programme, whether they are fully qualified, an apprentice or undergoing an NVQ. Chefs are supported centrally by expertise from Tom Allen, our executive head chef, who oversees the development of unique, seasonal menus that get children excited about food. Additionally, chefs benefit from training in our regional ‘innovation hubs’, where they can collaborate on new ideas.”

In other news, a three-week tour organised by Sodexo saw students at several UK independent schools, including Manchester’s Chethams School of Music, enjoy a traditional Swedish menu created by Swedish chef Daniel Leidstedt. Dishes included baked cod fillet with lemon, cress and horseradish; butter-fried cabbage with celery and egg sauce; and cured char (Arctic trout/salmon) with Jerusalem artichoke cream, trout roe, shiso cress and fried potato. The chef’s visit was part of Sodexo’s global chef exchange programme, now in its eighth year.

With new Ofsted guidelines promoting the importance of nutrition and wellbeing for children, school caterer Pabulum set out to examine what parents understand about key phrases surrounding health and nutrition.

Pabulum caters for many independent schools and recently commissioned a YouGov survey revealing that despite many years of campaigning, some key food and health terms are still misunderstood by UK adults. For instance, the research showed that when asked what the term ‘fresh’ implied, 49 percent of respondents said “bought from a local market in the morning”; 47 percent said “straight from the farm”; 40 percent thought “home grown” and 38 percent said “food prepared in the kitchen from raw ingredients such as meat, fish and vegetables”. Only 10 percent thought the word applied to items on meat and vegetable counters from a local, branded supermarket.

Pabulum, whose new menu includes 94 percent fresh produce, intend to react to the research, with managing director Nelson Williams saying: “Health education is a key part of what we do, and with 10 development chefs all working on creating fresh and healthy meals, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re working hard to create awareness with parents on our fresh ingredients and how we opt for quality ingredients. However, we recognise there is still more work to be done in the sector and we’ve put plans in place to help schools, pupils and their families.”

The Brookwood Partnership W: www.brookwood-ptnrs.com

Holroyd Howe W: www.holroydhowe.com

Sodexo W: www.independentsbysodexo.com

Harrison W: www.harrisoncatering.co.uk

Wilson Vale W: www.wilsonvale.co.uk

Pabulum W: www.pabulum-catering.co.uk

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