2017 was one for the books for Steve Fowell, who last year won an EDUcatering Excellence Award for Self-Managed Caterer of the Year. But this year is proving even better, he tells Morag Wilson
Taking the bull by the horns is perhaps the best way to describe Steve Fowell’s approach to his professional career as a school chef. Just four years into the role, as head chef at Mendip Green Primary School in Weston-super-Mare, his first foray into the industry, Steve has already picked up industry awards, written a cook book, presented at local food festivals and launched his own brand.
It goes to show what some of the new blood in the school catering sector could do for school meals. Steve is incredibly passionate about improving child health and getting as many children as possible to eat a school meal (since joining, uptake at Mendip Green has risen from 600 meals a week to 1,180). He is media savvy and wants to use that skill to get more people talking about school meals.
There has been criticism for Henry Dimbleby’s new Chefs in Schools initiative, which aims to get 100 restaurant-trained chefs into 100 schools over the next five years. But Steve is a great example of someone with a restaurant background who is reveling in the challenge of cooking food on a budget.
“A lot of restaurant chefs wouldn’t last two minutes in a school kitchen!” says Steve.
For him, his path to the school kitchen has been one of happenstance. While his background was restaurants, it was while working as a plasterer, a job he hated, alongside running an outside catering business, that he was approached to fill in at Mendip Green after the school cook had walked out. He had a look around and agreed to hold the fort for four to six months until they found a permanent replacement, never believing that he would work in school food. Four years later and he’s still there.
It certainly wasn’t a lightbulb moment and Steve inherited a staff of unskilled cooks who were more accustomed to opening packets than cooking anything from scratch.
“I was surprised by how poor the meals were,” recalls Steve. “One of the first things I did when I went into the kitchen was to see what equipment they had. I asked the ladies if anyone could tell me if this particular piece of kit worked. They looked at me blankly, so I asked if they knew what it was and they didn’t know. It was a potato peeler. When I showed them what it did they thought it was amazing.”
Steve only says this because it’s a world away from the situation now, yet he works with the same team.
“It was from that point that I thought, I have a blank canvas here, I can teach them so much and it’s going to help them not just in school but outside of school as well,” he says.
Equipping them with cookery skills wasn’t the only thing Steve planned to do. He worked hard to enthuse them and empower them in their work and make coming to the school kitchen each morning an enjoyable part of their day.
There are five in the kitchen and one of the first actions Steve took was changing their contracts to make them all chefs, promoting one, Amy, to be his second chef.
“But, I said that now I’ve given you all that title you have to earn it,” he says. “You’re going to create things, not just open packets and put them in the oven. I want you to start to think about the ingredients and combinations and how to create new flavours.”
Steve tried to show how important their role was in the kitchen, that it’s part of children’s school day and a fundamental part of their learning.
“I wanted them to get to the point that the money’s not the reason they’re here, that the vocation is what drives them. They came alive and felt they had purpose.”
Steve still regularly provides training to his team and appreciates that they can’t all go off to catering college and get qualifications.
Of course, while Steve was training his team he was teaching himself plenty as well. With no experience of school catering and no line manager to seek advice from, he needed to learn it all, and fast. He knew that the menus were pretty bland and boring, but how much could he change them by? What were the ‘rules?’ And how did these cooks manage to get all that food out in time?
“I had done banqueting in the past in hotels at the Winter Gardens Pavilion on the seafront where we would cook for 800 people, sometimes over 1,000,” says Steve. “But there you would go in at 6am and you wouldn’t be serving until 6.30 at night. At school you go in at 7am, do breakfast club, start cooking at 8am and you have four hours to cook 400 portions of whatever it might be from scratch. Everyone knows that 12pm service time is the holy grail and you don’t miss that! The timescale constraint was my biggest learning curve.”
His own experience of getting to grips with running a school kitchen – and at Mendip Green they have 670 children on roll, one of the biggest primary schools in the south west – has led Steve to believe that all heads of kitchens should have a formal qualification in professional cookery.
“They should need to know how to make a basic stock, basic sauces and know basic chopping skills,” he says. “They should know combinations of food and be able to pass this onto their team. I know that’s not going to happen overnight.”
It’s a knowledge that Steve is keen to impart on the pupils, too. He does a cooking lesson once every term for the children and when I speak to him he has just that day given a lesson on pizzas to tie in with their classroom lessons on Italy. They were encouraged to try anchovies, olives, garlic and sundried tomatoes.
“I wanted to show that in Italy you won’t find pineapple or barbecue sauce on a pizza,” says Steve. “Instead you’ll find beautiful ingredients native to the climate and I was so glad they tried it. I love seeing the lightbulb moment when children try something. I always say to the children that to find their favourite food they must have tried it for the first time. If you don’t keep trying new foods, how are you going to find your new favourite food?”
The lessons have allowed Steve to get more adventurous on the lunch menu and every Thursday there’s a dish from around the world, from Chinese chicken noodles to South African bunny chow.
It has all inspired him to create The School Chef, his own brand which he hopes to use to encourage children to try new flavours and have a passion for food, but most notably get them in the kitchen at home to cook with their parents.
“When I came to the school I was made aware that so many families don’t cook together because of commuting times, some people work three jobs, etc. Family values are disappearing. Who is going to pass down recipes to the next generation? I thought, I’m a school chef, perhaps I could do something to change this.”
While sitting around at the South West regional finals of LACA School Chef of the Year two years ago Steve looked so see if anyone had registered theschoolchef.co.uk and associated domain names. They hadn’t, he bought the website, and made the commitment to change attitudes to food.
He set about creating a recipe book, Family Cooking with The School Chef, and at the same time he was asked to do a cooking demonstration at a festival. Then, he was asked to be the curator for the demo kitchen for all of the festival’s events, which allowed him to grow his brand and spread the word. He got his logo professional designed and creates cookery videos for his website, which have caught the attention of UKTV and networks in the US, Canada and Brazil.
“Creating The School Chef allowed me to push school food outside of the kitchen and into the community,” he says.
All being well, it will be a busy summer for Steve once the holidays begin as he will embark on making the episodes for the cookery show. But all the while Steve focuses on the reason why he is building his profile, to get families cooking together and sitting down to share their meal. It’s a simple idea that without the people to bang the drum for it, could one day disappear for good.
The 2018 EDUcatering Excellence Awards are now open for entries. If there’s someone in your team who deserves recognition – or if you’re proud of the work that you’re doing in your school kitchen – then enter today! Nominate for free online at educateringawards.co.uk no later than 20th July.
Winning an EDUcatering Excellence Award
“I was blown away to have won last year,” recalls Steve. He was nominated at the 2017 EDUcatering Excellence Awards in the Self-Managed School Caterer of the Year category. “Not only was it a huge achievement but it was a lovely night out too. And to have our food cooked by Steve Munkley (head chef at the Royal Garden Hotel) was great because he awarded me with my gold award at Finishing Touches last year.”
Steve had been nominated for a few different awards last year but the EDUcatering Excellence Awards was the only one that he took his wife to, which made it all the more special when he was announced as the winner!
“I did have to be back at the kitchen for 7am the next morning though and we didn’t get home until 3.15am,” says Steve. “But it was so worth it and we had a lovely walk around Kensington Gardens beforehand.”
Steve might have all the qualifications one could wish for in a school chef, but he had never worked in a school kitchen before and, being self-managed, had no one to turn to for support.
“My pride wouldn’t allow me to go to another kitchen and see how they do it,” says Steve. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be taught by someone else, of course I can do this’.”
He did, however, do some research around school meals. “I went to my boss and said, there’s an organisation called LACA and I think we should join it as it gives me a sounding board.”
Steve first noticed just how isolated he was when he went to compete at LACA School Chef of the Year. “Everyone else had line managers with them or their area rep.”
Being new to schools he didn’t know there was such a thing as school food standards (the school doesn’t have to adhere to them but Steve chooses to do so) or recommended portion sizes. Yet, being in-house does mean that he has certain freedoms. For a start, he has no budget and he is a big believer in providing plenty of choice.
“We don’t have the buying power but we have the freedom,” says Steve.
In September the school will join a Multi-academy Trust with six other schools but nothing will change within the catering department at Mendip Green. They’re in-house and things have never been better.