Q&A: Nicole Pisani

Categories: Features

Last year, Borough Market blogger Nicole Pisani gave up a stellar career at one of London’s top restaurants to work at a primary school in Hackney. She talks to Market Life about challenging her staff, battling with fussy eaters, and why chocolate in bolognese is never the answer

Interview: Mark Riddaway

Back in January 2015, Nicole Pisani was one of the rising stars of the London restaurant world: talented, driven, promoted to head chef at Nopi, Yotam Ottolenghi’s West End flagship, at a frighteningly young age. Then, all of a sudden, she made a dramatic and unprecedented career change, swapping the kitchen of a high end restaurant for that of a Hackney primary school.

The trigger was a tweet from Henry Dimbleby, the founder of Leon and a government food advisor, who was looking for a chef to step in at Gayhurst Community School, where he serves as a governor. Now she’s a vital part of the school community—but don’t even think about calling her a dinner lady.

What prompted you to make such a dramatic change to your life?
I had actually already handed in my notice when I saw the tweet. I was tired; really tired. Maybe a day after I’d given my notice, my really good friend, who’s the manager at Nopi, showed me the tweet from Henry and said, “Answer this, I think it’s perfect.”

I couldn’t do those 16 hour shifts anymore. At a place like that, the pressure to keep standards high is so great, and the only way I felt I could manage it properly was to be there all the time, not at home. It was my first managerial position ever; I’d never been in charge of people. I was a nice boss, but I don’t think I was ever able to properly let go, to trust people. I’d always be there, and my week was like 90 hours. It got to the point that I just couldn’t do it anymore.

So what was the attraction of a school kitchen?
It was the kids. The holidays and the kids! Last holiday, I did nothing, for two weeks—the first time in my career I’d been able to really stop. Mainly though, I was excited at the thought of possibly making a difference to these children in their formative years.

If we can encourage children to eat a variety of foods cooked from scratch, and teach them a little about where the ingredients come from, I hope we can make a difference to their relationship with food for life. I knew that it would be a different kind of challenge. And yes, it has been one of the biggest challenges I have ever taken on.

What is the food like at Gayhurst now with you as the chef? 
They might not always agree with me, but it’s really nice food! We prepare nearly all the dishes from scratch, which means peeling and chopping lots of fresh vegetables, but I think that’s important because it gets across to the children that fresh food isn’t uniform, it doesn’t all look the same.

We do classic favourites like lasagne and we make our own fish fingers, as well as dishes that are a little more adventurous, like soy-glazed chicken and Moroccan spiced carrots. I’m happy to serve the children sausages, but we make sure we source good quality sausages—we are now supplied by a farm, and the farmers even came in to talk to the children in assembly.

Lots of people think we must spend a lot, but we have actually reduced our food costs by buying raw ingredients that haven’t been prepared beforehand.

What did you bring across from the restaurant world?
I won’t have people saying ‘dinner lady’, or whatever. I’ve tried to make the kitchen at school quite close to a restaurant. Simple things, like calling each other “chef”. You start to realise why we do that in the kitchen—when you’re telling someone off it’s not personal, and since you’re telling people off constantly, that’s important.

What else did you bring across from the restaurant world?
I put all of the staff in sections. I have a pastry section, bread section, hot section, vegetarian section and salads. They each have their strengths but I will also rotate and ask everyone to do every section at one point or another.

It has been important for me to create a professional kitchen culture in the school, in which everyone cares about what and how we serve the children. It matters how the food looks, so we swapped from flight trays to plates, and I ask the staff to take care whenever they put the food on the plates.

These things take time to fully instil in everyone, but there are days when I really see the changes. The passion now shows with the food they serve. When the kids ask what something is, they know. They come up with their own recipes now, and everyone has a signature dish.

Do they appreciate it, though?
I think so. They push and I pull, but I see them growing all the time. I know that I frustrate them when I refuse to order frozen prepared veg, but I believe there is now a pride in what they do and the food they serve.

Now they’re making vegetable tempura and baking their own bread. How did you manage to train them while also feeding hundreds of kids?
The community was really good. A lot of people with food establishments in the area emailed to say, “Anything we can do to help...” So in the beginning they were going to E5 Bakehouse and spending the day with Eyal, the baker, and they went to Tonkotsu and did gyozas. I trained them as much as I could, usually on a Saturday. They wouldn’t get paid, but they would go anyway.

They went to Leon and trained with about 50 18-year-olds—my group were aged from 50 to 70, and no one explained to others who they were or why they were there. You could see all these kids thinking, what restaurant are they from?

How have the children taken to the new menus?
You know children. One day they love cucumbers, the next day they hate them. It’s the same recipe, the same cucumbers. It’s hard to know what to do on those days. When I arrived, I had this idea that I could make every individual child happy, but that led to us doing about 10 different versions of the meals each day, which was impossible to keep going. And the trouble is that when you try to help a fussy eater by giving them a special meal, you’re just reinforcing the fussy part.

At first I was like, “Right, they’re customers and that’s how we’ll treat them,” but I soon realised it had become unbalanced. It wasn’t helping the situation: I have to serve you the only thing you say you like, and I have to stop doing everything else I’m doing in order to make it for you? We soon put a stop to that; it wasn’t the answer. 

What makes a child fussy?
This won’t be the case for all children, but I have noticed that when parents come to tasting sessions they will be the mirror image of their child, whether they are adventurous eaters or more fussy. It’s difficult to tell parents, “This is coming from you”—but that is often the case.

As a school chef, can you do anything to fix that?
We are getting better thanks to cooking lessons. As soon as food’s not the enemy, not a way to assert control through “I don’t like this, I don’t that”, that’s when you can get somewhere. All the kids who are fussy, get them into the kitchen. They start with simple things: touching an egg, boiling an egg. At first, they were like: “Euuuurgh.” But at least it makes it more accessible in their minds. It’s a bit of fun. I think that’s the only way that we can get them on board.

How much thought do you put into the nutritional value of the food?
I was dealing with a complaint recently. We had pizza one day, and a parent said: “This is not nutritionally balanced.” But the balance is in the week. That’s the important thing. You can’t always eat what’s good for you, you have to have a fun day. Sometimes you have to give them what they really want, and that might be pizza—we’ve made it in house, that’s the difference, and because of that I feel it’s okay to have a variety of things through the week.

So you don’t sit there calculating the nutritional value of every single dish…
As a chef, I think you have this inside of you anyway. Balance is important in any menu. I don’t need to weigh out the salt—I know that I would never over-salt anything, because I’m trained that way. That whole thing of “we need to give them more iron, so we’ll put some chocolate in the bolognese”, what’s the point if it doesn’t taste good, so no one then eats it? What’s the point if you stand by the bins and everything’s getting chucked away? It may be perfectly balanced, but it’s still in the bin.

How are they with veg?
Broccoli’s fine, French beans are fine, they struggle with spinach. They like seaweed, they like olives, they like samphire. Pulsing things is often the answer. The lasagne, we were putting in spinach; now we just pulse it into the tomato sauce.

How important is building familiarity with new dishes and ingredients?
I think if you just served the same thing every day, you’d win. You could do something they’d never heard of, and give it to them every day for three weeks, and you’d eventually nail it—they’d eat the whole plate. But there’s no way I could go into work and cook the same meal over and over. I have to be able to improvise, to think like a chef.

We had peas today and there are some left over, so tomorrow we’ll have pea fritters—it’s a Nopi recipe. The kids don’t even know how lucky they are—for three of these in Nopi, people pay £12!