Most of us enjoy a slap-up meal or even to sample fine dining once in a while, and while the pandemic has encouraged many to up their home-cookery skills, there’s no doubt we’d prefer to head out to a top-class restaurant for a treat.
You’d assume that top chefs only work in such restaurants, but some are now opting to work in Education. Why? How better to find out more than by speaking to three outstanding chefs who oversee the catering at Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust (BWCET). Richard Bell, Luca Tomassetti and Joanne Stoddart are all catering cluster managers for the trust having previously worked at the top of their game in the restaurant world.
There are many benefits to working in school catering. The obvious one is improved work-life balance. Traditionally, working in a professional restaurant kitchen means long hours, split shifts, and few nights off. There’s also a great pension and good holidays of course.
The catering team at BWCET is passionate about providing pupils with exciting, nutritious, varied food that ensures they’re eating healthily and fuelling their bodies and minds for education.
Joanne Stoddart has worked at high end restaurants including the Roux brothers’ La Gavroche and later for Roux Fine Dining covering many prestigious events including the BAFTAs and Henley Regatta. Her first move into education catering was as Head Chef of Bassett House School attended by the children of celebrities including Sean Connery and Sophie Ellis Bexter. Despite all of this, Joanne says she’s never been happier since coming on board at BWCET.
Having worked in some high-pressured restaurants and kitchen environments in the past, Joanne says: “You still have the pressures in school, but the rewards are far greater than when working in a Michelin star restaurant as you get to educate students and staff about foods they may never have tried before. It is a great, friendly environment for everyone, not just the children.”
“The role is quite demanding and varied, but I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way and the hours are so much more sociable. I have been given a unique opportunity to be part of a great team and I love to interact with the children and continue to help develop the trust’s catering services.”
Richard Bell, who previously worked in contract catering at large venues including the Sage in Gateshead and at Durham Cathedral, says: “While the better hours are certainly a bonus, I also enjoy the freedom of creating exciting nutritional, balanced dishes for students and teaching staff. Having control of what’s on the menu and ensuring the food is current and trendy is important as pupils know what food is because they all eat out on the high street at weekends.”
Richard also says job security is a perk and during the pandemic none of his 20 staff were furloughed or made redundant. All three chefs admit that working in education brings different challenges to those they faced in the hospitality sector. Richard adds: “You need to keep the menu varied as you have the same customer returning every day, but I try not to treat the pupils any differently to customers frequenting a high street restaurant. If they are not happy with the food or customer service, they can always bring a packed lunch, so it’s important to stay engaged with the pupils.”
Luca Tomassetti, originally from Rome, joined the trust in summer 2020 having spent most of his career working in hotels around the world, including the Waldorf Astoria’s Rome Cavalieri. He specialised in fine dining for big events but got to the stage where he wanted to get a better work life balance and cut his working week by half by moving into school catering.
Luca says that on paper there isn’t much of a difference to him between school catering and his previous career. “Our aim is to make the best food we can. That’s the same as before. The biggest difference is the financial aspect. The hospitality industry aims to be as profitable as possible but here in schools our priority is the wellbeing of the pupils. There is still the expectation to make sure the school catering is financially sustainable though, which is one of the reasons the trust employed professionals like myself, with experience in hospitality rather than education.”
Luca concludes: “Weekends, evenings and bank holidays used to be times when I was inevitably working. Now they’re an enjoyable time I can spend with my loved ones, instead of our busiest days in the kitchen. I love being able to use our experience and knowledge to try and educate pupils’ taste for food, it’s incredibly rewarding.”