Essential  Cuisine

Essential Cuisine

Premium Supplier 7th March 2011


A fresh challenge When Annette Bristow arrived for her first day as catering manager at The Business Academy in January 2006, she had little idea what was about to hit schools in the UK. Working in hotel conferencing and banqueting for six years out in Oklahoma and Texas, Jamie Oliver’s campaign to promote healthy eating and increase school lunch take-up was not something she had been aware of until she returned to the UK. “I came into it a bit blind,” she said. “However, I saw it as a challenge and it still is a challenge, making sure pupils’ taste buds are excited, all while adhering to the guidelines.” Thankfully, the UK’s flagship academy in Bexley - opened in 2002 as a model for a more positive, supportive learning environment - already had a good set-up, creating fresh, healthy menus. “The adjustment wasn’t a major one as my predecessor was very much about homemade food and had plenty of flair,” she said. “We certainly didn’t have the Turkey Twizzler issues, and, when I took over, I was keen to continue this approach.” Although the state-maintained, but independently run, establishment for 3-19 year olds has a primary and secondary school on-site and food is cooked from two separate kitchens, menus are developed in conjunction with each other. There are subtle differences, however. “We serve around 300 sit-down, main meals at both the primary and secondary school, but, on top of that, we serve another 300 grab and go options at the secondary school. There are 10 School Food Trust-approved choices, including Pasta King, paninis, pizzas, fresh soups and jacket potatoes, and we are currently looking at extending our sandwiches offer into the primary school. Pupils of this age want to spend time catching up with their friends, which is why this works so well. “For the younger pupils, we have started doing promotions, asking in suppliers and getting the kids to try different dishes, and we also do theme days. For example, Chinese New Year was a great opportunity to create a special menu with sweet and sour pork and chicken chow mein, which went down really well.” As grab and go options and as main meals, Annette’s big mission is to re-introduce classic, homemade dishes, which largely disappeared off school menus with the advent of fast food. “We have been trying to get them into traditional dishes like cottage pie, hotpots and lasagne as a sit-down, hot meal, and I’m genuinely surprised at how well it’s going down. As a grab and go option, we are also now making our own meat pies and pasties, which are a huge hit and shows it’s not just about the packaging. We bow down to this idea too easily, and, as a mum of an eight-year-old, I know it’s easy to do. Apparently, children have to try something three times before they do not like it, so try and try again is key.” The essential ingredient One of the most important elements of a classic dish is the sauce or gravy. The time constraints of having to cater for up to a thousand children each day and the labour costs involved in making these essential ingredients, however, means this is not always viable. In school catering, there are other issues to consider. “As a catering manager, I worry about children’s vulnerability. We also see a lot more kids with allergies and intolerances these days and some might not even know they have one, it might just flare up.” To avoid such problems, Annette uses Essential Cuisine Classic Bechamel Sauce for lasagnes. “Children’s immune systems are still developing and the last thing I want is for them to get ill,” she said. “For this reason, I prefer to use a dehydrated product for my béchamel sauce rather than make it fresh. It can’t be just any product, though, it has to be good to stimulate their palates and the Essential mix is really good. “It also holds better. With lasagne, you have to make sure the pasta’s cooked, which means you can overcook the béchamel, which will split. The Essential product helps prevent this and, if I’m honest, is better than the one we were making. They have got the seasoning down to a ‘T’, which is good for us as we are not allowed to add more salt. If it was too salty, you can risk putting kids off a dish for life. “We also use the béchamel sauce in our creamy vegetarian plait to bind the veg and puff pastry, and as a base and topping for pasta bakes with some cheese.” Vegetarian dishes are also becoming more popular and not just with vegetarians. According to a poll by the Food Development Association, 86 percent of consumers eat non-meat meals once or twice a week. Ethnic diversity is also a significant consideration for school caterers as it often results in the need for specialist ingredients. “We have quite a few vegetarians, but we also have to be careful when it comes to gravies and the use of animal bones as we have a high percentage of Muslims,” she said. “There’s also allergens to watch out for and an increasing number of special dietary requirements.” To meet this challenge and serve up classics, Annette uses Essential Cuisine’s No1 Savoury Gravy, suitable for vegetarians, Coeliacs, diabetes sufferers and pupils with intolerances. “We use it in our hotpots, stews, lasagne and on our nut roast, which we have every two weeks and is even popular with the meat eaters. We also use it as a thickener for our meat gravy and as an accompaniment for our new pasties. “We had been struggling to find something that was low in sodium, and this gravy ticks all the boxes for us. It holds well, is stable in the bain marie and tastes rich, unlike many vegetarian gravies. Schools need these kind of products, products they can trust. Essential Cuisine is also helpful in supplying nutritional information, which makes life easier for school caterers. “We have to look for 10 nutritionals including zinc, salt etc, but most suppliers only give you four or five to get a complete nutritional analysis. We appreciate suppliers like Essential, which make this easier and save us money.” Having Nigel Crane, a Dorchester-trained chef who developed some of the most well-known gravies, at the helm at Essential Cuisine, is also welcome. “With his chef background, he knows what the end product should be like; how it should look, taste and its consistency, which isn’t easy with liquids. With this chef approach, we can trust the products to deliver. “If you love food, you are always going to care what it looks and tastes like, what people say about it, and it’s no different in my job. Kids are better at giving you feedback and will tell you if they don’t like something. They say a school lunch is only 18 percent of what a child eats in a day, but, while we can’t change the world, we can do our bit.”

In these challenging times…

…the hospitality landscape has dramatically changed in the last two months, and with that our advertising revenues have all but expired, significantly impacting our business. Despite having to furlough a large portion of our staff, we are still delivering the valuable content and honest information, which hundreds of thousands of you come to The Staff Canteen for. We believe we have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs, are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector.

Your financial support means we remain independent and open to all. We were launched by a chef and remain the voice of chefs and other hospitality professionals.

We need your support to keep delivering the products and content that you love, giving you the platform to share opinions and inspiration. Every contribution whether big or small, means so much.
Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you