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In this special Q&A, Bryanston’s Catering Manager Mike Thorne explains the approach taken to feeding Bryanston’s 600+ pupils three times a day, the increasing interest in veganism and the importance of encouraging pupils to make their own choices when it comes to food…
It goes without saying that it takes an enormous amount of preparation and thorough organisation to be able to feed Bryanston’s 600+ pupils three times a day as well as staff at lunch time. How do you go about planning for this? Are the menus prepared each week or do you have them mapped out months in advance?
Yes, our menus are set out in advance. We work out how many portions of each particular main course we need, taking into account numerous other factors, such as the need for packed lunches or other special events that are going on around the School.
You get used to the pupils – what they eat, what they like and what they don’t like. When we do a lunch service, we always write down what’s left and how many portions we have remaining at the end. We do this every day to help us plan for next time. We never want to run out of anything for the last sitting: we always aim for the last sitting to have access to the same choices as the first sitting.
We have recipes for all of our main courses, which helps us know exactly how much food to order. We create a three-week cycle of menus offering light bites, chef’s theatre, traditional and salads, and we have to order three days in advance. It’s not as easy as just ordering one day and getting it the next; you have to be organised in advance to know what you’re going to need in three days’ time. If there are functions and events on in addition to the day-to-day, this all needs to be taken into account as well. Weekends are often complex to plan for, working out which pupils are in School and which are out.
Take last week as an example, in addition to the day-to-day, we had a mammoth week, including two important dinners on Friday and Saturday evening, feeding more than 1,000 people down in the grounds for the Prep Schools’ Girls Netball Tournament and more than 500 teas for the Ken Baily Races. This all needed to be planned and ordered in advance.
There’s constantly plenty to think about. We do a weekly plan so that the entire department has an insight into what’s going on and where. These plans are done three weeks in advance and as something new comes in, we’ll add this to the planner and circulate amongst the team. Events range from feeding 1,000 pupils to sorting out teas and coffees for a small meeting of 12 people.
Your team goes above and beyond to ensure that meals are always varied and exciting. With the exception of staples like Friday fish and chips, how do you maintain pupils’ interest and enthusiasm?
We operate on a seasonal three-week cycle of menus so there’s always variety. In the evenings, we offer four themes for two days and then over the next two days, we’ll offer another four themes. So, if there’s something the pupils really like they can have it the next night, and if they don’t, or they want something else, then they can choose something different.
Pupils like choice and they love to build their own meal. The ‘meat and two veg’ that we served years ago is long gone. We’ve seen a terrific shift over the years; food is fantastic, and trends change so quickly, this is why working in catering is so exciting – we’re always trying to do better and come up with new ideas.
Have you noticed an increased interest in vegan food?
Oh, absolutely. Just last Thursday we did a ‘no meat’ day, which went down really well. We didn’t forewarn people in advance, we just got on with it. If we had told pupils in advance, we might have been met with some opposition and would probably have heard things like ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea’ or ‘We won’t like that.’ But in truth, we only received positive comments following serving vegetarian and vegan dishes. And in my opinion, serving only vegetarian and vegan food once a month doesn’t hurt anyone. In fact, it can only be a positive.
We like to get people tasting different types of plant-based foods and grains and encouraging them to try different dishes that they wouldn’t normally choose. Then when they try them, they realise how nice it actually is. I used to love meat and still do but I’m going to be honest and say that I wouldn’t have ordinarily chosen a salad a few years back. Now even if meat is an option, I will go for a salad instead. I can’t believe how much less meat I eat now.
The team work really hard on offering a full range of salads, vegetables and grains. It’s hard work – you can’t just order in the types of salads that we serve; the team prepare these from scratch, we don’t just get it from a tub.
I still think we’ve got a lot of work to do for vegetarians and vegans. There’s always more we can do. We found that we were getting quite a few requests for vegan options and we were always having to prepare something separate, whereas now we almost always have a vegan dish on offer for the entire school. I think it’s the direction that things are going. It’s nice to give everyone this choice.
By reducing the consumption of meat, the land animals were farmed on can, in turn, be used for forestry or other uses, which then helps to cut emissions. I’m always keen on doing what we can to help the environment.
Chartwells’ motto (Bryanston’s catering service) is ‘Eat, Learn, Live’. How does your team ensure that Bryanston pupils continue to develop a positive and healthy relationship with food?
We encourage our pupils to think about eating dishes they wouldn’t normally choose. What I want them to do is understand the choices available to them. I want them to think about the food they eat, the times of the day they’re eating and how that makes them feel. I want them to acknowledge how their body and mind feel when they eat sugar and tuck late at night.
The School is working hard on offering nutritional guidance: a letter went out to parents at the beginning of the term and we are continuing to work hard on improving what is on offer in the Café.
It’s tricky. You can’t stand there and tell the pupils what to do or tell them what they can or can’t eat. It’s about introducing new and healthier options more subtly and educating them to understand why those options are a wiser choice. You still have to give them what they enjoy – you know, they love their Bratwurst sausages every so often, and fish and chips. If you took these items away, then there would be a riot, I think!
The Café offers fresh pots of fruit and yoghurt, celery/carrot/cucumber crudités with houmous or vegetable dip, in addition to cakes and sweeter offerings. We’re trying to reduce the amount of sweets on show and offering fizzy drinks with less sugar content. We’ve also made some small changes to the pizzas we offer in the evenings: we only sell these at 9pm in the evenings, so as not to compete with the dining room, and we’ve weighed out the mozzarella so that not quite so much cheese is going on. The majority of pizzas you can buy these days are loaded with grease, fat and cheese; ours, in comparison, are much better for you.
I’ve learnt over the years that if you take everything away then the pupils won’t be happy; you have to do it in a gradual way, not one big hit. It’s about finding a way of introducing new things gradually without forcing our pupils to change, in the hope that they’ll realise that it’s for their own good that these things are happening.
If you stand in the food court and watch the pupils come through, it’s a lovely thing. They choose such a great variety; no two plates are the same. Somebody might choose a wrap with a salad and the person they’re with might choose a wrap with vegetables. It’s rewarding to see them making their own choices.
Nutrition expert Lucinda Miller visited the School at the start of term to speak with staff and explored the correlation between junk food and poor mental health. How much correlation do you see between the two?
Our dining room is a positive and happy environment. There’s always a great vibe in the dining room and we put this down to the fact there are healthy and nutritious dishes on offer, helping to generate a positive mindset and fuel their inquisitive minds.
From a safeguarding perspective, of course there will be times when we notice that a pupil might seem down or particularly quiet, and we will always raise this with their tutor or Hsm. The Café staff are particularly strong at this; they have a great rapport with the pupils and can always sense when something is up and will raise this with the pastoral team.
When it comes to the cakes and sweeter treats in the Café, it’s important to mention that all of these are homemade; they’re not produced with loads of chemicals or designed to last for months, they’re all made using natural products and without preservatives.
We are privileged that the behaviour in the dining room is so good. I put this down to the fact that the pupils know we listen to their feedback. Our pupil-run Food Committee meet regularly and feed back their thoughts to us, which we then see if we can implement.
Are there recurring themes that come up when the Food Committee provides their feedback?
The most recent Food Committee meeting was held last week. We tend to discuss four main areas: the Café, packed meals, breakfast and morning/afternoon breaks. We chat generally about what they think of these four areas, what they like and what they don’t like and what they wish could be changed.
Recently, one of the girls commented that she’d like to know in advance what the soup of the day is, so this is now clearly visible on the menu prior to entering the dining hall. This helps children think about their meals and will hopefully help encourage more of them to enjoy homemade soup and homemade bread and provide some variety to their diet.
Another example of a small change brought about by the Food Committee, is that we have recently introduced flavoured teas at morning break. I try very hard to never say no to anything – I always say that I will look into it because it’s important to listen to the pupils and value their opinions.
What else do you think helps contribute to the positive atmosphere experienced by all in the dining room?
There’s always one or two of us on duty to answer any questions that pupils or staff might have. A combination of us work from 7am to 8pm so there’s always somebody they can ask if they’re not sure of anything. We want it to always be a happy environment – it’s a pleasure to listen to the buzz in the dining room when the pupils are eating, it’s such a lovely vibe.
How do you safely cater for pupils and staff with allergies and intolerances, or other dietary requirements?
We operate a four-check process. We’ll give the chef a blank allergen sheet and these allergen sheets are completed every day. We fill out a fresh sheet every day because the ingredients used might be slightly different, even if it’s the same recipe from a few days ago. The chef will write down the allergens and will then check it with someone else in the kitchen. It will then be brought to the managers to check over and once approved, will be typed up and given back to the kitchen. It’s so important to get this right when taking into consideration coeliac, dairy free and nut allergies. There are currently six pupils allergic to peanuts. We occasionally might include walnuts in a Waldorf salad, but this would always be clearly labelled and those that do suffer with a nut allergy know to be extra vigilant.
With regards to sustainability and environmentally friendly initiatives, can you talk us through any large-scale projects that help contribute to reducing waste?
The biggest change we have made of late is to packed meals, which now go into bento boxes. These are reusable and are accompanied by a reusable water bottle. The aim is that the pupils bring them back to us so that we can use them again. Packed meals before consisted of single-use water bottles and a sandwich pack in a plastic bag, and so the plastic wastage was high. Having made this change, we now save an average of 400 plastic bottles a week.
Everything in the Café is reusable or biodegradable. In addition, all the cardboard boxes that food is delivered in gets recycled. We also recycle plastic and glass bottles, as well as the oil used in our fryers. We’re always listening to the pupil-run Green Committee and if there are any changes we can make to help the environment then we will of course consider them. I’m a firm believer that everyone can do a little bit to help the environment, rather than one person trying to do it all. It’s all about making small, positive changes.
Moving on to Bryanston’s legendary theme nights, do you have a favourite that has stood out over recent years?
We do three major theme nights a year, one per term. A lot of planning goes into these, including getting the dining room decorated. We also run smaller theme nights at the weekends and some during the week as well. I think the Harry Potter night is by far my favourite! I still hear the pupils raving about this night and it was certainly a lot of fun for us to organise and on the night itself.
One question to end with: you’re surrounded by food and constantly thinking about food... but if you had to pick a favourite meal, what would it be?
Probably what I had last night, a lovely rib of beef. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy eating vegetarian and vegan food though, because I certainly do. I really enjoy having salads without any meat too – it’s all about striking a balance.