Before Jamie Oliver revealed the shameful state of school dinners, chef Nick Copson was working his own quiet revolution at a County Durham school. Now he’s up for an award. Jane Hall reports.
IT’S a cold, damp and misty November Thursday. Just the sort of day Nick Copson likes. Indeed, the 35-year-old is preternaturally happy given the unwelcome turn the weather has taken. As he looks out at the drizzle falling from the sheets of low, shallow cloud, he rubs his hands together and gleefully says: “They won’t want to be out in this.”
“They” are the 800 or so 11-18-year-olds who attend Teesdale School in Barnard Castle, County Durham, where Nick takes care of the nutritional, rather than the educational, needs of both pupils and staff.
Inclement weather usually means a full lunch-time sitting for the school canteen. Not that Nick normally has any problem encouraging patrons through the door. Teesdale School boasts an impressive 70% pupil take-up level for lunches. Compare this to current Government figures which reveal just 37% of secondary and 43.6% of primary pupils currently choose school meals.
Diners on this dreary Thursday won’t be spoilt for choice: beef stew and dumplings; parmesan penne; Thai curry; prawn and egg salad and mushroom and basil soup are all on the menu alongside lighter snacks and hearty desserts like date sponge and apple crumble.
It’s an impressive choice for a school canteen, and certainly better than the normal round of fried and convenience foods that still – despite celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s best efforts – constitute the bulk of the lunch-time offerings pushed at the nation’s pupils.
But anyone can chalk a name on a board. Thai curry may sound exotically appetising, but not if it’s of the reconstituted, re-heated variety.
The proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding. And this is what sets Teesdale School apart from its contemporaries. For not only is each dish prepared and cooked from scratch every day by Nick and his team, but as far as possible the ingredients are the freshest the kitchen can lay its hands on.
For fresh read local. A staggering 70% of the food consumed every week comes from within 50 miles of the school, with the majority making a round trip from farm to plate of only 20 miles.
Nick’s regular suppliers reads like a Who’s Who of the region’s top artisan producers: Abbey Well bottled water from Morpeth; milk and cream from Acorn Dairy of Archdeacon Newton near Darlington; eggs from Kingfisher Farm at Barningham near Barnard Castle; sheeps’ cheese from Cotherstone of Quarry House Farm, Middleton-in-Teesdale; bread from Mattison’s Bakery at Ferryhill; yoghurts from Alston Dairy; lamb from Pikestone Farm and beef from Souter Farm, both Woodland; pork from Stephen Greaves of Eggleston and sustainable fish from Inshore Fisheries of Redcar.
Vegetables and herbs come from local markets and store cupboard essentials such as pasta, rice and everyday cheeses are supplied by Northern Select Foods of Richmond, North Yorkshire.
Many of the ingredients come from so close to home that it is the parents of the pupils supplying them.
It is this attention to detail that has earned Nick a place in the finals of this year’s Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. Now in its ninth year, the competition was set-up to champion those people, businesses and organisations making a difference to what we eat in Britain.
Nick has been nominated in the best dinner lady or man category, with winners due to be announced on November 26 at a glittering ceremony at Birmingham’s NEC, and on Radio 4’s The Food Programme.
While honoured to be in the final, Nick winces at being tagged a “dinner man.” “I’m a chef in charge of a kitchen run along the lines of what you would find in a top hotel or restaurant,” he explains. “We are producing quality, traditional food using local ingredients, some of which we get direct from the farmers.
“I believe what we are producing every day can, and does, stand up against what you would expect to find in a top restaurant or hotel.
“A lot of school cooks are unfortunately people who have no enthusiasm and don’t want to be doing the job. They either re-heat food or have a very small, set repertoire of dishes they do that don’t really require much effort or thought.
“But cooking is all I have ever done. It has been my life. Before joining Teesdale School I was head chef at some of the region’s top hotels and restaurants, and that is how I run the kitchen here. Just because it is a school kitchen doesn’t mean the children and staff don’t deserve the best.”
Nick, whose career has included stints at Darlington’s luxury Redworth Hall and Whitworth Hall near Spennymoor, understandably never saw himself running a school catering operation.
School meals have received a bad press in recent years with nutritionally balanced home-cooked dishes largely ousted in favour of ready-made processed foods that require little or no work to serve.
While Jamie Oliver’s high profile campaign to improve pupils’ diet has enjoyed some success, no trained chef worth their salt would potentially jeopardise their career by joining Britain’s ranks of school dinner ladies and men.
Nick admits such a move “was never on my radar. From a cheffing point of view I didn’t think there was a future in school food. Why would there be?” Then three-and-a-half years ago – before Oliver’s campaign whipped the nation into a frenzy of outrage about the poor state of school meals – Teesdale decided to take the responsibility for feeding pupils away from contractors and into its own hands. Nick’s wife was at that time working at Teesdale School, where the couple’s two eldest children, Christopher, 19, and Stephen, 18, were then pupils.
“Nikki was responsible for getting my name in the frame, but I wasn’t interested. The job was offered to someone who turned it down, and then the second on the list did the same as it wasn’t offered to him first.
“Then I thought about it, found out more about what the school wanted, and decided I could make a positive difference. It also helped that I had children at the school, and like any parent, I wanted the best for them.
“Before the change all the students were being served was chips, sausages and pizza that didn’t reflect the work being done in the classroom to encourage children to be healthier.”
Nick – whose 10-year-old son Connor is due to join his father at Teesdale School next September – officially took over the kitchen and its staff in July 2005. During the summer holidays the kitchen was brought into the 21st century and the canteen re-styled to resemble an upmarket bistro with a separate sixth form area. Nick deliberately sought out local suppliers and ingredients, and from the start of the autumn term began to wean pupils off fast food. By Christmas 2005, all fried food had been replaced on the menu with hearty, traditional meals.
Nick says the changeover ran smoothly. “We had thought there would be a rebellion when we got rid of the fried food, but there were no complaints. My two eldest kids weren’t eating their school dinners; they were just eating chips, and I think frankly the majority of pupils were looking forward to having a proper meal.
“70% of our kids come by bus from the surrounding area and their parents are either farmers, earning their living from the land or have an affinity with the countryside.
“It is great that we are able to use so much local food and that many of the children’s parents are supplying us. We’re helping the local economy and everyone knows where their food is coming from.”
Nick spends around 80p per head to produce meals – under half the £1.78 official figures suggest it costs to feed a secondary school pupil. He manages this feat while almost exclusively favouring quality local ingredients, which are traditionally seen as more expensive.
Pupils can expect to pay £1 for a bowl of soup to £1.75 for a roast dinner with all the trimmings and £2.20 for a ‘meal deal’ comprising a main course, pudding and drink. Portions are hearty and the food well cooked and presented. “Contract caterers have to make a profit,” Nick says. “Luckily we aren’t here to make a profit, we are here to break even.”
Paul Harrison has been headteacher at Teesdale School for 12 years. He remembers the old canteen well – but not with fondness. While he admits the current regime is running as a “marginal loss,” he believes the benefits far outweigh the negatives, not least when it comes to the students demeanour.
“Things like concentration, behaviour and social skills have improved since Nick joined us; there is no doubt about that. Students are no longer being fed stodge or processed food but are eating wholesome, well-cooked meals. Concentration levels have improved noticeably after lunch, and where the dining area used to be a place where people came in and out as quickly as possible, it is now a social place. Eating has become a social activity.
“There has been an element of risk, but it has been the right thing to do.”
Teesdale School has grand plans for the future, including growing their own herbs, some vegetables and salad, with any surplus earmarked for a proposed on-site farm shop that would also provide a ready market for local producers.
It’s no wonder Teesdale has been held up as an example to all by the School Food Trust, an independent body with the unique remit of transforming school food and food skills. The organisation’s chair, Prue Leith, on a visit to Teesdale last year declared herself “amazed”.
Paul Harrison believes his school’s model is one others could follow. “The fact we are doing it successfully shows it can be done.”
Inspired to cook
NICK Copson has inspired one Teesdale pupil to follow in his culinary footsteps.
Michael England, 16, from Barnard Castle, has been so impressed by the changes Nick has wrought in the school canteen that he now wants to be a chef.
Michael, who is studying nine GCSE’s, including maths, geography and food and nutrition, has helped his mentor in the kitchen, and will tomorrow night join forces with other students to host a gala dinner at the school to help raise money for Children in Need.
He says: "Nick has made lunchtimes interesting again. The canteen is now cleaner and the food healthier and nicer."
Restaurant-style meal for £2
LEAH Stephenson admits her friends were shocked when they discovered her parents were supplying Teesdale School with lamb.
But now the 17-year-old of Pikestone Farm, Woodland, near Barnard Castle, says everyone thinks it’s great that local food is on the menu.
And no-one wants to go back to the old days when pizza and chips ruled the lunchtime roost.
Leah, whose is taking geography, sociology and English language at A-level and plans to study nursing at Northumbria University in Newcastle, says: "It’s great that things like lamb aren’t being shipped over from New Zealand and that people now know where their food is coming from.
"I think everyone prefers the canteen we have now over the old one. It used to be the same old stuff every day. Now you get something different, and it is proper food like you would get at home. Sixth formers are allowed to go into town to get lunch if they want, but most prefer to stay in school.
"I love the fact that you can get a restaurant-style meal for £2, and that there are dishes from around the world you can try, like Thai curry."