At the table with… Giles Coren

20/04/2015 - 15:32
When restaurant critic Giles Coren stepped into Carshalton School for Boys in 2012 to sample lunch, the major media reaction to his review in The Times helped put school catering in the spotlight in the run-up to the launch of the School Food Plan. The journalist and presenter talks exclusively to Cost Sector Catering about the experience and what happened next.

Cost Sector Catering: The visit to the school supported your friend, Henry Dimbleby, who was working on the School Food Plan at the time. Why did you go?
Giles Coren: I didn’t really do much; my friends Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent were the guys who advised the government on that.

Henry is an old friend of mine and so when it started off, I said I’d happily go, for a giggle, to review one of his schools. The reason the School Food Plan worked and there was an uptake of it is because it didn’t go the same way of every other report, namely just ending up on the pile of other reports.
Henry didn’t want to end up doing all that work on a pro-bono basis when he’s got a business to run… all that effort just to have them go, “Oh yes, thanks very much, we’ll stick it on a pile.”

Instead, his principle was to look at the best schools and see how they do it, and try to copy that model. It happens in every other industry, so why should we be afraid to do it in schools?
Carshalton was one of those schools, so I went along – yes, I would love to take some credit for it but I can’t. Oh okay, maybe a bit.

But the real ‘take out’ was that Henry said his father, David Dimbleby, was so impressed when it was made policy that he told him he may be the first Dimbleby to actually do something with his life. I think, from David’s point of view, that was a flawed philosophy because of the generations of Dimblebys – John Dimbleby and Richard Dimbleby are great broadcasters – but Henry had come along and actually changed the way things happen.

It’s a bit of a shame it somehow seems to be associated with Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, for no particular reason. I mean, no one would want to be associated with them, would they? It’s just a general government advisory thing.

Have you managed to check in on how it’s been implanted and its success?
I had dinner with Henry and Michael Gove last month, and everyone seemed very jolly, but we didn’t talk about that, and certainly our wives wouldn’t be talking about it. But I know it has done extremely well – it’s carried on, and now others are looking to take forward the idea, and that’s the best compliment you can have.

Schools are so important in the catering industry because they are at the very start of the line. There’s so much more focus on them these days. Take, for instance, Henry’s own kids. They attend a state primary school in Dalston where a new chef has started. He’s formerly of Ottolenghi restaurant, who has given up the life of a rather glamorous chef and has gone to cook at a school in Dalston, for less money. Why? Because it seems a more important thing to do. So that would suggest to me the thing is healthy and doing well.

Do you feel the professionalisation of school meals like this is the way forward?
It’s a debate, and we’ll only see the results over time. I think the problem is that big catering firms, like any businesses, want to make the cheapest product they possibly can with the highest margin. I come back to my own schooling, at Westminster School, the same school as Nick Clegg and Louis Theroux, and all sorts of other marvellous people. It was the world’s most expensive and high-performing school, yet supplied the worst food I’ve ever eaten. The company provided the food in Westminster where people were paying tens of thousands of pounds a year and what was sent to us was rubbish – us, the children of the wealthy.

So the notion that the private school is getting a better deal than state schools certainly wasn’t true then. It might be now, but I’m not so sure.

Can you remember some of the choicest meals you had at school?
The same things anyone would have had; it was just because it was a private school, one would assume I was protected from the worst of the cutbacks, but not really because it was the 1980s and that’s what started the mad processes we have in place now.

You know, it was about bad farming, factory production of food, no concerns for health and welfare of the animals, or the people or anything, just big business getting in there, getting their heads in and feeding rubbish to everybody for as much money as possible. Looking back, we were incredibly malnourished.

The thing that I remember most was the time they got the sugar and salt mixed up. The only good thing that came out of the kitchen was usually the pudding, but the apple pies were doused in salt before being brought out – cue the sight of hundreds of little vomiting privileged kids.

Will you be sending your daughter to school with a packed lunch?
No, I wouldn’t have thought so. She’ll have free school meals and she’ll eat them; she doesn’t eat that much at lunch time anyway. She’s not that bothered about food, although like most kids, she’d always rather eat chocolate and crisps.

Why should people tune in to your latest show, Back in Time for Dinner?
I don’t watch telly – I could never possibly tell someone why they should tune in. I would always say, “Cook yourself a nice meal and then have an early night.” If that’s not an option that’s available to them, they could always watch the show.

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