A little of what we fancy? Better qualified chefs please!

March 18th 2012

My Grandmother always said that a little of what you fancy does you good. Sadly, according to recent medical press, we are all too often unable to stop at a little and these days consume far too much of what we fancy. As a result, we are fast becoming one of the most overweight nations in the world, with all the health issues that accompany such obesity. Every week it seems there is a new report about the damaging effect of some familiar sugar laden food – the most recent being a link made between aggressive behaviour and fizzy drinks, and their tendency to heighten the risk of heart disease.

Of course, Children are particularly at risk, and given that prevention is better than a cure, I began to look at how nurseries might do their part to educate children and families about food by serving the best. Interestingly, despite all the TV coverage gained by Jamie Oliver with his admirable campaign to rid our schools of turkey twisslers, he rarely focused on the chefs and cooks actually preparing and serving the foods (aside from Nora, his trusty dinner lady). No effort was made to look into the qualifications available for chefs, which could be used to up the ante and go some way to ensuring and embedding high quality procurement, preparation, presentation and delivery of food to children, while also informing staff and parents of what makes healthy eating.

The history of chefs and cooks in both nurseries and schools tells a random tale, from those simply helping out as an interested parent to an agency chef from a local restaurant. Either way, most nursery staff will tell you that having a good chef – one who likes cooking for children and is both interested and motivated – is a joy and sadly not as commonplace as we would like!

When I began my research, what I soon found (though on a smaller scale) was not dissimilar to what Professor Cathy Nutbrown found about Early Years qualifications: a myriad of organically developed courses of varied quality with no core set of standards. The situation for chefs was worse inasmuch as there were generic qualifications which taught the basics, but no effort made to develop anything that would apply their knowledge to cooking specifically for children. CPD courses tended to focus on health and safety, food safety and manual handling – which though relevant did not lead to better teas and sauces or greater motivation and knowledge about what children love to eat.

Driven by this baffling discovery, I searched out individuals with similar interests and found a group of nutritionists, dieticians and others passionate to improve the food experience for small children. (At this point, the School Food Trust was focused unsurprisingly on schools, so Early Years had not been given any attention at all – despite national fears about obesity and heart disease amongst the young as a direct result of their awful diet.)

When I then surveyed the sector – including colleagues in Wales and Scotland – to see if there was any interest in a qualification for chefs in Early Years, the  overwhelmingly positive response that came back led me to dip my toe into the deep and mysterious waters of national standards and qualifications development. And quite frankly, given the complexity of process and language, I am amazed so many qualifications exist! Fortunately for me, People 1st (the skills sector for hospitality) and City and Guilds fully understood what I was after and so supported my efforts – especially useful, since my learning curve included regular viewing of Master Chef, Saturday Kitchen and Two Hairy Bikers. (I liked these most of all, particularly as they could rustle up a good curry by the side of the road – no Curly Wurly breakfasts for them!)

On Monday, 19 March (tomorrow, as I write this), we hope to take the final step on the long ladder of getting approval of the draft National Standards in order to formulate a set of Level 3 Qualifications in Professional Cooking for Early Years Chefs. We will present the key elements of a qualification to employers and will be sharing the same premise as Professor Nutbrown, namely that employers must be able to tell what skills and knowledge they can expect when employing someone with that qualification. It will include everything from basic knife skills to a real understanding of child nutrition.

At the very least, I sincerely hope this single step will be one more to help professionalise a growing industry which exists to provide a support service to children and their families, and in so doing will show yet another critical added value we have to offer society.