St James’ Junior Chef

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the absolute joy of helping out at my son’s school as they prepared for the Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival Junior Chef competition 2015.

Logo for St James' St James’ Primary School has devoted precious time and resources to coaching and mentoring a group of 10 children after assessing all of their Year 5 (9/10-year-old) students. Having been provided with a set of recipe cards by the organisers, the children embarked on their culinary journey in an attempt to master the specified dishes: a poultry recipe, a vegetarian option, a salad and an Eton Mess. I was really pleased to have been invited in to observe, and I couldn’t resist rolling my sleeves up and pitching in as the children practised. Visiting St James' Primary Is there a child in the UK that doesn’t know who Jamie Oliver is? I don’t think so. Chatting to the children, it was heart-warming to hear their reactions to the Food Revolution and its aims for food education around the world. The first thing that struck me was how dedicated, engaged and enthusiastic the children were; some of them had brought in their own meringues that they’d made at home!

Teaching children how to cook really makes you think; we take so much for granted and forget that it’s the unknown for them. Can you eat the outside of an onion? Well, no… but how would you know that. At least they were asking the questions. I learnt a thing or two as experience and assumptions were regularly challenged; “Why do we cut the white bits out of the red pepper?”, “good point, let’s try some” – tastes just like, well, red pepper.

The first and probably most important skill their teachers helped them perfect was, understandably, knife skills. “Bridge cut, bridge cut” as the adults wince.. Now, when I was at school I was fairly spoiled in terms of facilities. A lot has changed. The logistics of making this class even possible really was testament to the ingenuity of the teachers.  One little oven, a few baking trays and re-purposing whatever we could find to complete the recipes. As far as teaching younglings about cooking, this was actually ideal though, as it showed them the real-life skills of how to adapt and innovate.

As we went through the motions, it made me think that perhaps there shouldn’t be any dumbing-down in the kitchen. Some jobs require a large, sharp chef’s knife – yet generally we arm children with relatively blunt little paring knives for the fear of them hurting themselves. Is this right, or is it likely to lead to frustration? I guess there’s a sweet-spot in terms of the ratio of children to supervisors. At least they didn’t have to use plastic knives.  At what age are they responsible enough to use the appropriate tools I wonder. I think that in terms of making progress, the right equipment in the kitchen has the same impact as switching between counting beads and calculators. Cooking skills are real-world skills and I can’t help but think that the majority of children are prevented from learning through our generalised fear of exposing them to what could be perceived as potentially dangerous situations. Here’s my reasoning: the majority of adults don’t know how to use a knife properly. Discuss.

Back to the cooking, and I have to say that I was impressed with the level of thought they were putting in. Much of this could probably be attributed to the plethora of cookery shows on television and the emphasis on presentation as much as flavour. The children could really articulate why they had chosen to shape the vegetables or arrange the plate in a certain way.

eton mess at St James' school

Eton Mess 1.0

Salad & vegetable bakesSo after a couple of hours of listening, learning and crafting their dishes, a really wonderful and potentially game-changing twist that I never had the pleasure of experiencing at school – the children got to invite a friend in to sample their food.  Not only that, the classroom was rearranged like a little bistro!  How nice is that!

By the end of their fourth and final session, these kids were cooking up a storm. It was terrific to see the transformation and how confident, efficient and competent they’d become. They really cared about what they were putting on the plate and I even overheard them having little conversations about food amongst themselves! Inspiring stuff.

The Junior Chef competition spans 12 schools in Cheltenham with each putting one contestant forward to the semi-final. Decision time.. What a hard job the teachers had, and what a shame that only one of these little stars could be put through.

St James’ Lulu Thornley headed to All Saints’ Academy to battle it out, and I’m over the moon to report that she made it through to the final! Next stop, the Chef’s tent at the Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival at noon on Friday 12th June. Well deserved and best of luck Lulu – we’ll all be cheering you on. Lulu Thornley at the semi-final I have to add that I spent a lot of the time thinking about how I could help them further or better support food education in the school. Imagine if we could do this with all of the children…

Handy that Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation has just launched a new Food Revolution website and global movement to petition the G20 to make food education compulsory. Take a look at and I implore you to Sign and Share.

Working with these children has been so much fun that it’s really made me think about a change in career…

2 thoughts on “St James’ Junior Chef

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