11 Feb '20

In the Kitchen with Nicola Hastie

Nicola Hastie is a school chef who has been a finalist and on the winning team of McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year, with the successful pupils then going on to judge the LACA School Chef of the Year final in 2019. She’s a passionate and inspiring chef who has really driven cooking up the agenda in her school. We wanted to learn more about her career and the impressive work she’s doing to get kids cooking.

Tell us about your current role and career history

For the last five years I’ve worked at St Martin and St Mary Primary School in Windermere and I am currently the head chef. Previously, I was second assistant and before that lunchtime supervisor. I’ve worked in catering since leaving school, mainly in hotels, before moving into education.

Describe what it’s like to work in your kitchen  

It’s definitely a fun kitchen. We are always having a bit of a laugh; however, it is hard work. We’ve got a small kitchen for the number of meals we make, so all the team need to be aware of space and all the dietary requirements. We serve between 200 and 300 meals a day with a team of four working to prepare and serve everything in a short space of time.

Tell us more about your approach to food

It’s strict as we have a lot of guidelines to follow as we are catering for children aged 3 to 11 years old. I make lots of traditional dishes such as chilli, curries, and different types of baguettes. It’s important I offer lots of variety that will appeal to different ages as my team and I cook from pre-school right the way through to Year Six.

Why did you choose to work in the sector you work in?

When my children were younger, I wanted a job that would fit in with the school holidays. With me working in hotels at the time, it meant my husband and I only saw each other in passing as he would walk in from work as I would leave to start my shift. To begin with I was doing a lunchtime supervisory role in a school and then did some cleaning before becoming a kitchen assistant and then head chef.

What do you love most about this sector?

Simply the fact that I really enjoy working with children. I feel very fortunate as you get to know them well over the years. For me, it’s much more rewarding as a catering job than when I worked in hotels and I love every minute.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your kitchen?

I think it would be the number of dietary requirements we have to cater for. Allergens are something we have to consider on a daily basis and it’s not just gluten or dairy. We see more complex requirements where a child may not be able to have a certain vegetable, so we need to alter the dish or menu. We want children to enjoy school meals and parents to have the confidence to buy them for their child. Therefore, it’s important that I am listening and meeting every child’s needs.  

What is your biggest hope for the future for chefs?

I hope that more young people go into the catering industry and that chefs get the recognition they deserve. A lot of hotel or restaurant chefs do get recognition, but school chefs rarely get it. There’s a perception that we just do this role because it suits our family lives. Whilst the hours may be an initial attraction for some chefs, it’s hard work and pressured, with deadlines to meet every single day.

Tell us about your career highlight

It has to be winning the McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year in 2018 which then led the three successful pupils in our school to be on the panel for LACA School Chef of the Year 2019. Something else I am really proud of has been seeing the success of my cookery club. With the McDougalls Young Baking Team competition we saw a lot of interest in cooking and so with the prize money we decided to set up an after-school cookery club and purchased equipment. This started as just one night a week but when the first one had over 50 applications, we decided to run it across two nights, and I have already helped 84 children to learn to cook. Pupils pay just £2.50 and discover how to make a dish and then they get to take their products home with them to enjoy with their families at teatime.

What would you say to a school considering entering the McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year in 2020?

Absolutely 100% go for it. The children who we have chosen to represent the school have got so much out of it and I’ve had two teams in the final now. We practise in the six weeks building up to the competition and I see such a huge change in the children’s confidence by the time it gets to the final. As a school chef, I gain a lot out of it too and enjoy working with the pupils and getting to know them better. I won’t hesitate in entering a team again this year and the pupils have been asking me about it for some time.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career as a chef?

Don’t go into it thinking it is an easy job as it is hard, but extremely rewarding. If you have a good team working with you then you will do well and enjoy all that the role has to offer.

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