I’ve always had a keen interest in food and food-related activities. My background is in retail, having previously worked in the wine industry, but have now been at Hertfordshire Catering Limited for 11 years.
My first role in school catering was as a general catering assistant, before assuming the role of cook manager for the next four years. From there, I moved into a staffing role that entailed a great deal of logistics and staff planning, and have also held the role of contract supervisor, supporting a contract manager overseeing around 30 schools.
My current role is menu planner, which involves producing a three-week menu twice a year that has to be both customer-focused and appealing to children, as well as nutritionally balanced and compliant with government guidelines. Beyond that, we need to consider schools’ budgets, available storage facilities and the skill-sets they have in their kitchens.
We make three core menus available, but have nine altogether, so that we’re able to cater for schools with special requirements. We presently serve somewhere in the region of 400 schools with a wide variety of needs and preferences, which can take quite a bit of sorting out! Some prefer to offer their pupils four or five meal options each day, while others are content to offer a single choice of two meals. Some will also have special dietary requirements.
In terms of what’s popular, there are a few favourites on our menu that we daren’t take off, because we’d lose quite a few customers if we did – chicken pie’s one of those. We organise roast dinner days on Wednesdays and have what we call ‘Friday Fundays’– that’s the one day of the week when pupils are allowed to have chips, albeit the healthier oven variety.
Right now we’re seeing something of a trend towards street food. Four schools we work with have been on a street food menu since our last cycle, and we’re in the process of developing various noodle, pasta bake and filled wrap recipes. One dish we’re looking at potentially introducing is the very on trend Chinese ‘bau bun’, a steamed bread roll.
What we’re increasingly seeing is that children and families want more flavours in their school food than was previously the case, so we’ve been working on introducing various spices and herbs into our menus. Children typically now eat out a lot more, so their tastebuds are often more refined than they perhaps were some years ago. We’re also working hard on reducing sugar levels in desserts.
This year was the fifth time I’d entered the Finishing Touches contest organised by the Lead Association for Catering in Education, and had started working on my entry the very day after last year’s competition. (Potter won this year’s top prize by entering this salted caramel and fig triple layered sponge cake.)
I’d been looking to do something a bit different that stood out from the usual summertime cakes you can expect to see. I take inspiration from coffee shops, magazines, books, anywhere – if I see a funny finishing touch on something, I’ll add it to my brain bank. It’s an amazing privilege to have won this year’s competition.”
Jean Potter is a menu planner at HCL