“There’s no reason why people can’t do school food like we do.” The combination of John Rankin’s imagination, determination and bond of trust that he has built with the kids, makes the kitchen at Penair School a unique success story.
Students here are eating frogs’ legs, braised python, game pie, camel curry and snails in place of hot pasties, pastries and sandwiches. And paying just £2 a day for the pleasure. The BBC Food and Farming Awards, the Times Ed and some of our best food journalists, have all recognised the importance of John’s achievements, particularly after Jamie’s baptism of fire with school dinners was broadcast across the nation.
This bandana-clad chef who sounds American, looks Australian but was born in Essex used to be a white water rafting instructor in the states, cooking for guests on river banks before entering the cheffing world. He is the key to flipping the canteen stats up in the air and smashing them to smithereens: just 30 kids a day used to queue for lunch and since John has been chef, they now number 400.
That the kitchen operates independently from the school and runs as a restaurant that must break even, is an undeniably influential factor too and one that makes a lot of sense. John is accountable but at the same time has freedom to spurn the big contracts with catering companies that provide the public sector with the nutrition-less pap that leaks out daily onto the plates of NHS patients.
Instead of faceless nocturnal work forces, chef Rankin uses local suppliers: West Country Fruit and Veg, Matthew Stevens & Son for fish, a member of staff for his line-caught mackerel and Tregasso House who donate pheasants during the shooting season. He buys in whole cows, chickens, pigs and gets the kids (plus parents and staff) to join in with the butchery, one of the several in-school masterclasses he offers in bakery, pizza making, fish and game. He lectures on healthy food, attends conferences and takes his suppliers with him whenever possible to show that the effort has to be team-based. On top of that, kids get a barbecue once or twice a week when the weather’s good.
The head, Dr Barbara Vann, explains that the kitchen’s ethos fits into a whole school health drive that was implemented in 2006, integrating mental health, sexual health, diet, nutrition and self-image into daily school life. The two gardens which provide some food for the kitchen and are maintained by the students, are simply another aspect of this philosophy.
“The children think John walks on water”, she explains, “he doesn’t force them to eat but asks them to try.” John even knows their limits: “They love frogs’ legs and they love snails but they can’t do them together on the same plate.” The lunchtime queues speak for themselves but even more importantly, the students feel that they have been making their own decisions, an intrinsic quality of being a teenager and a canny move on Mr Rankin’s part.
The result? Not all good: “The kids are so used to having such good quality food they’re shocked when they go to other schools!” Keep an eye out for John’s book, a compendium of his most successful dishes for 200 plus guests and a textbook which should be on all school curricula.