Nicole Pisani: The chef who left a Michelin restaurant to cook in a school kitchen
Nicole Pisani is one of our heros. A local hero. A food hero. She is humble and practical. Yet, the chef’s soft-spoken demeanour barely conceals her dynamism and enthusiasm.
This is the story of a chef who’s re-inventing school kitchens and is poised to revolutionise the way children eat. Nicole Pisani was head chef at Nopi, but transformed her life after seeing a tweet about a role in a school kitchen. The rest is history. Since starting a career at Gayhurst Community School in 2015, she has given new dignity to the school kitchen and spearheaded food education with the children.
In the past years she has also written extensively on the marvels of Soup, leading her into collaborating as our main chef on the BOL Super Soup range. Today she speaks to us about cooking for kids, the magic of soups and what the future holds.
One of Nicole's recipes for the BOL Super Soup Range: Smokey Tomato and Lentil.
1. What did the first day in a school kitchen look and feel like?
I remember it as clearly as my first day at Nopi. Previously, my job had consisted of making each dish look beautiful and taste perfect, with 18 chefs all working hard to achieve that aim. At school, it’s very different: we need to cook for 450 kids with a 3 hours deadline. I was hooked on the rush.
2. How has cooking at Gayhurst shaped you as a chef?
At Gayhurst we needed to go back to basics. It is less about making food pretty and perfect and more about focusing on the simplicity of ingredients… like achieving a perfectly steamed broccoli. Cooking for large numbers was a skill I had not developed before joining the school. This reality comes with the need to grow a thick skin: imagine getting daily feedback from 450 honest children.
3. What has drawn you to soups both in your writing and in your collaborations?
I believe soup is so easy to do at home and also such a nourishing ritual. Holding a bowl of fresh spiced creamed corn with both hands ends the day very zen. The opportunity to write Magic soup came before all else, but this only meant I was fully prepared with 180 soup recipes when BOL asked me to help create their Super Soup range.
Nicole works closely with the school and parents to teach children about food and feed them diverse and healthy meals.
4. What excites you about being the chef behind the BOL soup range?
The first few discussions I had with BOL were about rocking the boat with what the soup repertoire on shelves is currently. We wanted to explore different ingredients and step out of the standard soup combinations you find in supermarkets. We aimed to be vibrant and fresh and innovative, and I believe we succeeded.
5. Is there an easy and healthy meal that mums should consider making at home?
I am a firm believer in having a hot homemade stock in the blender and blitzing small raw cubes of veg (for example carrots or even frozen peas) into it and immediately eating it. It’s a simple dish but vibrant and full of nutrients. We have a pea and preserved lemon soup which we make with Moroccan chicken at Gayhurst and, funnily enough, it’s really loved by the children.
A simple soup: blitz some veg and stock and sprinkle with your favourite garnish for a fancy finish.
6. Are there any secrets that you’ve learned about cooking for kids that you can share?
It’s always handy to place one item of their favourite food on the plate if you are going to get them to try something new.
7. What excites you about the future?
We are in the process of building a School of Food in Hackney solely dedicated to teaching primary children about food. The space is going to be beautiful…It is very exciting.
8. What don’t you often get an opportunity to say?
How important feeding and teaching our children about food is. It is the only way we can change the dire situation we currently find ourselves in within the food industry.
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