Cooking up a storm in the kitchen - chef manager Michelle Lepherd on the challenges of mass catering, pupils' favourite dishes - and her death row meal!
Michelle Lepherd has been Bolingbroke’s chef/catering manager for the past two years, and is responsible for creating tasty, nutritious meals which appeal to a wide range of students – on a very tight budget. She talks to us about the main challenges of her job, what she loves about working at Bolingbroke, and what her “death row” meal would be.
Where did you work before joining Bolingbroke?
“I had mainly worked in restaurants before coming to Bolingbroke. In Australia, where I'm originally from, you need to do a four-year apprenticeship to become a qualified chef which I completed at a top Brisbane restaurant. After that I moved to London and started work at The River Café and that was amazing to work under two inspirational women, Rose Gray and Ruthie Rogers who were so generous with their time and knowledge. I also worked at St John Restaurant for six years which gave me the skills and confidence to move into a head chef role. I have been very fortunate to have had such wonderful opportunities here in London.
It must have been a bit of a leap, going from fine dining to school dinners?
This is not my first job in mass catering as I looked after a one-form entry school in Shepherds Bush for a year but this is my first time cooking on this scale! We cook for 650-700 people a day at Bolingbroke.
What would you say is the biggest challenge of your job?
The biggest challenges are definitely appealing to all the students at every lunchtime. It’s something we strive for but know we can’t do all the time. Also, getting good food on a budget is a real challenge but one I’m very focussed on as I believe that good food sourced well is key for good health and lessens negative environmental impact.
How do you go about creating a menu?
When I am creating menus, I listen to student feedback. I’m always in the dining hall throughout all of lunch service so I can see what is popular and what is not. I balance the menu with dishes we can do well in the time provided so, for instance, if we have lasagne on a day, I know the ovens will be full with little time left to bake cakes. So we shift the menu around to fit accordingly.
What is the most gratifying part of your role?
I am most satisfied when I have happy students who provide positive feedback. In general, a quiet lunchtime means the students are happy with their lunch!
Every day is different in the dining hall. I enjoy interacting with staff and students and I love the “buzz” of service. I also enjoy the fact that working in a school brings me other opportunities such as teaching students things such as pasta making, and talking in assembly. This job allows me to spend much more time with my family than working in a restaurant, where the hours are typically very unsociable.
What are the most popular dishes you serve up?
Definitely pizza, burgers, pasta and curry. The older students tend to enjoy more filling dishes such as sausages and mash and chicken pie. Tacos are also popular along with our guacamole! I once put a vegetarian curry up, and the mood all lunchtime was really sombre. It definitely wasn’t my finest hour so I haven’t repeated that mistake. From now on, there is always meat in the main curry!
What about salad? Does that go down well?
The students have taken really well to the introduction of the salad bar. We try to match it to the main meal and we also try to make it filling in case a student really doesn’t want what is on offer, they can always make a full meal from the salad bar. It’s been a great success.
How many catering staff are there?
We have six staff in the kitchen. Everything is cooked from scratch and we are very fortunate to have a great team who work hard for the students.
Other than budgetary constraints, what other guidelines do you have to follow in a school kitchen?
There are nutritional guidelines that must be adhered to. They refer to the quality of meat served, fruit and vegetables available and the requirement for carbohydrates to be offered. Also, they say that there must be no sugary snacks and drinks in school meals and fried food is not to be served more than twice a week. As we cook from scratch at Bolingbroke, have a good salad bar and we have no deep fat fryer, we easily adhere to them. The key is to have a balanced and varied menu for the students to enjoy.
When you get home do you hang up your apron, or do you enjoy cooking for your family?
I love cooking at home, and I have three sons who eat well. On week nights I make quick and easy meals and we have “homemade takeaway” once a week where I make something like fried chicken, burgers or fish and chips from scratch. I try to spend more time on meals on the weekend when we are more relaxed and sit together longer.
Away from the heat of the kitchen, Michelle likes to get out into the great outdoors
Apart from cooking, how do you relax outside work?
I love to run. I usually do a few marathons a year and a couple of ultras. I had a fallow year in 2019 and am just getting back into it again. My next race is the Brighton Marathon. I also love camping and going to the cinema.
You must be surrounded by temptation all day. How do you keep your weight down?
Running definitely helps with weight control but in a busy kitchen, I am on my feet most of the time. I rarely clock less than 20,000 steps in a day even when I don’t run!
Where would you go for a push the boat out meal?
My favourite restaurant is definitely the River Café if we are going out for a special occasion. I also love Le Bab in Kingley court for a more casual evening. It’s run by guys who have a Michelin star background and they do the most amazing kebabs there.
What would your death row dinner be?
Definitely the bone marrow on toast from St John and the Szechuan crab from Hutong followed by some cheese from La Fromagerie.
And who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I would invite Mel Brooks, Sandi Toksvig, Dave Grohl, Maya Angelou and Anthony Bourdain. That would make a night to remember!