All in a day’s work for… a school cook

Preparing lunch for 100 hungry kids is all in a day’s work for Fay Hart

The sun hasn’t risen over Scunthorpe, but there’s no such lie in for Fay Hart. With 28 years in school catering under her belt, and school cook at Priory Lane Community School for the past 18, Fay is already bustling around her realm, with dinner for a hundred or more pupils to prepare, plus breakfast club for some of the children. And it’s barely even gone 7am.

07.17 The gas is on, carrots have gone into the peeling machine and Fay is a whirl as she sterilises the kitchen’s work surfaces in her green and white check chef’s trousers.

She’s on her own until later, when other members of the team come in. Today one of them has had to provide cover at another site, so there will be just four in total.

Then it’s shutters up and time to put tables and chairs out in the hall for the breakfast club, while the toaster is primed, and the cereals and the fruit juice are made ready. Fay explains that the breakfast club is essentially an affordable way for parents to make sure their children are safe when they have to start work early.

Next up, the potatoes go into the peeling machine. She still has to “peel and take the eyes out” of them, but this helps. Tea towels are boiling in a vast pan and Lincs FM radio is announcing that a third of the workforce at a local company could be made redundant. Fay shakes her head. “That’s where one of my ladies’ husband works”.

Fay Hart UNISON rep and 'dinner lady'

08.00 Three young girls sit quietly at a table eating breakfast, while a young boy plays ball behind them with a member of staff.

The smell of toast permeates the air. The beef is already in the steamer. If Fay wasn’t doing a full roast dinner today, she’d have baked bread too.

Everything is cooked from fresh each day, according to menus decided centrally and sent to schools. She’s allowed to make some changes. Today, instead of the recommended fruit and ice cream, she says, “it’s a bit cold, so I’m doing them a nice pudding and custard – something to warm them up”. Now the ingredients for the sponge go in a large mixer.

Privatisation cuts wages – and vitamins

The school’s dinner service has been through the experience of privatisation, but it’s back in-house these days. “One thing I hated when we were privatised,” says Fay, “is they brought in packets of pre-cut carrots and potatoes – it loses all the vitamins, but saves on time and therefore our wages.”

Breakfast is over, the shutters are down again and Fay is clearing away. The sponge has been poured into tins and popped in an oven.

“Seeing the children take what you’ve made is the best bit,” she says. “The worst is when I’ve been stood here all morning and all they’re eating is mashed potato, cheese and beans.”

As laughter drifts through from the hall beyond, she muses that, while there’s no equipment she’d like, she wouldn’t mind extra staff. Although a washing machine “would be handy”. And after a second’s thought she adds, “I’d appreciate my own dining hall,” instead of having to put tables and chairs out every day in the main school hall, and be dependent on activities there finishing in time.

The tea towels are clean and drying now on a clothes horse.

09.20 Peas and carrots are in tins, ready to cook. The potatoes for mash go in the steamer, then more spuds for roasties and jackets. Pasta has gone into a large pan on the hob for the alternative choice.

A few minutes later Julie arrives. “She’s my right-hand woman. I wouldn’t be without her,” says Fay, adding that if union duties take her away from the school, Julie takes over.

That’s because Fay is not only the cook, but the UNISON rep too. This largely explains why there is no overtime in her kitchen – there are enough contracted hours to get the job done.

Julie, who will be prepping salads and fruit, puts the kettle on. Fay is making icing for the sponge pudding; sipping her tea, but not stopping, as she and Julie exchange news.

10.05 The pasta is cooked, the Yorkshire pudding trays are oiled and she’s planning the “proper custard” that will accompany pudding.

The beef is sliced, then placed back in the tins, covered with the juices that came out of it in the first cooking, lidded and popped back in the steamer. The rest of these juices will be made into gravy. The pudding batter goes into the trays and these go into an oven. Between all this, there’s a constant process of clearing and washing up.

10.55 The Yorkies are done, golden and well risen. “You wouldn’t get these out of a packet,” says Fay with pride.

Everything that’s cooking is reaching the stage when it’s decanted into serving dishes and put in the cabinets under the serving area, to keep warm. Next Sue arrives, who helps out in the kitchen and does the till.

Cheese and flour and milk are mixed together to cook over the pasta. Julie is getting the roast potatoes out, Sue is busy washing up, and Fay is finalising the second batch of Yorkies. “The sign of a proper Yorkshire pudding,” she says, “is when you don’t have to wash the trays”.

The puddings drop easily into the serving container and Fay can simply wipe around the dedicated trays, leaving them seasoned.

As dinner approaches it’s remarkably calm, if almost frenetically busy. Tammy, the final member of the team arrives. Fay has finished icing her sponge; Julie is keeping watch on the custard in a vast double boiler.

There’s a huge wash-up, as Sue and Tammy set up the hall and put jugs of water on all the tables, before Tammy comes back into the kitchen to help. It’s a flurry of Marigolds – except for Fay, who doesn’t bother with gloves.

“Asbestos hands,” she says. “I had to use a cloth on one tray earlier, but that was only because it had come straight out of the oven.”

11.55 Tammy is wiping down surfaces, as Fay starts bringing the sliced meat back out of the steamer, ready to serve.

With service set to begin, Sue takes the till and Tammy gets set to wash up. There’s just Julie and Fay serving today.

12.00 Service! It’s boys arriving first to get their grub. Fay banters with the children, all of whom she seems to know by name. “What’s that?” asks one child. “Pasta,” says Fay. “I’ll have that – I’ve never tried it before.”

It’s like a military operation, all well-drilled precision.

12.30 “See you tomorrow!” says a small girl as she leaves. Service is over. The shutters go down and everything is cleared away. Sue brings the till back in. It’s been 110 children today – and then, once everything is washed up, the team will get to eat themselves.

The table is set for their lunch. It’s the first time Fay has sat down since starting work at 7.15am. Her colleagues will leave at 2.15pm, but Fay stays until half past – that’s her time for paperwork.

At least it’s been quiet today, she says, particularly since Donna was at another site. “No phone calls. There were 12 yesterday”.

And when Fay does lock up, it won’t be the last kitchen she’ll see today. When she gets home, she’ll cook for her husband – “Gammon steak for tonight” – and often for her grandchildren.

Union rep and school cook – Fay’s working day is enough to leave you breathless.

Amanda Kendal

This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of U magazine.