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Celebrated chef visits UEL to give cooking class to care leavers

students in class

Lesson is part of ongoing collaboration between University and Barnardo’s children’s charity

By Kiera Hay

Nicole Pisani’s attitude to food is straightforward: simple is best.

The acclaimed chef demonstrated the philosophy to eight care leavers at the University of East London, showing how a simple chicken and a few vegetables could be transformed into five restaurant-worthy meals.

The goal for the day was to help the care leavers “not be afraid to cook, and to also see cooking as sharing food and a way of treating yourself well,” said Nicole. 

“You show kids that for the same amount of money that they spend at a chicken shop, you can get four meals.”

Nicole was previously head chef of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Soho restaurant NOPI, one of London’s finest eateries, but underwent a dramatic career change in 2015 when she left the restaurant business to take over the kitchen at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney.

The cooking class, arranged by staff at UEL’s Cass School of Education and Communities, was part of the Thinking of You (TOY) project – a private online platform run by children’s charity Barnardo’s which offers care leavers information and tools in areas ranging from employment to health. 

Care leaver Simeon Sargeant said he found Nicole’s tips really helpful. 

“One of the main things about food is making it last as long as possible, as sometimes you don’t have the money to buy new food, said Simeon, who attends university in Birmingham. 

“This really helps out with that. Young people can see that with a lot less money there’s a lot of stuff that can be done.”

TOY was created in 2014 after care leavers told Barnardo’s they wished they had someone they could rely on for guidance when things went wrong such as a boiler breakdown or a hiccup with their university application  – guidance a parental figure might otherwise provide. 

Cass staff and students are providing support to the project through UEL’s London Scholars programme, which funds efforts by the University to address key challenges facing London.

TOY’s plethora of information includes several “life skills” videos such as Nicole’s lesson, filmed by UEL students. Starting in September, UEL students will begin manning a live chat feature that enables care leavers to ask questions online and get immediate answers. Students have also provided advice and guidance in the website’s development.

“The website is creating a sort of social and knowledge capital for the young people,” said Francesca Zanatta, a lecturer in early childhood studies at UEL and the force behind the University’s involvement in TOY.  “If something happens and you don’t know where to go, you can go to TOY.” 

“The website has been a project that has been going on for a while, and it kind of never managed to get momentum. I think thanks to UEL and the fact that we got London Scholars funding,  that really pushed things forward.”

Babette Bleach, children’s services manager at Barnardo’s, said, “We’re so chuffed to be able to do the joint work with UEL, and to have the University students come along and give up their time to support young people.”

At the cooking session, UEL students helped their younger charges whip their chickens into four meals: chicken filets with fennel potatoes, filets with sweet potatoes, chicken ramen and a chicken burger. They also roasted a cauliflower to create a simple vegetarian dinner. 

“It’s rewarding,” said UEL early childhood studies student Maud Hesse. “With young people, if you interact with them, it gives them confidence.”