The recipe for success in school kitchens – by the kings of Leon

The restaurateurs chosen by Michael Gove to improve pupils' diets talk to Richard Garner

"We're looking for the English Martha," said John Vincent, one of the duo from the restaurant chain, Leon, who have just been put in charge of a review of England's school meals service. "Or Marthas," he quickly added. Martha Payne is the nine-year-old schoolgirl from Scotland whose daily blog on her school lunches was for a short while banned by her local authority until it realised how popular the blog was and how unpopular the council had become.

Mr Vincent and the co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby – son of David, the renowned BBC broadcaster, have already started work, visiting schools and sampling school food with a view to putting together an action plan to improve the service some time next year.

They have set up their own website – foodinschools@leonrestaurants.co.uk – to take evidence from pupils, caterers, teachers or whoever on the state of the food they receive. "It's an idea," said Mr Vincent. "Wouldn't it be great if we could find the English Martha to tell us all about what works – and what doesn't work – with their school dinners?"

The announcement of the review by Education Secretary Michael Gove set in chain a controversy as TV chef Jamie Oliver, who has been campaigning for better school food for the past seven years, immediately retorted that the last thing the service needed was another review.

Yet despite the chef's criticism, the Leon pair insist that it isn't a case of school-dinner trays at dawn.

"We have talked to Jamie," said Mr Dimbleby. "You would, wouldn't you, want to talk to someone who done so much for the school meals service over the last seven years?

"We all agreed the world doesn't need another review – some statement to say that poor nutitional standards are linked to obesity," Mr Vincent added. "What we want to do is come up with an action plan for spreading what's best to the rest of schools."

The pair founded Leon, which now has 13 outlets in and around London, in 2004. Before that they both worked for the management consultancy Bain and Company. Prior to that, Henry worked as a chef and journalist while John turned round the fortunes of the spirits company, Whyte and Mackay.

Their first forays into the meals service have left them with the impression that about a quarter of the schools serve very good food, about a half are average and the last quarter need something done very soon to improve what they offer. They have been impressed, above all, though, by the school meal staff they have met.

"They're not just dinner ladies," said Mr Dimbleby. "We met a chef who had worked in a pub at one school. He was not just a chef, though, he was th e only male role model for the kids in that school. All the teachers were female."

They have also visited breakfast clubs – mainly in inner city areas serving pupils who otherwise would not have eaten before school.

"In a way they disguise the fact that they feed the kids," he added. "In one, it was a ping pong club and the kids played table tennis as they prepared for school."

They were surprised to get the invitation from Mr Gove to take a look at the school meals service – although Henry Dimbleby said he had met the Education Secretary beforehand when they talked about school dinners.

One matter that they wanted to clear up at the outset was whether they would be free to tackle the controversy over whether the Government's flagship academies and free schools should be allowed to ignore the minimum nutritional standards introduced for all other schools – as is the case at present.

"Absolutely – we wanted to be able to look at that and there was no problem," said Mr Vincent. They were given the all clear to do that.

They are anxious that the results of their deliberations should not gather dust on a shelf somewhere – waiting for the Government to give them the green light or not, thowugh.

That is why they intend to keep in close touch with Mr Gove throughout their work. "If there are things that clearly need to be done, we will try and get them started immediately," said Mr Dimbleby.

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