Cooking Up A Storm

Emma Brophy discovers a recipe for success at The Kids Cookery School

I have to admit that, in today's highly competitive world, I have always placed far greater emphasis on my offspring's academic developments with the art of cooking coming way down the list. That was until I met the remarkable Fiona Hamilton-Fairley, founder and driving force behind The Kids Cookery School.  

A mother of three, Fiona began cookery classes with her young children and their friends in the family kitchen.   The idea was that the kids would get to bake and eat simple and nutritious teatime meals and would have a fabulous time doing so.   However, when news of these cooking sessions spread and the number of children who wished to attend grew so large, that the idea of the Kid's Cookery School was conceived.   

Fiona's motivation for teaching culinary skills came from her own childhood when, accepting that academia was never going to be her thing, she put her innate practicality to excellent use by training as a Cordon Bleu chef.   When she spotted similar traits in her eldest child, she set about passing on such invaluable life skills in order to give him the best chance of a career.  

In December 1998, Fiona discovered the perfect site for Kids Cookery School on Gunnersbury Lane and, armed with enough dedication and drive to move mountains, the indomitable Fiona set about raising enough funds to complete vital renovations and cover initial set up and running costs.    The school became the first of its kind to be awarded charitable status enabling it to operate on a daily basis through the help and funding from a variety of charitable trusts and foundations, private donors and companies. Fiona explains, “We're a charity, not a profit making business.   All the funds we raise from our sponsors go towards providing assisted places for children most in need.   These children now account for 60% of all those who attend classes here.”  

The purpose built, vibrant premises, complete with adjustable height sinks and workspaces for wheelchair users, has been specifically designed to provide the perfect learning environment.    Since the tremendously successful launch day back in May 2000, when famous patrons Tony Tobin and James Martin came to lend a hand, Kid's Cookery School has taught almost 7,000 children.   Around 30% of these children have special needs and over 45% come from ethnic minorities.  

The school's ethos is totally inclusive and aims to promote healthy eating and food awareness through hands-on cookery amongst children from all social backgrounds and age groups.    The three professionally trained teaching staff share Fiona's philosophy that cooking is a creative skill where there are no rights and wrongs, simply different methods and value they place on sharing ideas with and learning from the children.

A passionate believer in teaching children the benefits of a healthy diet, Fiona considers ready meals and convenience foods to be a symbol of today's hectic living and take away the need to learn even the most basic of culinary skills.  

“Surely then it's the parents you should be educating?” I suggested. Fiona disagreed, “I believe that children are the best vehicles to convey the healthy eating message to their parents.   If a child understands why an apple is better for them than sweets and why they should drink water instead of coca cola, then there is a very good chance that their parents will respect their wishes.”  

“We have children who come here that can bone and cook delicious Jerk Chicken, but have no idea where an egg comes from. By listening to and communicating with these children, we are able to both teach them and learn from them. We adopt a multi-cultural approach to food, encouraging children to cook a variety of dishes from around the world.”

The school's flexible workshops are tailored to suit the needs of the children and take into account any dietary requirements, for health or religious purposes. Each cookery workshop ends with the children, participating in food therapy which introduces them to a wide range of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices from around the world.”

On the morning I spent at Kids Cookery School, it was the turn of ten children from the local Berrymede School to learn how to make a simple nutritious lunch.   What struck me most about these children was, not only their cultural diversity, but their behaviour.   It was impeccable. I have never encountered such calm in a group of children so young they were almost spellbound. When I remarked on this Fiona explained, “There's something about this place that makes children feel welcome and comfortable.   The children are treated with respect at all times, they sense this, therefore that's how they treat us.”  

In addition to running the workshops, study days and children's birthday parties, constant fundraising and seeking new sponsors is crucial.   Annual running costs amount to £200,000 of which approximately £150,000 is raised through paid courses, donations and grants and around £50,000 is donated in kind e.g. electrical goods and food.    The school boasts a list of patrons which reads like a list of who's who in gastronomic circles and includes Mary Cadogan, Roz Denny, Sophie Grigson, James Martin, Sri Owen, Tony Tobin and Lesley Waters.

I asked Fiona about her vision for the future of the School.   She replied, “I want to see a KCS open in all inner city areas to encourage the inclusion of all children and disadvantaged groups and provide further opportunity to access this vital life skill.”

With such a proactive, determined and unassuming woman like Fiona Hamilton-Fairley at the helm, there is no doubt that Kids Cookery School is going places. 

Contact details :
107 Gunnersbury Lane, Acton, London W3 8HQ
Telephone : 020 8992 8882

This article was originally published in Westside Magazine and is reproduced with kind permission

February 22, 2004

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