Moorland Private School has fine dining on the lunch menu

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 November 2015

Pupils, Putter Ransibrahmanukul, Amelia Greenwood-Smith, Jacob Holgate and Niamh Burby with head chef, Danny Holder

Pupils, Putter Ransibrahmanukul, Amelia Greenwood-Smith, Jacob Holgate and Niamh Burby with head chef, Danny Holder


Meet the award winning chef reinventing school dinners in Clitheroe. Emma Mayoh reports

Cajun chicken with Tuscan vegetables, guacamole and salsaCajun chicken with Tuscan vegetables, guacamole and salsa

Forget food critics, Michelin Guide writers and those powerful people at the AA who award restaurants much longed for rosettes, chef Danny Holder has harsher judges to impress – schoolchildren. During his 11-year career at The Millstone at Mellor and a stint at a world-renowned country estate in Florida, he said there was never a customer as difficult to please as the pupils at Moorland School in Clitheroe.

‘The children are definitely more challenging than any restaurant customer I’ve ever had,’ he said. ‘If they don’t like something, they will tell you. They’re not afraid of saying what they really think.

‘But on the plus side, if they do like it, they are interested in finding out more about it and are particularly keen to know when they will be eating it again.’

But these young people aren’t rejecting what you would think of as traditional school dinner fodder. There is not a jam roly-poly, plate of chicken nuggest or rice pudding in sight. What Danny is serving up is restaurant quality food – and not just any old restaurant either. The dishes Danny and the kitchen team create resemble food you would get in award-winning, fine dining eateries.

Head chef Danny Holder with chef Stephen HallHead chef Danny Holder with chef Stephen Hall

On the menu you’ll find smoked haddock kedgeree for breakfast, beef and hoisin rolls prepared from scratch and salted caramel tarts made using the finest chocolate the kitchen team can get their hands on. All the meals are beautifully presented in a way more expected at a top dining establishment and the produce is sourced from top local suppliers. At Moorland these include Penny’s Meats in Accrington, Ribble Farm Fare in Longridge for vegetables, Total Food Service in nearby Barrow for dried goods and fish from AO Seafood in Burnley.

‘Before I came in, all the food was brought in frozen,’ said Danny, who started work at the private school in August 2014. ‘They were doing what they had to and it’s what a lot of schools do.

‘But Moorland wanted to go in a different direction and it’s exciting.’

Danny’s unconventional approach to school dinners is all part of his to educate young people about the food they put into their bodies. And he is passionate about it. When he announced he would be leaving a successful career at The Millstone to become head chef at the family run school, colleagues and chef friends teased the Darwen born 32-year-old. There was name calling, albeit harmless, and murmurs of doubt. But it has not fazed Danny.

He said: ‘People were calling me an executive dinner lady and other jokes. But it was all in good fun. I admit that when I first got the call asking if I would be interested, it was something I didn’t think I would like.

‘But as soon as I came here, they sold it to me. And when I spoke to the headmaster, he was just as excited as me. It was the challenge that was really exciting for me. It’s doing things like this that get you out there.’

Danny, who lives in Clitheroe, brought in Stephen Hall, his former apprentice at The Millstone, to work with him. Together with other members of the kitchen team they have introduced new and varied dishes to the school canteen. They feed more than 100 pupils as well as students at the International Ballet School and Manchester City Football Academy, which are both held on site. And the kitchen are learning as much as the pupils – gnocchi was a total hit, risotto, it turns out, is a complete no-no.

And as well as turning out top quality food, they also pride themselves on the relationship they have established with the pupils and cite it as an important part of encouraging children to be more adventurous with their food choices.

‘We are trying to educate the kids,’ said Danny. ‘It’s teaching them about the stuff we put in our food and therefore our bodies. Kedgeree for breakfast, the majority of them didn’t know what it was. The first time we try something it doesn’t go down too well. But we want to expand things and educate them.

‘After a couple of times, they buy into it and the word spreads around school and it becomes a popular dish. A lot of kids are used to more processed foods. It’s getting them to try new things. But it’s all about putting their trust in us. It’s about getting them to love their food as well. I want them to leave the canteen with a smile on their face.’

Danny also tries to fund the kitchen by raising as much money as he can from extra projects like a tuck shop where he sells home made cookies and biscuits during breaks from lessons. He has already been able to redecorate the school canteen, put in new benches and also hopes to be able to serve food on slates as much as possible, as you might find in a restaurant.

His grandmother Peggy first instilled Danny’s passion for cooking in him. It was her creativity and the way and her enthusiasm for food that made him consider a career in the industry.

‘I knew from 13 exactly what I wanted to do,’ he said. My nanna was a cook at school and she taught me a lot.

‘She made cooking exciting and that’s exactly what I want to do here. I love being able to create something from nothing.’

While you won’t find chicken dippers on the menu, the school canteen isn’t totally devoid of treats. Chocolate is available but it is top quality. Chips are served but only once every two to three weeks.

His food has already gained approval from parents and, like any restaurant would, he wants to gain accolades for his and his colleagues work. He also hopes the model he is creating can be used at other schools. He does not plan to rest on his laurels.

‘My three to four year plan is to start growing our own stuff to use in the kitchen and then have a gardening club so the pupils can get involved with that too,’ said Danny. ‘In a year’s time I want to be entering school food awards. The big one is the Food for Life award. I’m confident we can go all of the way for that.

‘We are trying to get the kids as passionate about food as we are. It seems to be working. They have put a lot of trust in me. They believe in what I’m doing. I have had a few kids that when I first started said they would never eat fruit and vegetables. Now they will eat carrots and peas. It might not sound like much but that feels like a real win.

‘We want to show the whole country what we are doing and how advanced school food can be. I tell people I want to be the best school in the country for our food. People laugh at me when I say that because they don’t think it’s possible. But they’re wrong.’

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