Legends in their own lunchtimes

FROM LEFT: Roxanne Mackie, Nardia Jesson, Paiperangi Martin, Lucah Christensen and Daeshawna Ngawhare tuck into Rhode Street School’s Food Revolution lunch.
FROM LEFT: Roxanne Mackie, Nardia Jesson, Paiperangi Martin, Lucah Christensen and Daeshawna Ngawhare tuck into Rhode Street School’s Food Revolution lunch.

This is a story to warm your heart, and your tummy as well. Specially if you like the sound of manuka-smoked pulled pork ragu with Sicilian tomato sauce and pasta, and a chunky piece of Maori rewana bread to mop up the juices.

This was lunch last Friday week at Hamilton's Rhode Street School, where a team of 20 pupils aged 7 to 13, all kitted out in black caps and aprons, cook damn fine kai for 220 kids, staff and about 50 parents as part of British chef and healthy food campaigner Jamie Oliver's third Food Revolution Day. The day aims to get children excited about food and cooking.

Dallas Toms is one of the mums at the Rhode Street lunch; she watches her son Makaire tuck into a plate of pork and pasta, comments that typically all he wants for lunch is peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Today he's eating something much more complex, and enjoying it. Jamie Oliver would be delighted.

SMOKIN': Chef Jimmy Boswell, left, and Rhode Street principal Shane Ngatai mix the manuka-smoked pulled pork into the tomato sauce.
SMOKIN': Chef Jimmy Boswell, left, and Rhode Street principal Shane Ngatai mix the manuka-smoked pulled pork into the tomato sauce.

Rhode Street's junior chefs are pros. They've been well trained at their on-site Kai Time Cafe kitchen. Ahead of the lunch, they painstakingly pulled tender hangi-cooked pork (50kg of it) off the bone (this takes ages), they stripped bundles of watercress for garnish, mixed, baked and chopped the bread, offered a little bit of taste-testing for visitors. "The bread is cool, try some."

They made the vege-laden Sicilian tomato sauce (60 litres), now resting in a giant container; it has been infused with Maori herbs kawakawa and peppery horopito that have been dried in a dehydrator, then ground in a mortar and pestle. The sauce also contains traditional oregano and thyme, the kids have stripped and chopped these leaves as well.

The tomatoes were grown in the school's gardens, harvested, pulped and were frozen for such an occasion as this. The herbs, onions and garlic were grown at Rhode Street, too. They've only had to buy carrots. This is said almost as an apology, like somehow they've let the side down by buying carrots.

The kids wash their hands often as they work, observing a strict hygiene regime, and they keep the stainless steel benches spotless. "They never leave a mess," says kitchen tutor Melissa Pattison.

They laugh a lot, and talk about what they cook at home. Denise Walker, 12, is doing the watercress with Libby Conner and Leah Mark. Denise rattles through some of the stuff she knows how to make. "All kinds of things: chicken, mince stew, macaroni cheese, bacon and eggs, lasagne." Some things she's learned from mum, some from school. Marama Katipa, 11, is sweeping the floor. She cooks dinners, too: "Steak and some salad."

Oliver Ngatai and Joshua Walker, both seven, are on breadmaking duty, conjuring the loaves to feed the multitudes. They've done traditional rewana bread topped with rosemary, black olives and rock salt, in keeping with the Maori Meets Mediterranean fusion theme of this lunch.

Oliver and Joshua's bread is warm from the oven, it smells divine, they use protective gloves to ferry it to the bench for cooling and cutting.

They can tell the bread is cooked by the smell of it, and it sounds hollow when they tap it. "We cook it for an hour at 180 degrees," says Oliver. "Then we eat it."

A photograph of the two lads, armed with bread and gloves, is posted on the Food Revolution Day Facebook page and it earns an accolade from Jamie Oliver's team. They love it.

Food Revolution Day is a joint venture by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation in the UK and US, and The Good Foundation in Australia, and activities were held in about 120 countries worldwide on May 16. Oliver wants to raise the profile of food education as the key to transforming people's lives by making healthy eating choices.

His premise is that culinary skills were previously passed down from generation to generation, but now millions of people lack even the most basic knowledge to make a simple meal from scratch. He wants to change that.

There were 800 Food Revolution participants in New Zealand and Rhode Street's lunchtime feast was the biggest event. The small decile three school, embracing 14 nationalities, 78 per cent Maori, is the mouse that roared. The happiness, harmony, and sense of purpose on this sunny day is infectious.

The grown-ups behind the lunch (aside from Jamie Oliver) are Rhode Street principal Shane Ngatai, and Food Revolution ambassador chef Jimmy Boswell, who lives at Matangi. Ngatai has worked as a chef, he spent about 10 years in hospitality, and back in the day he owned former Hamilton eatery El Dorados, in Alma Street, among other restaurants. He gave up hospo in 1996 and returned to his earlier calling of teaching.

Rhode Street is part of the Enviroschools network, which supports young people to work in the area of sustainability, and Ngatai has developed a school-wide strategy where kids learn to grow, harvest, store and cook.

He's proud of what has been achieved over nearly eight years, with the support of the school's board, staff and community. Each pupil has about two sessions in the kitchen per term. They cook lunches each day, which are sold to pupils for $5, and they prepare afternoon tea for Rhode Street's after-school care programme, which caters for five schools.

"These are hands-on, real-life skills," Ngatai says, pointing out that gardening and cooking embrace wider curriculum objectives such as physical activity, reading recipes, calculating, measuring, problem-solving, building relationships, resilience, learning about how things grow.

The work culminates in the school's annual fundraising Kai Festival, held in March, where the kids cook and then sell their food to their community. This year, the seventh festival, the festival had a turnover of about $40,000, a net profit of $22,000, and an incalculable result in terms of what the pupils learned from running the show.

Today's Food Revolution extravaganza is an extra layer on the culinary output, the result of a meeting between chef Boswell and Ngatai. Boswell had heard about what Ngatai is doing at Rhode Street as an Enviroschool, and he approached him about creating a Food Revolution event.

Boswell is a cookbook author, food stylist and food writer, one of nine Food Revolution ambassadors in New Zealand. He's also the brand ambassador for San Remo pasta, and San Remo donated 100kg of pasta to the school for this event. The team only used 15-20kg, so there will be plenty of Italian dishes this winter at Rhode Street. Pokeno Bacon's also sold them six pork shoulders at cost, and Boswell and Ngatai ask if this could be mentioned, because he and the school are grateful for such support.

Boswell is half Kiwi, half Sicilian ("made in Sicily, born in New Zealand), and he's the one who came up with the Maori Meets Mediterranean theme, a nod at his culinary heritage and the values of extended family that Maori and Sicilians share.

The kids are doing 99 per cent of the work for the lunch, and Boswell is the quiet, unflappable coach, impressed with the skills and work ethic he's seeing. He checks the sauce, lifts heavy containers, does quality control, praises the young cooks. He instructs Rangimarie Taylor, 13, and Akaki Harry, 12, in the art of cutting the rewana bread. Akaki wields the knife, Rangimarie counts out 300 pieces, arranging them neatly on platters.

In a lull before lunch, Ngatai asks pupils Toko Waitere, and Te Arahau Reihana, both 11, to take me for a tour of the gardens. First to the hydroponics ("this used to be the swimming pool, but it cracked"). The pool has been brilliantly reinvented with a canopy for hydroponics, and enviro teacher and school caretaker Alastair Kerr is working with a group amid chilli plants, tomatoes, capsicums and basil. Then we examine the worm farm, compost and "a pile of clippings that Mr Kerr put there". On to the school's latest vision, an Ecological Island designed for science projects, a work-in-progress, followed by some discussion of how Toko can cook pretty much anything, "cakes, pizzas, and I've cooked some fancy stuff like tortilla stacks".

At the kitchen garden, the boys proudly show off the wood-fired pizza oven. Toko says they used to have chickens here. "Now they're mostly in our stomachs." We nip into the organic orchard, admire the laden persimmon tree, among others.

It's close to 1pm, time to feed nearly 300 kids and parents. Boswell and Ngatai do the heavy stuff, meld the bowls of pulled pork into the tomato sauce, and carry cauldrons and platters across to serve at the Kai Time Cafe, which has covered outdoor seating.

The queue is relentless, snaking around the school buildings, everyone politely waiting. "I'm loving the good role model behaviour," says a teacher.

There's a seamless chain gang of kids and adults ladling pasta, tomato sauce and pork into recycled plastic bowls, garnishing with watercress, placing bread on the side. Lots of pupils are soon sitting at tables with full plates in front of them. No one can start till prayers are said, no matter how tempting.

So there is a moment to offer thanks for the food, then spoons hit the plates.

The kids are beaming, they mop up the sauce with their bread. It's worked. Ask them what they think, they chorus, "It's yum."

The lunch has the ingredients of fun and good food that Jamie Oliver intended. Oliver is planning a visit to New Zealand in October; Ngatai would love to get him to visit, meet the kids and see firsthand what they're doing.

The grown-ups are the last to eat. I sit down with Boswell and Ngatai, dig my spoon into the tender, tangy pork and sauce I've been eyeing all morning. And quietly salute the warm-hearted young food heroes of Rhode Street School.