Emmanuel Stroobant is possibly Singapore’s favourite celebrity chef, with his own group of restaurants that includes Brussels Sprouts, Picotin, Rocks, Sque and the fine dining St Pierre – which is about to receive a makeover. Brian Rogove is the Asia-Pacific CEO of Cognita group, which owns both the Stamford American International School in Singapore and the Australian International School. Verne Maree lunched and chatted with the two men at the new Stamford Student Cafe.
On the subject of celebrity chefs and school lunches, Jamie Oliver’s famous contribution to UK school dinners comes to mind. What sparked your collaboration?
Brian: When Stamford was founded about four years ago, we wanted to do something different. Both I and my wife Eve, who is Head of Admissions & Marketing, are passionate about healthy food, and this was our chance to make it happen. For the three years we operated our foundation campus, our previous caterers, Sodexo, created a healthier menu free of preservatives, pork and lard.
But I was serious about taking it to the next level, if possible. Over dinner at one of Emmanuel’s restaurants, we got talking to him, and soon realised that we were kindred spirits on the subject of nutrition for kids.
It was perfect timing, too. Although the new campus was already under construction, we weren’t too late to make the necessary changes to the canteen and kitchen plans. Luckily, we connected very quickly and were in total alignment with regard to the vision.
After a few discussions in rapid succession, Emmanuel jumped right in with his team to redesign the kitchen – the development team wasn’t too happy, but that was OK! To do something different, we also incorporated this Parents’ Café as a practical reflection of our philosophy of engaging with and including parents in school life wherever possible.
Emmanuel: Having three children myself – Tom (17), Keira (3½) and Mia (6 months) – makes me feel even more strongly about the importance of good nutrition in schools. I admit I was shocked by the amount of deep-frying that is done here. Even before speaking with Brian, I had started researching the field; I had looked at the work of innovative US chefs such as Ann Cooper and Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, but hadn’t yet found a suitable avenue.
So when Brian told me what Stamford was trying to do, and I saw the direction we could take together, I jumped at the amazing opportunity that it offered. For me, it’s not so much about the business – I already have my own restaurants and more. More importantly to me, it’s a way of doing something for the kids.
What sort of changes did you make to the initial kitchen?
Emmanuel: It had been planned as a conventional kitchen serving pre-prepared food to a line of kids – you know, women in hairnets serving mashed potato by the spoonful from a vat. We didn’t want that.
But instead of looking too closely at other innovative school lunch projects, we worked backwards. First, we decided on the ideal product and outcome, then we worked out what sort of delivery, storage, refrigeration, preparation, cooking and serving facilities we need to achieve that.
Emmanuel, you’re not only a fine-dining chef and successful restaurateur, but also an ardent yoga practitioner with your own studio, Updog. Tell us about your philosophy regarding this school kitchen venture.
Emmanuel: From an operational point of view, my two main focuses are hygiene and speed: hygiene because we’re dealing with children and speed because they have full and busy days. Educationally, it’s all about educating the kids about food and their bodies’ nutritional needs – how to eat well, how the body works – in the same way as they are taught about geography and mathematics.
We’re also teaching them that it’s not just important what you eat, but also how you eat it. Take your time, savour your food, treat it with respect. Sit down, switch off your phone, switch off your iPad and enjoy your meal while spending quality time with your friends or your family.
Hot school lunches were not a feature of my South African childhood: we brought sandwiches from home. How was your own school cafeteria?
Brian: I was in the US public school system, and the food was just awful. In middle and elementary school it was French fries, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and microwaved pizza that tasted as though it had first been frozen for two years. It’s the antithesis of what you have seen here today. In my high school, they also offered salads and sandwiches, but those were still made from processed meats and refined flour.
Or we’d “brown bag it”, meaning Mom would make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; that was probably the healthier option. So it’s fantastic for me to have my own kids here at Stamford, with such great options available.
Emmanuel: Growing up in rural Belgium, we ate real food: healthy, home-cooked lunches, like roast chicken with potatoes and fresh farm vegetables. That’s really the basis of what I’m doing here. Everything is fresh and many of our ingredients are organic. It’s all made from scratch, including all our stocks and sauces, just like we do in my other restaurants. Powdered stocks are totally illegal!
How did the parents receive the new concept and pricing?
Emmanuel: We held a parents’ meeting where I explained our ethos and what we were aiming for, and I think that was very useful. At $9 per meal, our school lunch is about $1.50 more than the average; but when you think about what we’re giving them, it’s neither here nor there.
Brian: Parents will spend where they think it’s important to spend: I buy organic milk for my children, although it’s ridiculously expensive in Singapore, because I believe it’s better for their health.
Emmanuel: In general, reaction has been positive. The older kids especially enjoy having options such as not having to order a week or more in advance. We of course do encourage early ordering, so as to get our quantities right, but they can order as late as the day itself, if that’s what they want to do.
From a purely practical aspect, how do you manage to serve food that’s freshly prepared à la minute?
Emmanuel: It’s all based on careful preparation; we don’t use bains-maries. We stagger the service over 20-minute intervals, with three serving stations for each of the three categories of meal: Western, Asian and vegetarian, each meal including a vegetarian starter and a healthy dessert. Taking an average of just 15 to 20 seconds per student means we can serve 18 customers every minute. It’s a McDonald’s service style, but of course the quality of the product couldn’t be more different.
What was on the initial menu that you set up in August last year? Has it changed?
Emmanuel: To be honest, the menu is a work in progress. From the initial two-month plan for August and September last year, it is constantly being refined and fine-tuned according to the children’s reactions. Now, after six months, this month’s menu consists of the “best of” everything we’ve tried so far. We’ve learnt that they love sandwiches, wraps, rice and spaghetti Bolognese – in fact, some of the parents order extra spaghetti Bolognese to take home!
There isn’t much that children dislike, but rocket, lettuce, fresh carrots, Brussels sprouts and spinach are difficult areas. Being introduced to different tastes and textures is part of the educational process, however. How you prepare these foods is very, very important: almost all kids will enjoy them blended into soups, or diced small in curries and casseroles. We also do child-friendly salads, like grated carrot with honey dressing.
Brian: The kids are so eager to learn, too. Last summer, in the lead-up to this project, we held a Camp Asia Super Chef led by Chef Emmanuel, which was over-subscribed. By the end of the week, they could prepare a meal for their parents. In the process of teaching close to 150 students, Emmanuel got a good feel for what they did or did not like. We’ve now introduced the camps in all our term-breaks.
What’s the favourite dessert?
Emmanuel: You have to try it: chocolate brownies made with wholemeal flour and chia seeds, one of the top super-foods. It has a nice, nutty texture.
The texture is wonderful and the taste is utterly chocolaty and delicious. I also see truffle-scented wild mushroom soup on the menu for next week. Is that necessary?
Emmanuel: Yes, absolutely! It’s important for children to learn what a truffle is, what it tastes like and where it comes from; they need to understand the cuisines of other cultures and develop a wide vocabulary of tastes and flavours. For me, it was like that with miso soup: if you are Japanese, you grow up with it; I’d never tried it until I came to Asia.
How many students can you feed each day?
Emmanuel: The kitchen is designed to serve up to 1,000 meals an hour. We’re currently serving about 400; the preschoolers don’t use it, and some students bring lunch from home.
Brian: This first phase of the school has about 1,200 students. When Phase 2 opens in 2014 next door we’ll have 3,000 students… but there’ll be another lunch facility there. Onward and upward!