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I have never been the A* student. In fact during some of the teen angst years I hated school and at times myself. Being the only Chinese kid on the block also made me feel like an alien at times. Low self esteem and lack of belonging is a dangerous mix. But luckily I found a home in the Home Economic room. Among the baking loaves, flour dusted surfaces and Mrs Woodward’s direction (‘Not another stir fry Lisa, come on try something else’), I felt happy and able to give back some worth. Note to reader, although I did make stir fries every week, my stir fries won class prizes and after branching out to new culinary dishes, I loved making a shortcrust meat pie.
When I teach at schools its cathartic and I love seeing the students enthuse over making dim sum or learning a new culinary technique. That is why I will always make time for schools and teaching the next generation. My campaign is to work with schools in the local area and give nutrition advice and cooking tips to school teachers, parents and students. I am delighted that Manchester City Council has made Sweet Mandarin the specialist Food Tech provider to the 174 local schools and my manifesto is to exposing children to new foods from different cultures, giving them a unique experience in the classroom and during Sweet Mandarin field trips (a safe after-school setting).
Today, fewer and fewer families cook together let alone eat together. Forget TV dinners and supermarket meals for one. We need to encourage students to make meals together, gain basic cooking skills for life and bond with their families again. The way I see it, this break down in the family table what I call a ‘nutrition crisis’ could well be the underlying problem of today’s anti social, ADHD society.
When I set up Sweet Mandarin six years ago, we worked along side MANCAT now Manchester College catering arm and invited their students to internship programmes in my kitchen. It was pure magic and has proved to me how powerful food can be. Before entering the programme, a few of these students had run ins with the law and hung out with the wrong crowds with some skiving for weeks. As they delved into what was a foreign land – the world of woks and cleavers – dim sum and stir fries, their eyes opened like saucers – and they wanted to learn something new and were highly satisfied with the skills I was slowly building into their day to day repertoire. I also noticed that their confidence in themselves grew by the day and their reliance on gangs became weakened. They could stand on their own two feet and could be a useful member of society. That courage to say no to gangs is really a break through. It created hairs on the back of my neck to stand up and I wanted to teach them more, teach them everything I knew so that they could prepare as good as any Chinese sous chef. These students were different people to those who entered my kitchen on day one. After the programme at Sweet Mandarin they took pride in themselves and swapped their street life for the banter, ebb and flow of the professional kitchen. It would be tough to imagine a clearer illustration of the power of food.
I teach about two schools a day, every day of term. There is a saying that one should ‘Eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.’ That is true if you are eating the right kinds of food. However, processed foods which kids seem to draw to automatically is really really really damaging to the next generation and to the world as we know it. Arguably, eating processed foods can affect student’s English and Math school results. Those deficient in essential nutrients are more likely to be hyperactive (ADHD), skive off school, and have academic difficulties, including behavioral and attention problems. And, paradoxically, our undernourished children are overweight and obese.
I want to educate the students about real food not the processed stuff…and how delicious real food is. That is why our fruit origami programme is proving so popular with the primary school classes – especially fussy eaters. I’ve made apple swans, strawberry mice, banana dogs and the kids have no hesitation in enjoying their five a day fruit and vegetable after my demonstration. What I’m doing is a very small drop in the ocean but we need to fight against child obesity and we have to make real food the norm again.
There is a Chinese proverb ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’ Few things are more empowering for children than learning skills that have lifelong value. I’ve seen throughout my teaching programmes the benefits extend beyond the cooking. Students work better in teams, are more appreciative of new cultures and understand how important it is to eat a meal together around the table. As long as I have breath, I will fight to reverse the trend of generations of non-cookers. There are many things in this world that divide us but one thing that unites us is food.