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Natasha Carroll is used to crafting sugary delights and wowing diners with her lemon tart as a pastry chef at the Daresbury Hotel but after climbing the culinary ladder for 10 years, she has no regrets about leaving to cook in a nursery.
The envy of jealous parents
Tasha, as she’s known by colleagues at The Willows Nursery in Warrington, says her motivation for working in a nursery was flexible hours that fit in with her young son’s routine but the creative control she now exercises means she doesn't look back. She is the envy of other nursery chefs and jealous parents who clamour for her recipes. She explains "I am given free rein to come up with ideas and implement them. I love my job.
“I’m constantly being asked for recipes. Mums tell me the children go home but won’t eat their food. They only eat my food. At the moment, I’m thinking of creating a recipe book for the parents.”
One of her children's firm favourites are 'sausage mummies' made of sausages wrapped up in bandages like an Egyptian mummy, using strips of pastry.
Ms Carroll is big on ideas for the nursery, with planning permission to build a small scale children's kitchen' for little ones to learn to cook in her kitchen in weekly classes called 'Let's cook with Tash.'
As well as encouraging children to grow their own veg and cook it at the nursery, Ms Carroll is taking nutrition education into homes by sending vegetable seeds and recipes home for children to grow in crops in their own gardens and cook with their parents. Ms Carroll has also invited organic farmers to visit the nursery to take about their produce.
Jamie Oliver: 'not really a great chef is he?'
Uninspired by celebrity cooks, Ms Carroll doesn’t think much of Jamie Oliver’s culinary expertise saying "he’s not really a great chef is he?" but despite her view she is just as driven in her determination to dish up the best for her young diners by finding nutritional gems in every meal.
So much so that in 2015 her ‘cook off’ with other chefs saw her win the Nursery Chef of the Year at the National NMT Nursery Awards with a winning fish pie and carrot cake. The judges said they chose Ms Carroll because 'she showed an exceptional knowledge of nutritional needs and superb flavours that the children would be comfortable with'.
Tackling child obesity
As a trained dental nurse, Ms Carroll is an advocate of less sugar more nutrition, having seen her fair share of tooth decay. Conscious of the issue of childhood obesity, she says portion size is key. While a child of a healthy weight who asks for a second helping may be given it, an overweight child may not get a second or third helping if they request it.
Do you share your ideas with other cooks?
On the subject of how she shares her know-how she says: "I often train up new chefs in the group [Evolution Childcare]. They spend a week in my kitchen. I'm also keen to keep learning myself and have enrolled in a course for cake decorating.
What’s your day like?
Ms Carroll has a 5am start in her kitchen, preparing food for breakfast, lunch and tea and finishes work at 3.30pm. When parents and children arrive at 9am, Ms Carroll checks children’s names on her ‘allergy list’ and goes round each room to find out which children are present that day and what allergies they have.
Catering for wheat, gluten, dairy and other food intolerances, she says: “We have a lot of allergies. There is a little girl who can’t eat egg but I will substitute it for banana instead so that she will still get a rise in the cake she is given. “A child may have allergies but substitution means no child has to miss out on eating something the others have.”
Unfazed if a parent comes in at 10.30am giving her only have half an hour to make something for lunch at 11.30am, she says: “if a chef is organised, as they should be, it’s not a problem”.
Ms Carroll often sits down with the children at lunch “so I can see what they are eating” and does her best to encourage them to try new foods. A snack is served at 1.30pm and tea at 3.30pm. After the cooking comes cleaning. So much so that Tasha has been told by a visiting environmental health officer that when she feels down and its been a bad day she likes come into Tasha’s kitchen “to cheer herself up because it's spotless.” When it comes to catering for different ages, all the children in the nursery get the same meals (taking into account allergies) made from scratch with fresh ingredients with for example the dish of a pre-schooler being pureed for babies. Tasha is always thinking of the next big idea to test out in her kitchen. But while she loves her job, she knows it takes effort to succeed.
What qualities are needed to be a nursery chef?
To the question of what qualities are required to do her job she says: "You must be hardworking, passionate about cooking and working with children. You must also be willing to learn new things."
What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Tasha is clear on what gets her up and ready for work at 5am every morning. She says: "That's easy! When a child who has been refusing to eat something is convinced to try it and ends up loving it."