Q&A’s with Bright Horizons chef, Aaron Gray
Date: 17 Jan 2019
My name is Aaron Gray and I have been a chef for 20 years, the last 15 of which have been in nursery kitchens cooking for children.
Why did you become a chef?
The main reason I became a chef was solely to make people happy through food. I found the love for it when I was a teenager and began cooking for my sister and her friends. Watching how I was making them happy through the food I had cooked was when I knew this was what I wanted to do. I then went on to work in professional kitchens and eventually nursery kitchens.
Why did you want to work in a nursery?
Although I loved cooking in professional kitchens, I realised I didn’t enjoy cooking other people’s recipes. I fell into working in a nursery through my Sister in Law, who urgently needed a nursery chef. After just 1 week, I knew it was going to be my career! When you work in a restaurant you always get a buzz of the kitchen but all you see are the kitchen walls but working a nursery you know you’re making a difference and seeing the children enjoying your food is what I love most! Especially here at Witan Gate as I have a very open kitchen so the children are constantly walking past and thanking me for their food which is a great feeling.
Do you get much feedback from parents?
Yes great feedback and parents actually come to me for advice. They say things like; “my child won’t eat vegetables at home, how do I get them to eat them?” So I invented recipes like the hidden veg sauce for parents to take home. I add loads of different nutrients with different vegetables into a homemade tomato sauce and blend it all down so the children don’t know the vegetable are in there. By adding parsnips, carrots and sweet vegetables to the sauce you are naturally sweetening it without adding sugar.
To help our parents with fussy eaters we are looking to introduce takeaway plates. So if the child is on a blue plate system, they take a blue plate home which gives them that familiarity from nursery to home.
What’s your greatest achievement working at Bright Horizons?
We’ve got a toddler here at our nursery who is on the Autistic spectrum who doesn’t want to eat anything. The only thing his Mum can get him to eat at home isn’t as healthy as she would like so this became a great challenge for me to help. I’ve been trying so hard to introduce new foods to him at nursery and from experience I’ve learnt serving food so that it’s all separated works well. So I’ve been giving it a go and actually he’s beginning to eat and try a lot more foods. The Father of the child made a point to come into the nursery and personally thank us for all the hard work and efforts we’d put in to help them as a family and really expressed the difference we had made to them. This was my biggest achievement so far that I am very proud of.
Do you have any top tips to help parents with fussy eaters?
- Blending vegetables into sauces is a great way to get all the nutrients into their meal
- Make it look appealing
- Make them feel in control of what they are eating, as we do here with self-serving in the nursery
- Give them encouragement
- At home, actually sit down and eat the same meal with your child to lead by example. Children will be more inclined to eat their meal if they know it’s what adults eat.
How do you as a chef encourage complementary feeding?
When complementary feeding with vegetables it’s important to follow the rule of thumb of including one above and one below the ground. For example including; potatoes, peas, carrots and cabbage. Personally, I am a big fan of baby-lead weaning as it’s a great way to make the child feel in control and incorporate messy play!
What are the favourite recipes at your nursery?
The two recipes that always goes down well in our nursery are:
This is a scone mix using the Easiyo recipe so using Easiyo yoghurt instead of butter which was new to me. You make little pieces of the pinwheel out of the tomato and cheese. This is a great recipe to try at home and I’ve actually experimented at home myself and made chilli pinwheels.
This was actually the first dish I cooked in a nursery. I created it myself and entered it into the Nursery Management Today (NMT) awards. It is a recipe that is constantly evolving, as it started out using a leg of lamb which I changed to mince to make it easier for children to chew and eat. It is naturally sweetened with carrots, apricots and also uses cinnamon and curry powder to really make it bounce off the palette! It goes down really well in our nursery!
How does your nursery ensure children learn about a healthy and balanced lifestyle at home as well as in the nursery?
I always speak to the parents first and go through my menus to ensure they understand the nutrients we are giving their child and how we build them a healthy and balanced diet in the nursery. This includes the right portion of fruit and vegetables a day but also includes the right amount of desserts (e.g. flapjacks and cakes) which can be seen negatively but actually helps provide a nutritional balanced diet and follows the Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines.
We also have a fruit bowl for parents to takeaway on pick-ups and drop offs to encourage healthy eating at home as well as in the nursery. It is always good for children to see their parents eating fruit too!
Finally, as you’ve had experience in a professional kitchen before Bright Horizons, who would you say is the biggest critique, children or the paying customer?Definitely children! They are so honest and say it exactly how it is to me. I don’t get it right all the time so I do get told when it’s not liked, which is great as I can go away and develop the recipe. However, my wife would be a big contender for my biggest critique when it comes to my cooking.