The careers of Masterchef winners take many glamorous forms: cookery books, pop-up restaurants, swanky gastropubs, restaurants in fancy hotels and cookery schools. Massively successful Mexican chain, Wahaca, was founded by a Masterchef champ.
Hackney’s own Natalie Coleman was the triumphant chef of last year’s competition. This East London girl is keeping her feet firmly on the ground, working on projects close to her home and to her heart.
“I really liked food tech at school, but our class was quite a handful to say the least,” she recalls. “I nicknamed the teacher ‘Jesus’ because she wore sandals and socks. Poor teacher.
“I also remember slicing the tip of my thumb off and running from the classroom screaming and pouring blood everywhere, and running to First Aid. And one time I burned my hand on the ring hob that was still hot from the class before.”
It wasn’t all unfortunate nicknames and minor first aid incidents however, this was when Coleman first discovered her love of and talent for cooking, even at its most basic. “We made jacket potato boats with cheese in the first year with Mrs Kitts,” she says. “Then I chose Food Tech for GCSE. We had Mrs Evans – who I saw a few months back when I visited my old school – she was a great food teacher and she kept my coursework as she wanted to use it to show future students.”
These fond memories of school and cooking from a young age prompted Coleman to get involved with introducing children to cookery: she’s working with Whole Foods and School Food Matters, as well as with Jamie Oliver on his Kitchen Garden Project.
And she’s keeping some work close to home in Hackney: “I recently set up cookery lessons locally with St Luke’s in Central Street Cookery School, to get kids cooking from the ages of 6-16. Working with these guys and also doing lots of school visits from requests I’ve received has become a bit of a mission or passion of mine.
“During and after MasterChef I got lots of messages from parents saying their kids were inspired to cook because of me. At the food show last year I was mobbed by kids, some as young as four and five, which was totally unexpected. Because of that I thought I needed to try and do something to get kids cooking.
“Even if it was just one child I got cooking, its one kid who would grow up with an interest in food and knowing how to cook.”
Coleman shares Jamie Oliver’s view that food education – and therefore health – should be a part of every child’s schooling. “I was taught basic food education, however it’s not in schools anymore,” she says. “We see kids becoming obese and having health problems because of poor diet and lack of exercise, however if takeaways and ready-meals are what they know, it’s not just down to the kids.
“Yes there are choices, but if they aren’t taught the basic skills or knowledge then it’s our education failing the future generations. We learn science in school, and – no disrespect – unless you’re going to use science in your working life what use does it have?
To Coleman, these skills should be just as basic on a curriculum as maths, science and English. “Science wasn’t my favourite subject and it was cool learning biology and about the layers of rocks that make up the earth,” she says. “But I’ve never had to refer to the periodic table in my adult life since leaving school. So if we are taught certain subjects that we don’t always need to use in later life then surely we should have a ‘life skills’ class that teaches cookery and food education, but maybe also budgeting and wages, banking, paying bills. Basically teaching kids how to prepare for adult and working life!”
She is already seeing the results of her work in schools, with both children and their parents, teaching basic recipes and nutrition. “It’s amazing, they love it and I’ve had parents say ‘You must put spells on them or something!’ – one mum said I got her daughter Lola to eat a banana for first time in ten years,” she says, proudly.
“Another little boy Callum, four years old, ate lettuce because I got him to try it. Then at the lessons I run at St Luke’s I’ve had kids as young as six making flatbreads which they loved, but most adults wouldn’t even do. Something so simple and easy – if a six-year-old can make flatbreads then anyone can, it’s just knowing how to.”
Another of her projects, Free Cake Hackney Kids, is aimed at children. “It never once occurred to me that some kids don’t have a cake on their birthdays, something I always had and well most of us take for granted,” she says. “We are still not out of the recession completely and there are a lot of people living in poverty. Things like buying the odd packet of sweets, or a new top in the high street on a whim, is a luxury to some people.
Free Cake Hackney Kids isn’t going to change the world – and nor do they claim to – but its organised and managed by volunteers that bake cakes for kids whose parents can’t buy a cake for their child’s birthday, because things are difficult financially. I think it’s amazing – it puts a smile on the kids’ little faces. Even though it’s a small thing, it’s a big thing to them and takes the pressure off the parents who already have enough to shell out for.”
Never one to stay still for long, Coleman has also just launched a Hackney-inspired menu at East Village – the former athletes’ village at the Olympic Park in Stratford – showcasing all of her favourite independents and suppliers in East London.
“It is exciting to be a part of creating a new community,” she says. “When coming up with the recipes, I wanted to use some of the best producers and shops and show East Village residents and locals where they can get some of the highest quality food in the area. People often don’t know what they have access to right on their doorstep.”
There is a distinctly local feel to her new menu, and it seems as if Coleman knows each and every supplier personally like a group of friends a getting together to throw a joint dinner party: “The salmon for my starter came from H Forman & Sons, the oldest salmon smokers, right on the Olympic Park by East Village. Recently I discovered the East London Liquor company through a friend, they produce really amazing gin which was the starting point for the cured salmon recipe.
Hill & Szork is a stones’ throw from my house and they only sell the best quality meat in their shop, they can probably tell you the animal’s name, not just the farm it came from. At 6pm they close for the day, and reopen as a ‘cookshop’ – a 17th century concept, the first kind of restaurant for the ordinary working man, who bought meat from the butcher, who then cooked them a meal from what they bought. I think it’s the only butchers in London that has revived this.”
With bread from E5 Bakery and fruit from New Spitalfields Market, there’s no excuse for East Londoners not to try out this Hackney girl’s recipes. See for yourself, and try a few out, here.