My working life ... Nursery chef

Published: 03 Jul 2015

David Neil is a nursery chef at the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) Queensborough Community Nursery in Westminster, London.

'I never planned to be a chef. I fell into it when I was working as a barman after college. One day the chef didn't turn up, so I had to step in,' Mr Neil says.

'I always enjoyed cooking, and as the eldest of six children in my family, I had a lot of practice growing up. When I started working in the kitchen, it was my mum who encouraged me to do a formal qualification. She bought me my first knives and chef's whites. I trained at the same college as Jamie Oliver.


'No one at college suggested I could work in early years. That happened when my son was born, because I wanted a job that would fit in better around caring for him. The job centre recommended a vacancy at a nursery.


'My day begins at 8.30am, preparing breakfast. In nurseries with more children, you have to start earlier. We eat things like cereal, toast, fruit or scrambled eggs. After breakfast I tidy up and start preparing the morning snack and lunch.

'Our nursery has a hatch onto the kitchen, so the children often watch me cooking. They ask me a million questions. I like to chat and explain what I'm doing. Lunch could be Mediterranean fish, or chicken curry and rice. For pudding we might have cheesecake, blueberry cake or yoghurts.


'I also note down the temperatures of the food at different stages of cooking. I keep a detailed log of everything - what I've cooked, when, the temperatures in the fridge and freezer. This is partly to meet national food health and safety standards, and also part of LEYF's own food safety policies.


'I plan the menus and have to take into account any child's dietary requirements. At the moment I have one child who can't eat dairy, one soya intolerant and one who needs halal. I record what days these children are in on my "requirements" sheet.


'Every menu aims to provide a balanced diet. I like to set menus week by week, as four-week rotations can get boring. It also means I can order food in season, or on special offer, as I do all the food shopping online.


'The focus on nutrition as an early years chef is different from being a chef somewhere else. Working in a restaurant is about making creme patissieres and classic recipes.


'In the nursery absolutely everything must be healthy. I cook from scratch so I know what's in everything. I put less fat in pastry, less sugar in cakes, I don't use salt and I don't fry.


'Part of my job is to bake birthday cakes and I've become pretty handy at decorating. I let the kids request what they want - I've made loads of Peppa Pig and Elmo cakes.


'I also do cooking sessions with the kids, which they love. We make snacks, like sausage rolls.


I also hold cooking events for parents - we recently cooked foccacia.


'In addition to the cooking I do my paperwork, such as the accounts, and maintaining the kitchen. I'm responsible for all the equipment. I have to make sure everything is safe because hygiene inspectors could arrive unannounced any day. If anything is wrong, they would shut us down. They come two or three times a year.


'Being a nursery chef is much like running a restaurant for small people - I love it.'




Employment history


1985: Six-month part-time apprenticeship with fashion designer Charlie Allen


1986-1996: Barman and chef at the Business Design Centre, Islington


1997-2003: Nursery chef at Toots Day Nursery, Tooting, south London


2003-2006: Landlord at the Leather Bottle pub, Wimbledon, London


2006-2008: Nursery chef at Toots Day Nursery, Tooting, south London


2008-present: Nursery chef at LEYF




1979-1984: Battersea Grammar, Furzedown Secondary School, south London


1984-1985: Foundation course in Fashion, Sculpture, Photography and 3D design at South Thames College, Putney


1994-1996: NVQ3 in Professional Cookery, Westminster College, Battersea, London.




Some employers and courses require good GCSE grades in maths and English; formal academic qualifications are not always required. Certificate and diploma-level courses are available in a variety of related subjects, such as hospitality and catering, or patisserie and confectionery. UK food handlers do not have to hold a food hygiene certificate to prepare or sell food, but many employers send staff on relevant courses and ask them to take food hygiene exams.


There are few courses aimed specifically at early years chefs. In September this year, LEYF launched a Level 2 Diploma in Food Production and Cooking in Early Years with awarding body CACHE. Nursery chain Busy Bees also launched a Level 2 Intermediate Apprenticeship in Catering and Professional Chefs in June and plans to introduce a Level 3 Advanced Apprenticeship in the future.




- Food Standards Agency


- Children's Food Trust


- Information about how to become a chef is available on theNational Careers Service website.


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