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FIMAC1 Sat 26-Mar-05 12:58:38

March 26, 2005

A born star keeps fame off the menu
By Ben Hoyle

AS BRITAIN’S favourite school cook grapples with my trousers, it occurs to me that she is not very good at being inconspicuous.

Nora Sands, the Irishwoman with a foghorn voice, filthy vocabulary and sentimental attachment to eggs “fried in dripping”, was the star of this year’s most talked-about television programme.

But now that her 15 minutes of fame as Jamie Oliver’s chief sparring partner in Jamie’s School Dinners is over, she wants to be left in peace to get on with serving cheap, fresh food to the pupils of Kidbrooke School in Greenwich, southeast London. As she explains, very loudly and with a twinkle in her eye: “I don’t care if you’ve come from Timbuktu — I’m not talking to ya.” Except that she can’t help herself.

Nora and her dinner ladies at the comprehensive school were the guinea pigs for an experiment that has become a widespread phenomenon. About 250,000 people have signed an online petition backing Oliver’s campaign on school dinners.

Parents contributing to the debate on the website argue that Oliver’s charismatic Irish sidekick displayed more star quality than even the Naked Chef but Nora has resisted attempts to turn her into a celebrity. Even Richard and Judy have been rebuffed.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the food the children eat,” she explains, before remembering her vow of silence.

When Oliver arrived, the job of a dinner lady was to reheat processed food. The role is very different now. The fridge is packed with fresh peppers, leeks, courgettes, parsley, garlic and fresh chillies. The room is calm, save for Nora’s shouting. “Will somebody clean this ***** kitchen? Can you clean off this bloody work surface?” She hurtles past, carrying the last vital ingredient for the salad dressing. “I’ve got the bleeding mustard,” she shrieks.

The food, delivered on time and on budget at 37p per dish, is spectacular: lamb casserole with couscous, herb crusted fish with rice, tuna spaghetti, stone-baked pizza and vegetable curry, all served with mixed leaves, tomatoes and coleslaw and costing £1.

Back in the kitchen, Nora drags me off to meet her assistant cook, Anne Philpott. “Jamie was like a scruffy son,” Anne says. “Except my son wouldn’t be allowed to have trousers ripped at the knees and shaggy hair like that.”

It is impossible to say what she said next because Nora scribbled over my notes with a marker pen. “Ya can’t write that or I’ll lose me job.”

Hooting with laughter she leaps on me, rummaging about in my pockets for a dictaphone. “It could be anywhere, Nora,” shouts Anne. “Keep going.”

“How thick are ya?” Nora wonders, jabbing me. “I’m not saying nothing.”

Pupils at a Cotswolds primary school are to be provided with food by the local pub in an initiative arising from Oliver’s campaign. David Spencer, head chef at the Bathurst Arms in North Cerney, Gloucestershire, said he was planning healthy meals: “We are keen to keep away from the saturated fats, and include fruits and vegetables on the lunchtime menus.”

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