The project is a new initiative to teach children and adults from across London how to grow, prepare and cook delicious, nutritious food, while also providing an inspiring community space and productive gardens for local residents to enjoy. The school, a dedicated food education centre, is a joint venture between the Learning, Education, Arts and Partnership (LEAP) Federation – a network of three Hackney primary schools – and Chefs in Schools, a charity dedicated to transforming food, food culture and food education in schools through training, guidance and support.
The organisations are working together to share and instill a passion for healthy food, and to tackle childhood obesity. Surman Weston was appointed in 2018 to help the LEAP Federation and Chefs in Schools realise their ambitious vision for a food education hub. The scheme comprises an indoor kitchen and surrounding gardens sited on a prominent corner plot in an underused part of Mandeville Primary School grounds. Working to a tight budget, the scheme is designed to be robust, unfussy and joyful, adapting the existing buildings to reduce carbon emissions through construction.
The heart of the project is the educational kitchen, which is housed in a redundant caretaker’s cottage. The red brick house was stripped out and the entire first floor was removed, to create a bright and voluminous double-height, open-plan space. Learning through experience is a central ethos of the project; as such, all the building elements have been left exposed – from the structural beams to the insulation and roof rafters – helping everyone using the building to understand how it is put together. Many of the original finishes and features of the former house have been left in place, including the rough plastered and blockwork walls, and the old bathroom tiles – telling some of the stories of the building’s former life.
The varied palette of materials and textures is unified by paintwork throughout, with the contrasting red cementitious floor lending colour and warmth. The operational area of the teaching kitchen is designed to be as functional and fun-to-use as possible. The kitchen can accommodate an entire class of 30 students – not an easy task considering the compact footprint of the existing 59m² building. The key to the kitchen’s success is that it can be used comfortably by five-year-old children, as well as the tallest of adults. To make this possible, Surman Weston designed and developed height-adjustable cooking and washing stations, composed of simple, off-the-shelf components. Professional grade ovens and other cooking facilities also allow the kitchen to cater for large events, including corporate away-days for ethical businesses, ensuring a vital income stream to support the charity and the local community.
On an urban level, the project transforms the streetscape by upgrading the former caretaker’s cottage with the insertion of a generous picture window. A mural by renowned illustrator Jean Jullien enlivens the previously blank elevation and gives the project a cheerful presence on the street. Slatted timber gates are introduced between the new ornamental kitchen garden and the street, allowing a visual connection between, and direct access to, the shared kitchen garden. The kitchen garden is both a productive growing space and a learning and entertaining space capable of holding outdoor lessons, parties, and banquets. It features large planters, a sun terrace, a fire pit, and a wood-fired pizza oven. Designed to allow children and adults of all ages to access the project, the masonry planters are at a range of heights and also double up as seating for outdoor lessons and alfresco eating.
The architects worked closely with Louise Nichols, the Executive Headteacher of Mandeville, Gayhurst and Kingsmead Primary Schools, and landscape designer Lidia D’Agostino, to ensure the gardens are accessible and stimulating for all users. The kitchen will be run by Head Chef Thomas Walker, who was Head Teaching Chef at The Jamie Oliver Cookery School prior to joining Chefs in Schools. Activities will range from cooking over a fire, making pizzas in the wood-fired oven, learning basic kitchen skills – such as knife skills, vegetable prep, and basic recipes, plus a focus on the field to fork produce where students learn to grow the food they will eat. Produce for the school will come from the onsite orchards, additional vegetable patches, soft fruit areas, a greenhouse, and two beehives. Towards the end of the summer, children began using the space as part of a summer club programme.
Hackney School of Food will be available as an amenity to all primary schools across the borough. The school will have an even wider reach, functioning as an amenity for local people looking to volunteer in the gardens. As a dense inner-city borough of London, private gardens and shared community gardens are scarce in Hackney. The school has been overwhelmed by the community response to its call for volunteers, who have ranged from teenagers to those in their 80s. Even with the challenges presented by physical distancing, gardening is seen as a safe and healthy way of keeping fit and happy during a time of social isolation.
Throughout the pandemic, volunteers have reflected on how important the gardens have become to them, providing a space to engage with nature, make a positive contribution to the community, and meet their neighbours. Hackney School of Food launches at a time when the UK government has highlighted the importance of improving the nation’s health with initiatives such as the Better Health campaign and publication of the National Food Strategy, authored by Henry Dimbleby, Cofounder of Chefs in Schools. Spearheaded by Executive Headteacher Louise Nichols and Head Chef Nicole Pisani as a local resource serving a borough-wide community, Hackney School of Food offers a prototype for future national roll-out in primary schools across the UK.
Surman Weston’s architectural scheme incorporates design details that are easily repeatable; it is a simple, low-cost design solution that has potential for application on further sites.