“It’s a mixed reaction from the children to start off with,” Simon Gray, senior associate at The Food Teachers’ Centre, and the driving force behind the Fish in School Hero programme, told Fishing News.

The initiative seeks to give secondary school pupils the opportunity to prepare, cook and eat fish – with the aim of developing more positive attitudes to eating UK-sourced seafood.

“You’ll get a few ‘urghs’ and ‘it’s going to smell’ – but when they realise that it doesn’t smell because it’s a fresh fish, they’re really open to it. I’ll take a whole hake and get one of the kids to come up and hold it, and then they’ll all touch it. I’ve had whole classes of 20 students gutting and filleting gurnard.”

Simon’s career in catering began at the age of 16, when he joined the Royal Navy as a chef. After serving for eight years, including on the HMS Bristol during the Falklands War, he left to return to education.

“I went to Westminster College and did an HND in hospitality management and related services, and from there I went on to do a degree in hospitality management.

“When I finished my degree, I opened a fish restaurant in Belsize Park with a chap called Paul Lambert. I ran that for a number of years.”

Simon went on to work in a range of operational management roles for organisations including StenaLine, Harry Ramsden’s, Butlin’s and Republic of Ireland-based catering company Supermac.

New Year’s Eve of 1999 brought not just a new millennium, but a fresh start for Simon. “I’d come back to the UK to work for Butlin’s. On the millennium eve, I was at one of their sites and on midnight I thought: ‘What am I doing here now?’ So I decided to retrain as a food teacher.

“I trained at Worcester University College, and then got a job as a food teacher in Lincoln. I became involved in a lot of national programmes, and that’s when I met Louise Davis who was part of the Design and Technology Association.”

After 15 years of teaching, Simon came out of the classroom to support the set-up of The Food Teachers’ Centre with Louise. “We now represent around 8,500 to 9,000 secondary school food teachers. And that’s where this programme all comes together.

“The Fish in School Hero programme is supported by The Fishmongers’ Company’s Fisheries Charitable Trust. They’ve funded us to go into schools and promote the use, preparation and consumption of fish. We’re now in our fourth year, and it’s gone from strength to strength.”

A first step into a career in the industry? “As part of the presentation I talk about sustainability, provenance and food miles. I go through a number of sustainable catch methods, and the not so sustainable ones, and the impact on the environment. I also go into the careers that are involved – so it’s not just the fisherman and the fishmonger, it’s the whole raft behind it.”

Simon isn’t just helping to raise awareness of seafood with schoolchildren, but also developing the confidence and skills of teachers in working with fish. “I’ll go into a school on a Friday and run a student masterclass, then on Saturday deliver a masterclass for teachers.

“Teachers are often apprehensive to use fish in the classroom because of the perceived perception of young people not wanting to do it. I help them by showing that I can go into a class of 20 to 25 kids who I’ve never met before, give a demonstration, and then get them all cooking and eating fish by the end of it.”

In addition to running masterclasses, Simon’s role also incorporates working on the logistics of getting fish into classrooms around the UK, collaborating with businesses including Wing of St Mawes, M&J Seafood and Offshore Shellfish to source and deliver fresh fish.

“The logistics behind the programme are far-reaching. Imagine putting 2t of mussels to 250 schools – having them harvested on the Saturday and in the schools on the Tuesday.”

Simon’s responsibilities also extend to creating supporting material for teachers, promoting the programme – and all the while championing British seafood.

“Every day is different. Today, I’m putting together a piece for our closed network of food teachers to promote the ‘Fish from the Chippie’ programme, which we’re running with Fastnet Fish.

“I’ve got to speak to master fishmonger Ursula Staske-Lewis about the Welsh programme, and get in touch with Seafish in Northern Ireland because they want to run a programme.

“Then, as it’s right at the start of the school year, I’m looking at where we’re going to go for the student masterclasses and teacher training.”

Part of Simon’s role is to deliver masterclasses – not only to students, but also teachers. “I’ll show them how to prepare flatfish and roundfish, and shellfish – both molluscs and crustacea. I then cook what I call a couple of ‘quick wins’. I’ll take an underutilised species, such as witch or dab, and I’ll fillet that and make a fishfinger sandwich from scratch – so they can see that it can be easily done. I’ll cook mussels and show them a number of different recipes – things that they can replicate both in the classroom and at home.”

Simon’s passion for raising awareness of seafood in schools is evident, as is his enthusiasm for taking on the challenge. “I get the most enjoyment when liaising with industry and putting across the message that with their help and support we can make a difference – we can educate the next generation.

“We’re all volunteers at The Food Teachers’ Centre. It’s not a paid job. We’re not in it as a business; we’re here to promote food education and the consumption of fish. It’s about making organisations aware they can play a part in the journey of young people.

“We’re looking for more fish heroes – chefs, fish suppliers and fishmongers to connect with their local schools. A fishmonger going into their local school is sustainable. And that’s what we’re looking for – sustainability in the long term, where these relationships are brokered and built up.”

For more information about becoming a fish hero, click here.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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