Baking is big in Britain right now – the Great British Bake Off is still a massive hit; Instagram feeds are awash with photos of homemade cakes and pastries, and food manufacturer Premier Foods is running an incredibly popular competition for the fourth year in a row for primary schools called the McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year. For the affable Mark Rigby, Executive Chef at Premier Foods, this competition demonstrates many of the principles about food that he is keen to express through his job.
‘Food has to be fun!’ he enthuses, ‘and for me, the baking competition is one of those events that you feel so good about afterwards because you know that you’re doing something that does so much good in so many ways.’
The McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year is for 7–11 year olds. They are set the challenge of having to bake using ingredients taken from within a 30-mile radius of their school. Rigby says that there were many great examples of children using apples from their gardens, growing their own ingredients and using eggs from their very own chickens. ‘The theme of local provenance is an important one in the competition, helping to strengthen ties within communities – just as it is for us as a business,’ he says. Premier Foods spend more than half-a-billion pounds every year with British farms and 81 per cent of their dairy products are sourced from within Britain. ‘Using locally sourced food,’ he says, ‘helps us to reduce our carbon footprint from farm to fork, helping to reduce the impact on global resources. This also reduces cost – it works as a sensible economic approach.’
For the competition, a panel of judges comes together to pull together a shortlist of five (‘There are always loads of entrants and it’s always extremely close’) who compete against one another at LACA – The Main Event. ‘Although it’s clearly a massive amount of fun, it is more about education than everything else,’ says Rigby.
Premier Foods work with a lot of schools – around 20,000 – and Rigby is passionate about the fact that children need to be well educated about food. Premier Foods creates a number of solutions guides and works with local authorities across the country to help schools provide meals to their pupils that are healthy and nutritious, yet are also quick to prepare and realistic for the skills that the on-site catering staff have. This is where Rigby’s background as a product designer comes in – his role is all about creating food products that Premier Food customers (like schools) can realistically prepare – and that is as much about logistics and processes as it is about the food itself.
He believes that more can be done to educate children about food in schools. ‘Some children don’t understand that chips come from a potato or that eggs come from chickens. But, I believe we need to understand where food comes from and if children are better educated about this, I think that it could help with issues around diet, obesity and sustainability.’
Rigby is not just passionate about school being a place for children to have healthy food – and to get a better understanding of food – he also feels that parents need to get involved too. ‘Parents can do more – it’s fun and enjoyable and it makes children aware of the origins of food. It’s a life skill which means that it’s more than just an education about food; it’s something you carry with you for your whole life.’
If he could be anywhere in the world, he says, it would be his back garden, where a summer barbeque with family and friends unites all of his favourite things in the same place. He has a strong conviction that involving children in making food produces major benefits for physical and mental wellbeing and he suggests that parents try baking with their children at home.
Mark Rigby’s top five tips for baking at home with your children
1) Always weigh your ingredients. Baking is a science – if you make it once and it works, you’ll be able to replicate it.
2) Only make as much as you need – waste is both undesirable and makes what you bake seem less attractive.
3) Use everything you make – we used to take a mango, use everything– we use the scrapings to make a sorbet and put the stone in a stock syrup.
4) Store things properly so that they keep well and don’t get wasted. With broccoli, for instance – stand it upright in a cup of water at the back of the fridge; it will last for longer.
5) Experiment! Try new things with your children – it generates excitement; but don‘t go too far out of your comfort zone, as you and your children might get disillusioned if you try something too difficult at the beginning.
Rigby gives a strong sense of valuing health, starting with himself – a regular gym-goer and cyclist, he also has an obsession with skipping, which he does for 45 minutes ‘four or five times a week.’ It’s not just physical health he’s interested either, but mental health too and it’s revealing that the two items he’d want to take to a desert island are his skipping rope and a book of Sudoku puzzles.
‘Health and sustainability go hand in hand with one another,’ he says, ‘it just takes a bit more thought and a bit more care – and that’s what we’re trying to do at Premier Foods. It’s about giving respect to food and giving people the knowledge to make healthy choices – and that is what we think will make a difference.’