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Meet restaurateur Henry Dimbleby

Co-founder of Leon and father of George, 6, Johnnie, 2, and Dory, 1, talks transforming school dinners, horse meat, and his new ‘Cook 5’ meal crusade for children

Posted: 21 February 2013
by Amanda Pauley

How important is it for families to cook and eat together? “I was lucky as a child because we had big family meals all the time. Eating together is important, not just for developing your child’s cooking skills, but also for the fun and sense of community this time brings.”

Did you cook a lot in your childhood? “My mother, Josceline Dimbleyby, was a cookery writer, so there was always amazing food around the house. As a youth I learnt to eat lots of unusual things long before my peers, so when I got to the age where I could teach myself to cook, I did.”

Who do you think is the better chef, you or your mother? “My mother definitely [laughs]. We have very different styles. My cooking background is classical, with lots of stocks and sauces, whereas my mother’s is much more home cooking with a widely creative flair.”

Do you and Josceline cook together? “We do, and probably 90% of our conversations are about food. It’s a real bond between us.”

What is your favourite dish to make? “’I’m a real faddist, so I go through phases. At the moment I’m obsessed with Chinese food and really enjoying making Sichuanese numbing and hot beef.”

Do you regularly cook with your children? “They’re quite young (George, 6, Johnnie, 2, and Dory, 1) so I cook with them sitting by me and get them to do the occasional chopping, but we always eat together as a family.”

Do you think your children will follow in your culinary footsteps? “They need to do whatever they want to do. Hopefully I’ve enthused them to have a love of food.”

You’ve worked closely with the Government on reviewing school dinners. What do you think about the food that's getting served up now? “What’s being served in schools at the moment is much better than the perception of what is being served. The meals have improved measurably, and I advice any parent who is giving their child packed lunches to go and take a look at the school food. You might be quite surprised by how good it is.”

Jamie Oliver has done a bit of work in this area. Is there any rivalry between you? “No, not at all. He provided a shock to the system when required and since then it’s got better. John Vincent, co-founder of Leon, and I are just accelerating the good work that’s already been done.”

You’ve helped cooking becoming compulsory in schools. How much lesson time do you think it should be given? “If you look at the curriculum, you’ll notice it’s very intentionally driven by what outputs you’re trying to achieve, rather than hours per week. We’ve left the freedom, regarding hours dedicated, to the schools because if you’re too prescriptive, you stifle creativity.”

How do you feel about the horse meat scandal? “Well it’s pretty bad, but I’m hopeful two things will come from it. One, it’ll reinforce the idea that to feed yourself affordably and well, you need to have basic cooking skills. Secondly, it’ll shake up the system, as the supply chain has got too low with food being traded too many times before it gets to our plates.”

What are your plans for 2013? “I’ll be opening lots of new Leon restaurants in classic fast food locations across the country, such as stations and airports.”

What made you want to launch the Leon ‘Cook 5’ campaign? “I’ve been working with the Government on the role of food on the national curriculum and discovered we lack a cooking culture in this country, with 60% of children leaving school without being able to cook five basic dishes. The result is a loss of pleasure, enjoyment, and ability to feed themselves affordably, so many resort to ready meals.”

How do children get involved? “The process is very simple, you just log on to our Cook 5 site, chose five savoury dishes from our vast selection, and cook them. As children cook the dishes we ask them to put pictures up and once they’ve loaded five, they’re awarded a certificate, free ‘Little Leon’ e-book and entered into monthly competitions.”

How did you decide what dishes to include on the site? “The dishes were picked because they’re simple, cost effective, and of course, delicious.”


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Leon, restaurant, Cook 5, horse meat scandal, school dinners, Josceline Dimbleby, Henry Dimbleby, chef

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