Food Maker Q & A with Stuart Air
Stuart Air joined NIST International School in January 2014 to launch NIST Catering. Student lunch menus have been revitalised with a range nutritious offerings across multiple cuisines and subscription rates have doubled. Other innovations include a healthy birthday cupcake service and breakfasts of Sloane’s sausages, poached eggs and sour dough toast. On a recent Friday night Stuart and his team prepared a 5 course meal for one lucky parent group demonstrating the versatility of this school kitchen.
Stuart moved to NIST from Japan where he founded ZEST in 2011 to provide schools with fresh, creative and environmentally responsible food. ZEST’s mission is to create great school cafeterias that are about delicious and nutritious food, improving existing school food cultures, eliminating unhealthy eating habits and encouraging calm, friendly and relaxed dining environments. He continues this mission at NIST today.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET INTO FOOD? WERE YOU INSPIRED BY FAMILY COOKING AT A YOUNG AGE OR WAS IT SOMETHING THAT YOU DISCOVERED LATER ON?
A: I always enjoyed cooking from a young age but actually started as a baker so I could finish work and go to the skateboard park while everyone was at work or school!
Q: IN 25 WORDS OR LESS WHERE HAS YOUR CAREER IN FOOD TAKEN YOU?
A: I have travelled around Europe and Asia cooking and cannot imagine settling back in Australia!
Q: WHO CAME FIRST – YOU OR JAMIE OLIVER WITH REGARD TO IMPROVING SCHOOL FOOD?
A: I think Jamie beat me to it by a couple of years! At the time I was working for a large catering company that did not share my thoughts on healthy food but was focused on money. That’s when I got the urge to start my own company ZEST Catering.
Q: WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO YOUR CURRENT ROLE AT NIST?
A: After working extremely hard to set up my company in Japan I really felt like a new challenge. This position was offered to me and wow what a challenge it was! I am very fortunate to have two amazing business partners in Japan that follow my same beliefs in school food so my company is doing better than ever and its given me the experience of opening a completely new cafeteria with all new staff in a school 3 times larger than Japan [Yokohama International School]. We are now serving huge numbers of the NIST community in 2 cafeterias and 4 (soon to be 5) coffee shops/snack outlets. None of this could have been done without the tremendous support of the Head of School James Macdonald, Head of Operations Khun Nirut Chavanarodjanarugi and the whole NIST community.
Q: BEYOND A BREAKFAST THAT PARENTS QUEUE FOR WHAT OTHER INNOVATIONS HAVE YOU INTRODUCED TO CAMPUS LIFE?
A: At NIST Catering we try to produce as much as we can from scratch, from our sauces to our stocks and of bread and pastries. We also have just switched to organic white and brown rice grown in the north of Thailand. Our eggs are grown by mountain farmers in Chiang Rai and are completely free range and organic as well. We are growing our own wheatgrass (soon to be cultivated in our Aquaponics unit at the front of the cafeteria). We are also working with FairNIST Coffee, a student led social enterprise that is working to offer a premium local coffee in the spirit of fair trade. We also work with the coffee farmers of Maeramit, Omgoi, one of the poorer regions of Thailand, to develop their skills and support their community’s development needs. We are putting together an exciting new premium blend of coffee coming to NIST in November with our new partners, Thai High Coffee and Roots. And we also compost our kitchen waste in the NIST rooftop garden.
Q: WHAT FUTURE PLANS DO YOU HAVE FOR FOOD AT NIST?
A: We plan on opening another rooftop garden that will focus on growing more produce for the cafeteria – chemical free of course. This will be maintained by a full time gardener who can also educate the kids about vegetable production.
Q: WHO COOKS IN YOUR HOUSE AND WHAT’S ON THE MENU ON A TYPICAL SCHOOL NIGHT?
A: My wife! And 9 times out of 10 its Japanese food! I tend to cook on Sunday nights only!
Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY KITCHEN IDOLS AND WHY?
A: Not really. I don’t watch TV cooking shows because there are so many chefs out there working with ten times more talent than TV chefs!
Q: ANY ADVICE FOR UP AND COMING FOOD MAKERS?
A: Just cook to enjoy, try to source your own ingredients and shop at markets as much as you can.