With fresh, high quality, locally sourced meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, all cooked moments before service, along with homemade cakes and desserts, one is more likely to be describing a top restaurant rather than a school. The food served at Sandroyd, a school for children aged 2 to 13 located in Tollard Royal just half an hour from Salisbury, is a wonderfully unique blend of home cooked family favourites, made with restaurant quality professionalism, with a very firm eye on nutritional balance for growing minds and bodies.

All of the food is planned, sourced and cooked by Sandroyd’s Head Chef, who has nearly 40 years of culinary experience. Rob Doble trained at the Castle Hotel in Taunton before earning a much sought after spot cooking at the Ritz under the renowned Michelin Star Head Chef, Michael Quinn, MBE. Rob was drawn back ‘home’ to the West to take up the position of Head Chef at Coombe House Hotel, in Gittisham, Devon, before moving to Plumber Manor in Sturminster Newton in Dorset. It was during his time at Plumber Manor that Rob helped his then girlfriend (now wife) at Sandroyd’s 100th Centenary dinner. 

"I was drawn to working at Sandroyd because of my own family, but it became quickly apparent that there can be no one more demanding to cook for, nor more important to feed well, than children," says Rob. "The challenge of being able to provide restaurant-standard cooking, day in-and-out for children, really excited me all those years ago, and still does to this day."

Rob’s talents haven’t gone unnoticed either – Sandroyd was the first school to join the Taste of the West and, won ‘Runner Up’ in the School Awards when he first entered the School in 2008, followed by ‘Joint Winner’ in 2009.

The key to Rob’s success is in buying fresh food from local suppliers, “we accept that we do often have to pay more, but my emphasis has always has been on quality.” Fruit and vegetables are all sourced from Country Fair in Bournmouth, fresh fish is purchased from Premier Fish in Salisbury, and the majority of the School’s meat is from Else Family Butchers in Stalbridge. “We definitely don’t ‘cheat on the meat’ – not just because our parents want to know what their children are eating, but because the quality is assured and the taste is so much better.”  This is vital, particularly, for Robert’s famous Sunday lunches, which feature meat sourced from Else’s, but also homemade stuffing, gravy and perfectly cooked crisp roast potatoes. Even by his own admission, “the kids really do wolf it down – just like they would at home. It’s made with love, care and the best ingredients possible – it is family food, for our Sandroyd family.”

Rob certainly takes the idea of good food being at the centre of Sandroyd’s community very seriously. He isn’t just cooking for the children today; he has an eye on their future relationship with food too. “If you want children to eat fruit and vegetables, and to embed good eating habits early on in their lives, the quality is vital,” he asserts. “We have a fruit cart, which the pupils can pick from whenever they want. It is a showcase of fruit – so it all has to be appealing – like shiny satsumas that look delicious and are just crying out to be eaten.” Rob’s approach certainly works, with each child regularly eating their recommended number of pieces of fruit every day – if not much more!

The other key component to Rob’s success is fresh, last minute cooking – which is rare in the school’s world. “Nothing sits around and we don’t use hot plates. Everything is cooked just before service – meaning all of our vegetables are fresh and retain their beautiful colour – the pupils enjoy al-dente green beans that are bright green, the same with broccoli – because dull, overcooked vegetables are simply not appealing, nor nutritious enough to keep the pupils going throughout their busy day of learning, doing sport or just playing!” Rob is constantly surprised by the volume of vegetables the pupils eat – not just the cooked ones - there are freshly cut crudités on the tables at every lunch, which quickly disappear.

As a boarding and day school, Rob has to provide three meals a day, each and every day during term time. “This is more of a challenge than working in a restaurant, as there is need for an even greater variety and range of dishes.” Lunch is a set menu with family service where all pupils and staff sit together and serve each other at the table, whilst School Tea offers a wide choice of options (including a salad bar with 20 different choices each evening!) Rob has found a way of ensuring that all pupils can ask for different menu choices, as well as via the School Council, by setting up a comments box at the dining hall door. Each week he carefully reads every comment – which will tell him what dishes the children are missing, or perhaps they want to see changed. “Every single comment is logged and whilst 95% is positive, we listen to and respond to what the pupils want – more often than not it is a very easy fix – when they asked for apple crumble to be back on the menu – two days later it was!”

Rob has other tricks up his sleeve for creating a home-from-home experience.  He rotates different cereals and yoghurts (some locally sourced) at breakfast – both brands and flavours – to encourage children to try them and, importantly, not to get bored with the choice. With ‘special’ cereals on Sunday mornings, as a treat – just like they would get at home. Of course, desserts and puddings are also an all important occasional lunchtime treat. Nothing evokes more memories than ‘school puddings’ – with classics such as sticky toffee pudding and rice pudding (with a touch of cream to bring it firmly up-to-date!).

These sweet treats highlight the added challenge of working in a school, one that the top restaurants in which Rob presided don’t have to consider – the fact that the nutritional value of each and every meal has to be discussed. For example the much-loved school puddings are a treat – with daily and weekly sugar intake monitored and carefully controlled. As well as having employed a Nutritional Therapist to advise the School, Rob regularly attends conferences on nutrition to ensure the menus on offer are balanced and healthy. As with any family, or restaurant, special diets also need to be carefully catered for – including a wide range of intolerances and allergies. “We are a family school, where each child is really known and understood – so food is an important part to get right.  The children have the milk they are used to – be it rice, coconut, soya, goat or almond – yes that means we have a lot of different milks on offer – but every one is important for each pupil who needs, or prefers it.”  Rob and the School Sister sit down daily to discus those children who have special diets – ensuring that the nutritional value of their food is right and that their plate looks as similar as possible to that of the child they are sitting next to – so they don’t stand out as being different.

From the Ritz to Tollard Royal, merging fine dining with family service, and putting fresh, locally sourced ingredients at the heart of the menu – Rob has placed ‘school dinners’ firmly into the hearts, not just the stomachs, of all Sandroyd’s pupils.

About Sandroyd School
Sandroyd has been a leading boarding Prep school since 1888 and offers an exceptional education in both the Walled Garden Pre-Prep (for children aged 2 -7), and in the Prep School (for children aged 7-13).  It is a wonderfully unique family school, set in an idyllic environment of 500 acres of parkland, that ‘prepares’ children in the very broadest sense – offering academic excellence, and so much more. Sandroyd nurtures a child’s confidence and self-esteem whilst encouraging each individual pupil to fulfill all aspects of their potential: academic, artistic, cultural, sporting and social. To find out more about Sandroyd visit www.sandroyd.com, follow @sandroydschool or contact Louise Hitchen ([email protected], Tel 07736 176973).