Chef quits 20-cigar-a-day habit to turn vegan and start UK’s first plant-based school kitchen

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A globetrotting chef has launched the UK’s first plant-based school kitchen. Gary Hardley made the decision after his parents’ shocking deaths and his wife’s food allergies, saw him ditching his 20-a-day cigar habit and becoming a health-conscious vegan.

Gary’s parents both sadly died of cancer, seven months apart, in 2015. As a result, Gary decided to quit smoking. He also then went on to stop eating and cooking with meat and dairy after his wife Anna Hardley, 48, was diagnosed with dairy and wheat intolerance in 2019. Bowled over by the delicious dishes he created and the massive improvement in their energy levels and well-being, the couple then jumped at the chance of sharing their fabulous recipes with school children.

Gary, 51, of Worthing, West Sussex, said: “We worked with Public Health professionals, nutritionists and parents to create the right menu and set up a huge tasting day with over 70 families to try the food and figure out what worked.

“So far, there has not been one negative comment. With kids, the food needs to look good and it needs to taste right, or they won’t eat it. It’s been a learning curve, figuring out how to get vegetables into food such as spaghetti with meat-free balls. We fill the balls with finely chopped carrots and peppers, onions and courgettes.”

He added: “Or we change the names of the dishes, as while our black bean and quinoa balls in BBQ sauce looks good, it sounds odd to kids, so now they are veggie balls in BBQ sauce.”

Gary’s first health wake-up call came in May 2015 when his dad Peter Hardley died from throat and chest cancer, only for his mum Carol Scott to die within months on Christmas Eve of peritoneal cancer. He said: “I could smoke about 20 cigars a day when I worked long hours as a chef and after my mum died on Christmas Eve 2015, I stopped.”

He added: “I am 51 now and my parents both died at 61, which is constantly in the back of my mind. I want to do anything I can to keep going for longer and soon realised that if that meant changing my lifestyle, I would do it. I want to be here for my kids and my grandkids.”

Meanwhile, Gary’s wife Anna had been breaking out in unexplained rashes. He said: “We were living in Mallorca at the time and my wife kept coming out in all sorts of rashes. We had several appointments with doctors and she had tests, but even when we moved back to the UK in 2012, the rashes would still come and go.”

Gary and Anna (Beth Maiden Photography/PA Real Life)
Gary and Anna

Desperate to find a solution, Gary plucked one of Anna’s hairs and sent it off for allergen testing, which revealed that she was 100 per cent allergic to wheat and dairy, among other foods.

“I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” he said. “I didn’t know what we would eat, which I now realise is that typical arrogance and ignorance you have as a meat eater.”

But the couple decided to do all they could to change their lifestyle. And, after a few months of exploring dairy-free options, they decided to embrace Veganuary in 2020 – the month-long vegan challenge – with “life-changing” results.

“In two years, I have lost four and a half stone,” Gary said. “I was always dieting before I went vegan, but never with any great success. Now, though, I weigh 100 kilos and feel really good. I used to take blood pressure tablets, too, which I don’t need anymore and I feel so much more energetic now.”

Not long after Veganuary 2020, Anna and Gary decided to improve their green credentials even more by starting their own plant-based street food company to tour festivals with – before the pandemic brought their plans crashing down. Despite festivals being off the agenda, and Gary shielding due to his blood pressure, an opportunity arose just down the road from their home to put their ideas to consumers.

Gary Hardley and Anna Hardley (Collect/PA Real Life)
Gary Hardley and Anna Hardley

He said: “There was this little shop not far from us where a woman was making vegan pastries and scotch eggs and in June she announced she was having to leave,” he said. “It had a really nice feel inside and Anna and I were keen to work together, so we took it on.”

Initially, the couple’s family were hesitant of their plant-based plans. Gary said: “They didn’t really understand at first and I explained that it is a really busy and growing market that has become massive.

“So, within a week, we had picked up the keys and created the Coeliac UK-approved Vegan Street Food Company, for grab and go foods like soups, pies, bangers and mash and all-vegan breakfasts. Our first customer was a four-year-old girl who had been on a school trip where everyone had ice cream and she couldn’t, because she was dairy intolerant.

“Her mum brought her in and said she could have anything she wanted and she couldn’t believe it, she was so happy. Our sons now come over and eat vegan with us and my granddaughter, Lacy, eight, is now vegetarian too.”

And, less than a year after launching their new business, another opportunity arose at their local private school, Our Lady of Sion, where staff were looking for an “out of the box” caterer. Arranging a meeting and tasting, Gary and Anna set up the Plant Based School Kitchens brand – the first of its kind.

As well as dishes like their five-bean chilli tacos, mixed lentil fajitas and pea-protein chicken roast dinners, Gary said their “fakeaway Friday” is also a roaring success – offering some very popular, but healthy alternatives to fast food. He said: “It’s the end of the week and they can have a veggie burger in a gluten-free bun with skin-on fries.

“They still have the nourishment they need and it’s always served with corn on the cob or salad and dessert. If its a shortbread biscuit, it’s served with coconut milk or oat milk.”

Revelling in their success and in their role, spreading the word about the health benefits of plant-based eating, Gary still surprises himself that he is such a committed advocate of veganism: “I would never have thought a few years back that I’d become plant-based. Back in the day, if a vegan had come into a restaurant where I was chef, I’d have thought, ‘What can we give them? They eat nothing’. But it’s been life-changing for us and now we are giving people choices. Plant-based diets aren’t a fad – they are the way for everyone to go.”

Gary and Anna with the Plant Based School Kitchen team
Gary and Anna with the Plant Based School Kitchen team

Now, with GCSEs on the horizon in May, Gary said they have planned a pop-up BBQ tent at the school offering world street food every day for students during the exams. But he is keen to stress that while the school has welcomed the vegan and gluten-free kitchen, children can still eat meat in their packed lunches.

He said: “It is just five plant-based meals out of 21 meals a week that we do for the children, so if you still want your kid to eat meat, they can have it for the rest of those meals. We are just trying to offer them this plant-based option and ask them to be more adventurous. Kids out there are all about the environment and sustainability and this diet helps them to start thinking about this at a grassroots level.”

With one school under their belts, Gary said they are keen to move into more and more if possible, although cooking for state schools may yet be some way off. He said: “We can’t go into state schools at the moment because, currently, rules say they have to serve meat three days a week and fish once a week. When that changes, we hope to start up there, too, and make a difference. But, for now, we want to expand into as many private schools and nurseries as possible.”

Gary would also like to make their menu entirely allergen-free – with, so far, 11 of the 14 main food allergens ticked off. He said: “We have all seen the tragedies where children have died because they have been exposed to something they are allergic to and if we can stop that, it would be amazing.”

He added: “If we can produce a plant-based diet that is free from all allergens, then that will be a winning format. We want to be in as many schools as we can as a business. This is definitely the future.”

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