Chef Dan Giusti
From cutting edge to the cafeteria Line, ex-Noma Chef Dan Giusti takes on school food
BY MICHAEL FLOREAK / PHOTOS MICHAEL PIAZZA
As chef de cuisine at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that introduced the world to new Nordic cuisine and was named best in the world four times, Daniel Giusti performed culinary miracles every day. There, he led an army of chefs, cooks, and stages in creating the restaurant’s gastronomic wonders—edible “soil” made from malt and hazelnut flour, ceps with truffle meringue, asparagus and spruce shoots—often using wild ingredients foraged from the Danish countryside. From 2011 to 2015, the New Jersey native, 32, worked alongside Noma executive chef and founder Rene Redzepi to produce dishes that defined the very cutting edge of modern fine dining.
Today, sitting at a picnic table outside Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, Connecticut, Guisti is wondering how well the goulash is going over. And so far things are looking good. The chef is now focused on a different kind of miracle—transforming school food for the 3,600 public school students of this southeastern Connecticut seacoast city. At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, Giusti’s new company Brigaid took over breakfast, lunch, and dinner service at all six schools in the district where 57% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. New London is the first of what he hopes to be many projects aimed at transforming the way kids eat through “real food, cooked with care and passion by a chef whose full-time job is to work in schools,” as noted in the company’s mission.
Today’s Hungarian goulash demonstrates that philosophy in action. The dish – which costs about $1.00 to make – is prepared from scratch under the direction of a chef who runs the kitchen in each school. The chefs and staff braise the brisket a day ahead of time. Before each 20-minute lunch period, the meat is cubed, roasted, and crisped in a pan. The brisket and a sauce of tomato, carrot, and caraway, are spooned to order over egg noodles and topped with sour cream. Like every meal in New London schools, this one is now served in a real plate or bowl—no trays or Styrofoam in sight. Giuisti says the dish is delicious. But that’s no guarantee it will be a hit.
“Apparently it’s going really well here (at the middle school),” the chef says. “But at the school I was at, the participation of the meal was very low. Why, I don’t know. But you need that chef there to go and find out. It’s just so important.” This day, like every other, the chefs will make their rounds of the lunchrooms to gather feedback and figure out how to improve the dish.
Giusti sees chefs and their connections with students, staff, and the school community as central to his mission of improving school food. While other programs have brought in chefs to develop menus or improve efficiencies, the vision for Brigaid is to have a chef at the helm in every school it serves. The idea came to Giusti as he was preparing to leave Noma (he also considered starting a fast food chain, but moved beyond that idea for now.) After talking with a number of districts, Giusti met with New London Superintendent of Schools Manuel J. Rivera and quickly found a match. By March of 2016, four months after returning to the U.S., he had a contract in place, and by August his team was working on a handful of recipes.
Samantha Wilson, who has directed food services at New London for four years, saw only potential in upgrading the district’s food. New London is a magnet district that attracts students locally and from surrounding communities. They are able to serve food for free to all students because of its high percentage of reduced lunch participation. “We’re competing with other towns to get their kids and this is a great selling point. Not only are we serving free meals to everybody, but we are serving the highest quality meals that are really available,” says Wilson. She admits to growing pains at the start of the school year – although with minimal staff turnover – and says that by mid-year things were running very smoothly.
As Brigaid finishes the first of its three-year contract in New London, Giusti says he is looking at launching in other locations but is in no hurry. For now, he’s focused on the task ahead. Giusti says, “Are we able to continuously develop meals that we think are good, and that the kids enjoy? Are we actually making it better for the kids? Or is it just us, a bunch of chefs cooking food from scratch that they’d rather just eat a chicken patty, anyway. That’s something that I think about every day.” But with participation up in every school, chicken patties are unlikely to reappear anytime soon.
Q. How did Noma prepare you for this?
A: Initially, it really opened my eyes to what you can do. It was extraordinary what that team of people is accomplishing every day. It made me think that way, like whatever I’m going to do next it’s got to be big. The reason that I’m here, the reason that anyone even knew that I was doing this is because I was coming from Noma. That got my foot in the door. What’s happening now, and us moving forward from this point forward has nothing to do with me being at Noma. It’s about what we’ve been able to achieve here.
Q: After Noma you could have gone anywhere. Why were you interested in school food?
A: When I got into cooking – I was like 14-15 before I had that first job – it was because I came from a big Italian family. I didn’t know any famous chefs. I didn’t know any big restaurants. We didn’t go out to eat like that. Getting into cooking for me had nothing to do with that world. I had one aunt in particular who cooked really well. I loved going there. I still love going there. You go there, they cater to you, and it’s amazing. And that’s why I got into cooking.
But then once I got to culinary school, and you’re ambitious, it’s all about fine dining restaurants, big names. But once I got to Noma, and then I’m the head chef there, it gave me the confidence to really look back. I think there’s like a couple of ways of looking at food. One is fine dining. There’s a sense that it’s kind of artistry. You’re doing a lot of it to please your own creativity, and things like that. And then another way is genuinely feeding people.
Even at Noma, you are feeding people. But I mean giving them food, providing them food every day or actually changing the way they live their life in a way. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to cook for people in a way that was kind of taking care of them, and really feeding them on a daily basis.
Then I started looking into the challenges of school food. I started reading more, and more, and more, and the more I read it was like, “This is crazy.” And as much as I read, that seemed very challenging, there’s also a lot of things that in my head as a chef made a lot of sense. Really, the last month and a half at Noma is when I really decided like that’s what I want to do. I want to go into schools. And I wanted to put chefs into schools. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Q: The New London district seems to be an ideal match for your approach. How did it come about?
A: After The Washington Post wrote an article, a lot of people reached out to me, and I went to a lot of different schools. And then when I came here, there were just so many things that made sense. The superintendent is very forward thinking. He’s very smart, and understood what this would take, both financially, but also systematically, and was ready to take on those challenges. Samantha had a very good food service program already in place. The staff was great, organized, numbers were all there. Everything I asked for I would get it in a timely manner. And then just open-mindedness. We would not have been able to be as successful as we’ve been this year if it hadn’t been for this school district, this community, and the way they supported it, 100%.
Q: Since this all came together rather quickly, were you able to anticipate the challenges of running a food services operation like this?
A: I’d be lying to you if I said I really knew everything I was getting into. There was definitely a lot of things that I thought about— cooking for a large volume, being within a school there’s a lot rules. Are we going to be able to do what we want to do? Is it going to be too rigid? The nutritional guidelines. Are we going to be able to actually cook food that the kids enjoy?
But we started to get positive feedback from the students and that was great. That’s just a nod to the chefs who are doing a really great job of managing that situation of making sure everybody was okay.
Q: Why is it so important for you to have chefs heading each school?
A: Everybody’s first thought is you put a chef in a school logistically because they can cook. They can teach a staff how to cook. And they can run a kitchen. Yeah, of course, that’s like the base level thing that you need. For me, having a chef in each school, all the time, they become a beacon for this food thing. Everybody knows who the chef is in the school. A lot of the kids have really taken to the chef, and love going and talking to them, and saying, “Hey, I like this,” or, “Hey, I don’t like it.” It just creates this connection that previously was not there.”
And that’s where I think our model differentiates a lot with other models. Every other model is focused on the food. Obviously, we are focused on the food. But’s a simple fact if someone gives you a plate of food, and they’re looking at you, and you know them, and you know they made it for you, versus if food comes to you, and you have no idea where it came from, you cannot associate that food with a person, it’s a very different feeling.
Q: Were you surprised when 400 chefs applied for the first jobs you advertised?
A: I came from Noma, so I knew that there would generally just be people that would just say, “Oh, I want to go work with him.” We were very scrutinizing about the people who came, and it was a lot about character. We set up so people could just write 500 words, and say why they’re interested in working here.
So, when I first started this idea, I was like, “We’re going only hire chefs with these résumés.” But that changed. (High school chef) Ryan Kennedy’s résumé literally had one job on it, and it was at a prepared food market. But then when I talked to him on the phone, there’s something about him. He was super smart, and he really got it. Then he came here, and just crushed it.
They come for two days, and we put them through the ringer. The first day, they cook a meal that they’ve had to prepare in advance. For example, we have a couple of people coming to do trials in two weeks. I’ve asked them to prepare a vegetarian lunch that meets all USDA nutritional requirements for $1.35.
They also have to prepare a lesson plan for a particular grade with a particular topic. April Kindt, who’s the chef at the middle school, hers was teaching first graders how to articulate if they like or do not like food. It was like Mad Libs -- kind of funny. But really getting them to use their words, and adjectives to explain why they like something, and why they don’t, because it’s very useful for us.
The rest of the two days when they come is very much based on them talking. They’re speaking to everyone, talking to myself, Samantha, the superintendent, whoever is around. Are they being patient with the 82-year-old woman who we have working in this middle school? Are they going to be patient with the students? Getting people that can really do the job, and then also be great people. It’s challenging.
Q: Beyond having chefs in the school, what is your vision for how school food is really going to improve at a large scale?
A: We literally give (students) the bare minimum in quantity, and quality, and thoughtfulness, and in a short period of time. Of course, we want it to be this amazing experience, but there has to be a practicality of it, as well. To change that, there’s a lot of moving parts. Today, there’s $1.25 (to spend per lunch) and there’s 22 minute lunch periods. How can you move this forward? How do you stay super motivated, pushing every day to make it better?
I’ve had peers of mine come here who are not involved in this work, and they’re like, “So, how much local and seasonal food do you use?” And I say, “Well, sometimes it’s possible, and sometimes it’s not.” And they’re like, “Really? You not using local food all the time?” Would I love to do that? Yes. For example, next year already we had a meeting with many farmers from the area, and they will be growing us crops, which is amazing. We’re talking about several thousand pounds of produce a week, just for this small school district. So, that’s a great start.
I really look at cooking—all levels of cooking—exactly the same, whether it’s cooking in a school kitchen, whether it’s cooking at Noma, whether it’s McDonald’s. Your clientele is different, and your price points are different; your facilities are different; your staff is different; your ingredients are different. Everything is different, but if you’re trying to do your best, it’s all the same.
So, I feel here as I did in Noma. You cannot become desensitized by any of this stuff. We know that there are pockets of these kids that really struggle to try new things, because of what they’re accustomed to. And I couldn’t tell you how many times the same happens in fine dining. Maybe some folks come in who don’t eat out often. It’s not their fault that they didn’t like the food. They’re your customers. Here, if people don’t like the food, it’s a big problem. Teachers here have told me, “Don’t worry about it, they’re just picky. They’re kids.” That’s why we’re here. That’s the only reason we’re here. If this was easy, a lot of people would be doing it.
This interview was edited for clarity and condensed for length.