Dan Giusti was not used to failing in the kitchen.
At 29 years old he had been named the head chef at Noma in Copenhagen, making him a de facto high priest of fine dining. As the leader of the kitchen of one of the world’s most critically acclaimed restaurants, he was tasked with executing owner and executive chef René Redzepi’s vision and making sure the culinary dreams of those who had spent years and months planning their visit to Copenhagen to dine at Noma came true. Giusti was good at this.
By 2014, a year after Giusti was named head chef, Noma — already a two-Michelin star restaurant — regained its place as No. 1 on Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking. That same year, British GQ writer Oliver Franklin-Wallis recounted a dazzling 20-course meal at the restaurant which included a Swedish pancake made with bee larvae and glazed with fermented crickets.
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“Noma is the restaurant currently setting the agenda in world cuisine,” he wrote. “You can’t eat out from Edinburgh to LA these days without finding a locally sourced, multi-course tasting menu, invariably served on simple Scandinavian-style plates in a wood-decked dining room inspired by this restaurant.”
But three years into the job, Giusti walked away to tackle the seemingly never-ending enigma that is school lunch. With Redzepi’s blessing and investment, Giusti founded a new company called Brigaid that sought to put skilled chefs at the helm of cafeteria kitchens in schools across America. The idea was “getting chefs who would never choose to do this work to do this work,” Giusti says.
After a nationwide search, Giusti launched a pilot program in New London, a city where the poverty rate is above average and where each student has the option of eating free meals at school. Giusti recruited veteran and talented Connecticut chefs who he says were drawn by a combination of factors. Some wanted to work with him, others liked the prospect “of having a more civil work schedule compared to the nights and weekends of restaurant work,” he says. “But above all, I would say it’s the desire to make a demonstrable change in the quality of food for students — and help shape their palates for the future. The majority of our chefs are parents, so this issue hits close to home for them.”
Giusti and his assembled team of chefs transformed the New London district into one of the only ones in the country making meals from scratch, doing away with the packaged frozen items that are ubiquitous at schools across the state and country.
It wasn’t easy. There were bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, and often-outdated federal nutrition guidelines limited what Giusti could or could not offer. There were also monetary limitations. The budget per meal is only $1 with an additional 25 cents required to go to milk. But as frustrating as these concerns were, they were nothing compared to a problem Giusti had certainly never encountered at Noma: Many kids in New London simply didn’t like the food he was making.
“The list of dishes that failed is longer than dishes that were successful,” Giusti tells me recently in the cafeteria at Winthrop Elementary, one of New London’s public schools where the program was introduced. He adds, “These kids have no problem being brutally honest.”
Paul McComiskey, one of Brigaid’s New London chefs, puts it even more bluntly: “They don’t care that he’s Dan Giusti. They’ll tell him to his face that something sucks.”
Other successful culinary stars-turned-school evangelists had suffered similar fates. A decade ago, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver overhauled Huntington, Virginia’s school food program for his reality show Food Revolution. What the show didn’t cover was that by the time he left, a study found 77 percent of students were “very unhappy” with the food he had implemented and much of it was ending up in the trash.
But for Giusti, school food wasn’t a one-off special. The young chef was hoping to revolutionize school lunches. To do that, he now realized, meant learning to cook for a critic who makes a Michelin reviewer look downright charitable: an average kid.
A native of New Jersey, Giusti fell in love with cooking thanks to the big family dinners his aunt Rosa would cook. He was impressed by the way she brought everyone happiness through food and he began tinkering in the kitchen at a young age. At 15 he got his first job working in a restaurant peeling onions, but soon worked his way up to manning the grill. “I just loved working in a restaurant,” he recalls.
He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then bounced around different restaurants for a time before becoming the top chef of 1789, a well-known Washington, D.C., restaurant. He was just 24.
Three years later he quit 1789 to move to Copenhagen for an unpaid internship at Noma. His mom thought he was crazy, but the gamble paid off. Giusti rose from intern to entry-level kitchen worker in 2011 to sous-chef and ultimately to head chef in 2013, overseeing a 45-person staff. He was profiled in The Washington Post and the meals he made became the highlights of people’s vacations and, often, their culinary lives. But after three years, the successful chef, still in his early 30s, came to feel that cooking for only 40 people a night was too select a group.
“I wanted to cook for a lot of people more often in a way that was really affecting their life in a positive way,” he says. “When I originally got into cooking it had nothing to do with fine dining. I come from a big Italian family, and cooking for me and food for me was about hospitality and other people being taken care of.”
He toyed with the idea of a fast-casual concept, thinking perhaps he could get the price point really low on some type of high-quality answer to McDonald’s. But there were already so many fast-casual options and so much food waste that creating another business that would generate even more waste seemed irresponsible. Instead he began looking at institutions like prisons, hospitals and schools — places that were already producing food but weren’t producing good food. Schools, in particular, appealed to him.
“I liked the idea of being a role model to younger people,” he says. “And if you can get people when they’re younger, you can obviously affect the way they think about food and their eating habits in general.”
Studies show that lifelong eating habits are formed very young and that when children eat more nutritious food they perform better academically. School food also reaches so many people that it is hard to comprehend. In New London’s schools, Brigaid serves about 2,400 lunches a day. In two weeks’ time that’s more meals than Giusti would serve in a year at Noma. Nationally the statistics on school meals are dizzying. There are 21,000 school districts and over 100,000 schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, serving a total of 5 billion meals each year.
After returning from Denmark in 2016, Giusti toured the country, visiting school districts that were interested in helping launch the program. He had his sights set on Washington, D.C., but a mutual friend connected him with New London’s then-superintendent Manuel Rivera. After an initial phone call, Giusti was impressed with Rivera’s organization and commitment to the Brigaid concept. Giusti visited the city and decided to move there to launch Brigaid.
Samantha Wilson, New London’s director of food services, says the district was excited to work with Giusti. “Ultimately you’re trying to serve the best-quality food to kids to contribute to their overall health and nutrition. So, it’s appealing when someone who has a number of resources and expertise comes in and basically says, ‘We want to help, and we want to change the system, and we want to offer food to kids that is wholesome and delicious.’ It was kind of a no-brainer.”
The program launched in September 2016. Overnight, Giusti says, the various schools in the district were transformed “from primarily heat-and-serve options to scratch cooking.” The media loved it, but the initial reaction from kids was less enthusiastic.
One early dish Giusti envisioned sounds delicious. It was hummus and vegetables topped with feta cheese and vinaigrette made with za’atar, a spice blend common in Middle Eastern cuisine. It was served with warm flatbreads that were made to order. “This was probably one of my favorite dishes we’ve ever served in the schools,” he says. Most kids were lukewarm. “I would say 20 percent of the kids are all about it. It’s just not enough,” Giusti says.
Another polarizing menu option was fish. “We created a relationship with a company out of Boston,” Giusti says. “If they had an excess catch on a Monday, Tuesday we’d get that excess catch and we’d serve fish. Again, you might get 20 percent of the kids to eat it.” (Brigaid works with a few local producers, including Hunts Brook Farm in Waterford and Provider Farm in Salem, Giusti says.)
As a chef in a school, Giusti says you tend to think you have to do certain things. “You can’t serve this, you have to serve that, and you get more caught up in what you want to do rather than really what you should be doing for the kids.”
Giusti began to rethink his philosophy. “When you’re feeding in an institution, or a place where people have to be here, and these kids have to be here, you’re feeding a variety of tastes. It’s not like a restaurant where people choose to go there,” he says. He realized he needed to make lunches that catered “to the most people possible.”
Giusti and his staff took student feedback into account and began finding workable meal combinations that were still nutritious and interesting. They compromised slightly and little by little found creative ways of getting vegetables into kids’ diets and getting them excited about eating them.
Brigaid’s district chef for New London is Alex Leigh, a veteran area chef who has been with Brigaid since the company launched in New London. He says that kids are generally “social eaters,” who want to eat what their friends are eating. Introducing new foods to them can be a matter of presentation and lunchroom marketing. Early on, he says, they couldn’t get kids to eat kale caesar salad. One of the student’s mom’s advised, “Don’t call it kale, just call it salad.”
This turned the tide for the dish. During a visit to Winthrop Elementary in November, kale no longer has any hint of a stigma at the school. It’s actually the opposite. In the school’s kitchen, staff members are washing pounds and pounds of kale because they know they’re going to go through a lot of it. Today’s meal is meatloaf with sides of mashed sweet potato and kale chips. The chips are the undisputed star of the dish. As wave after wave of first-, second- and third-graders crowd into the cafeteria, some variation of the words “more kale chips” keeps rising above lunchroom din.
Seeing me taking notes and correctly guessing I’m a journalist, second-grader Stephen Monroe tells me I have to try the kale chips. The 6-year-old says the consistency is like regular chips and then enthusiastically explains how kale grows in the ocean. His facts on kale’s origins are shaky but he’s right about the taste.
Pieces of kale are seasoned with oil and salt and then slow-roasted in the oven on a low temperature until they crisp. When finished, the kale chips have a delicious crunch and addictive saltiness. They are the highlight of a delicious meal that might not win any culinary awards, but which most of us would be happy to have for lunch each day.
In addition to getting more kids to eat, Brigaid is expanding. After starting in New London, Brigaid was introduced into several schools in the Bronx. But the company has also shifted its business model going forward. Instead of sending chefs into schools on a permanent basis, it is focused on sending Brigaid staff to help train existing school kitchen staff. Giusti says this is more affordable for more schools and allows them to reach more people. Under this new model, Brigaid is working with schools in Richmond, Virginia, and Southampton, New York. There are no current plans for collaborations with other school districts in Connecticut.
Schools pay for Brigaid’s services through a variety of means, according to Giusti, including district funds and philanthropic donations.
Giusti says that at so many schools “everything is heat-and-serve out of a bag, and [that’s] not even executed particularly well.” There are many ways schools can improve their food without getting to 100-percent scratch cooking, he says.
“When you go into a lot of schools, you see a lot of processed chicken. Chicken nuggets, chicken patties,” Giusti says. Brigaid tries to help school districts introduce chicken on the bone with skin. “So, getting a piece of roasted chicken or barbecue or jerk chicken, instead of getting a chicken patty or chicken nugget.”
Giusti adds, “There are even simpler things. It’s very common to see a lot of canned fruit served or very poor-quality whole fruit. Apples that are blemished or not very tasty. [We’re] introducing the idea of cutting all fresh food every day.”
But implementing even these small steps can be complex, he says. “Although it sounds extremely simple and rudimentary, the idea of going from not serving cut fruit to serving cut fruit requires a variety of things. Where do you store this fruit? How does it get washed? How does it get cut? How does it get portioned? When you’re doing all this for 800 kids, it’s quite the undertaking.”
In addition, Brigaid advisers encourage things like making dressing from scratch and making fresh-baked biscuits.
These may not be exciting or news-grabbing changes but they can make a big difference in a kid’s diet, Giusti says. He adds that making improvements to school ovens and refrigerators can also have a significant impact on the food served.
“People talk about school gardens and that kind of thing,” he says. “They’re nice and they’re fun but that’s not really changing the food that’s being served in the kitchen.”
As we talk, Giusti sits down with a group of kids for a photo. His towering, 6-foot-6 frame hardly fits at the small school table, but somehow he manages it. As he speaks with the kids about what they ate and didn’t eat, it’s clear he enjoys interacting with them, and they’re happy eating the food he and the Brigaid team create.
“There was a time when we served these meals and you’d see kids just not eating,” Giusti says. As he looks out across the crowded cafeteria where waves of about 75 students are eating at a time, he gets reflective. “If we didn’t have this collaboration or partnership going on here, a lot of these kids might not know what kale was because it wouldn’t have been introduced to them in a way that was interesting,” he says. “It’s really nice to come on a day like today … It’s fun to hear kids ask, ‘Let me get some kale chips.’ ”
These days that request is what success sounds like to Giusti.