Noma’s Head Chef Steps Down to Redesign American School Lunches

By: Philip Saneski

Dan Giusti, Chef de Cuisine of Noma’s kitchen since 2013, has left fine-dining and returned to his hometown of Washington D.C., where he plans to launch a school food-service startup called Brigaid. His goal is to bring schoolchildren healthy, delicious food nationwide. Giusti tells The Washington Post he’s excited for a move in which he can potentially have a bigger impact than he would in restaurants: “There are a lot of great chefs out there and a lot of great restaurants, and coming back to the United States, I don’t think I’m going to add a lot to the scene.” Sure, other chefs have made regional improvements, but Brigaid’s expansion plan differs. Giusti, 31, asserts Brigaid (a play on the term used to describe a kitchen team, a brigade) will be a chef-driven, for-profit company that builds or remodels cafeteria school kitchens, where full-time professional chefs will be trained to cook in those kitchens. Already equipped with investors, he hopes to have the first Brigaid pilot program operating by fall 2016.

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PC: eater.com

The Washington Post reminded him, however, his new start-up is an ambitious one; and while 32 million schoolchildren will not be required to forage for their own food, Giusti’s budget is dirt cheap. The chef who has fed the world’s top 1% some of the most meticulously plated dishes anywhere—at a restaurant where the tab can be $400 per person—now hopes to feed schoolchildren for $3.07 each, the amount the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for every free lunch served to those 32 million kids. To make things more impossible, school cafeterias also have other expenses included in those few dollars. Expenses like eating utensils, straws, napkins, meal trays, utilities, garbage, water, aprons and plastic gloves for cafeteria staff all come out of the same payment. While the USDA granted $25 million for school kitchen equipment in 2015, a 2012-2013 analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts found some $620 million worth of food service equipment was needed in California alone for schools to serve healthy food.  Nationwide, Brigaid may need funding in the billions.

Former White House Nutrition Director Sam Kass further noted the challenges Giusti will encounter trying to revolutionize the current public school lunch system —long term contracts, lobbyists, budget restraints, picky eaters, over-involved parents, and slow-to-change nutrition standards. “There’s a host of challenges that make it very, very difficult” to change the system, says Kass. “But at the same time, there’s a culture of thinking in the school nutrition world that is a problem in itself,” adds Kass, now a senior food analyst for NBC News. “Someone coming from the outside with new ideas is good.”

Like several other chefs in the Washington D.C. area who have added a fast casual, Giusti had a goal of feeding high-quality meals to the masses at affordable prices, but concluded unless a restaurant chain could compete with McDonald’s on price point, the American diet wouldn’t improve much. He then started looking into the National School Lunch Program, and thought he could have a bigger impact feeding public school students high-quality food, teach them something about cooking, and hopefully change their life to make better dietary choices.

To say Giusti is the American version of Jamie Oliver would be inaccurate—The Washington Post points out he cites Kass as a mentor, given their D.C. connections—but he has been researching chefs and organizations already improving school meals. Giusti referenced and found the work of Chef Ann Cooper, Certified Executive Chef and Director of Food & Nutrition Services of the Boulder Valley School District who will also speak about her new school meal standards at the upcoming 2016 RCA Conference in Denver. Schools that provide healthier meals and pay higher wages usually need additional financial support to cover budgetary requests. Support for Brigaid may need to come in the form of a nonprofit, such as the one set up by Cooper, which will train cooks to scratch cook, redesign school kitchens, educate students and their families about the benefits eating healthy, and advertise healthier meals to families to encourage them to be active in the public school meal program. James Beard Award-Winning Chef Marc Vetri, another talented chef who constructs fine-dining dishes based around seasonal vegetables, has a similar start-up called Eatiquette that provides meals for several Philadelphia public schools. According to his website, Vetri “aims to transform a child’s lunch from the traditional cafeteria assembly line to an environment where children gather around round tables, pass plates of food to one another, and experience social interaction and communication.”

Giusti’s start-up may be most similar to Revolution Foods, an Oakland, California based school lunch company that started with a pilot program, and modeled that charter school to now serve over one million meals for schoolchildren per week in fifteen states. Revolution Foods uses better quality ingredients than the cafeteria contactor, and fewer of the cheap federal government funds where most school lunch programs depend. They also have pledged to pay their employees more than the prevailing wage in the county they serve.

Revolution Foods, which launched their first pilot program ten years ago, has not seen a financial profit. This may explain their recent business expansion into retail sales of family snacks and “meal kits” in the grocery isle. It’s seems likely, and perhaps necessary, to stream additional revenue in the same way it’s necessary for cafeterias to sell a la carte snacks. There is simply no financial gains to be made from merely serving government-paid school meals.

In an interview, Giusti tells LuckyPeach his goal is not to become rich, but to maintain a profit margin that allows Brigaid to maintain business. “Profit, for me, means that we continue to push forward and make sure we can pay people—and I’m not talking about myself or other higher-up people. I want to be able to train people who are currently working in school cafeterias. I want to train them to know more, and also pay them more for that knowledge. The whole point of this is to make it a more attractive space for people who are passionate about food to join in.” When asked if he would bring the intensity of the Noma kitchen to the cafeteria, Giusti replied, “I’m not saying that I’m going to go into the school kitchen and get everyone running around, but I want to get people genuinely excited about what they’re doing and how that translates to better food, a better experience for these children, and better nutrition. It also provides an opportunity for better learning for the kids.”

If there’s anyone capable of providing 32 million cheap, flavorful public school lunches, it’s Giusti. Upon graduation, the Culinary Institute of America alum worked for Restaurant Guy Savoy, was promoted to Executive Chef of celebrated fine-dining restaurant 1789 at the young age of 24, only to quit his job for an unpaid apprenticeship at René Redzepi’s Noma across the Atlantic, with no full-time position guaranteed. By January 2013, Redzepi named him chef de cuisine, where Noma was ranked either first or second by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna for popularizing Nordic cuisine—making raw vegetables the focus of a dish, showing other three-Michelin chefs you can eat even the stems of a wild foraged plant,and fermenting non-traditional ingredients to name a few among many. It was his training at Noma, he tells The Washington Post, “I have made myself believe that anything is possible.”

Will Giusti’s brigade get schoolchildren to eat their vegetables? Do you think Brigaid will improve the American diet for the long-term?

 

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