From Noma to School Lunch: an Interview with Brigaid’s Dan Giusti

By Julian Smedley

By

Julian Smedley
Dan Giusti of Brigaid
Dan Giusti of Brigaid

Dan Giusti’s culinary interest was sparked early, eating meals with his big Italian family and recreating his aunt’s tomato sauce. Giusti’s passion led him first to culinary school and then into fine dining. At only 23, he became executive chef of Washington D.C.’s 1789 but craved new and challenging experiences. He wrote a list of three restaurants—Noma, Fat Duck, and Alinea—and sent résumés to each, hoping to work his way up the ladder at these culinary behemoths. Thanks to two strokes of luck and quite a bit of hard work, Giusti found himself as chef de partie at Noma. Although he had already reached what many would consider the apex of restaurant work, Giusti’s restlessness demanded he find a new project to take on. He left Noma and founded Brigaid, a nonprofit dedicated to revamping school lunches and changing the way students eat. Since 2016, Brigaid has worked with six schools in New London, Connecticut and will begin work with six more schools in the Bronx in September. We spoke with Dan on the phone about his work with Brigaid, the difficulties he and the program face, and what other chefs can do to help.

Julian Smedley: Where did your inspiration for Brigaid come from? Did you have any models?
Dan Giusti:
When I decided to leave NOMA and start Brigaid, I had been head chef for three years. Working a high-pressure job like that takes its toll. While I was working there, I was thinking about what would be the next move, and I had no desire to open a similar restaurant. I wanted to cook for more people and more often—like every day—and I wanted the price point to be super low so I could feed a lot of people. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen at a place like Noma. Considering we already had so much food waste, the idea of having a high-end restaurant that serves more people than Noma didn’t seem very responsible. So I started to think of a way to cook for more people without simply scaling up and increasing food waste. I realized that places where they’re already cooking large quantities of (low-quality) food would be a good model—namely institutions. I wanted to work with people who didn’t have the training, and who didn’t have that fine-dining restaurant experience. That’s why I decided to choose an institutional setting. Schools aren’t the only institution where we can make an impact, but I thought they would be a great place to start because kids need support and mentoring. You can tell that for some of these kids, life’s not great. Brigaid can help these kids in more ways than just feeding them tasty food; it’s about talking to them, getting to know them, and supporting them.

JS: What are some other institutions where you could see yourself having an impact?
DG:
Hospitals are another institution we can help. In general, we’re looking for places where the people receiving the food have no say in what they’re eating. Students and hospital patients are captive audiences, and they typically get fed bad food because of that. I see it as our responsibility to give these disadvantaged groups a choice in what they eat. I’m trying to change the idea behind the food that we serve in institutional settings. 

JS: How do you select your schools?    
DG:
First off, it’s important that they reach out to us. We don’t go around and try to sell this project to anyone. They must see food service as a very important part of the school as a whole and should be committed to making it as good as it can be. Once a school district approaches us and shows their commitment to their food service program, the decision to work with them is based on many factors including, but not limited to, the state of their current program, the facilities in their school kitchens, and their willingness to financially support what will be a substantial transition.

JS: Can you explain the federal reimbursement program to me? What are the restrictions you face?
DG:
If you make a meal that meets the [USDA] nutrition guidelines—which are pretty complex and span from the amount of sodium, calories etc.—you get a certain amount of money back. The amount of money depends on the number of kids who can pay for lunch, but the 2017 limit was, on average, $3.31 per person for lunch. It increases slightly every year due to inflation, but unless there are major changes, the budget will stay right around $3.31. The biggest misconception I face when talking to people about Brigaid is that they don't realize the $3.31 budget is for everything involved in putting food on the table. The food itself can only cost around $1.25 because you also have to pay for labor, maintenance, etc. In most districts (except wealthier ones), the program has to be completely self-sustaining, and they don’t get a cent from the district or the school food service program for equipment or maintenance. For instance, a lot of districts have a van or a truck, and if that breaks down the money to buy a new one also comes from the $3.31 budget. If you do manage to make some profit, it goes to other parts of the program, such as new equipment. It makes for a really tough challenge. 

JS: Have you been involved in lobbying the government for more money for food service programs?
DG:
I think there should be more funding, but our focus is on what we can do right now within the current system. Some programs are in danger of being cut, let alone given more money. My general suggestion is finding a solution under the current budget before lobbying for more aid. The best approach we’ve found so far is having a whole bunch of chefs come through and find out how difficult this work is—especially working within the nutritional guidelines. The nutritional restrictions really promote purchasing processed foods because even home-cooked meals don’t meet them. No one would follow these guidelines in their personal life because they’re too complicated. Before the guidelines came out, there were mothers volunteering at the school to make home-cooked meals for kids, but the guidelines made it impossible for them to cook. That is the one thing I would like to work on changing because it really limits our ability to cook good, tasty food. 

JS: What does the average Brigaid meal look like?
DG:
That’s one of the biggest challenges we face. We’re still in the process of figuring out the answer to that question. We make a barbecue chicken thigh with a warm cornbread and a potato salad that’s very popular with the kids. We also like to serve fresh-cut fruit, which is very rare in institutional settings. Schools usually serve either canned fruit or whole, bad pieces of fruit. Just getting cut fruit is a luxury. In the beginning, we tried to be fancy and touch things up with a little mint. You go from serving a lousy apple to serving sliced melon with mint and it’s like: they just want sliced melon! They don't want the mint! 

One thing that most people saw as negative at the end of this year—but which I saw as positive—was that kids were tired of being served the same food. Although it throws another wrench in the process, it at least means the kids are engaged. It forces you to be constantly thinking of new recipes. For instance, we make a hummus dish with a grilled flatbread and zaatar that costs like $1. It’s the same quality as a dish you could buy at a fast-casual place, but the kids would rather just dip vegetables in the hummus. It’s not as simple as just making a tasty, cheap dish. There’s no way to sit a kid down and ask them to meet you in the middle, so the only thing to do is to make food that caters to their tastes. I’ve found that the easiest way to go about doing that is for our chefs to get to know the kids and develop trust. Kids will try something that they normally wouldn’t because they like and trust you. 

JS: Do you worry about your chefs getting bored?
DG:
There’s a 100% chance the chefs might get bored. We do our best explaining to them how much work it’s going to be. I think what we do is so interesting and exciting that I sometimes don’t explain it as well as I should. We have a few young guys who came to work for us straight out of culinary school. They aren't chefs yet, but they want to do the work, so we hire them as cafeteria workers. There’s not much glory there, and I see them wondering to themselves, “Should I just go into fine dining with my friends?” It’s an ego thing. Chefs want to show that they can cook well. The way I look at it is, whether it's a sandwich or a plated meal, there's a right way to execute it and a wrong way to execute it. This work requires a different kind of culinary creativity than fine dining. At Noma, the chefs put artificial constraints on themselves to make the food innovative and unique. For us, the constraints are a product of our circumstances: the budget, the time, the pickiness. We have to think about all of the consequences of every little thing we do. I think most restaurants can’t claim that their every action has a reason behind it. It’s a different kind of challenge, but I find that it’s actually more challenging than fine dining. I say this in the humblest terms because I haven’t fully figured it out, but coming up with a dish is extremely hard, harder than making a tightly-composed plate. These dishes are very valuable and they mean a lot. They’re changing the way kids think about food, and that’s a lot of pressure. 

JS: Do you have any cool dishes in the works?
DG:
We’re doing testing on some dishes right now. We’re workshopping some really cool stuff that came out of our latest fundraiser. Brandon Rogers from In Situ [in San Francisco] made orange gelatin with fresh orange juice and topped it with a matcha whipped cream and the kids LOVED it. We don’t usually serve more than fresh-cut fruit for dessert so that was cool. The guys from Ghetto Gastro made a really tasty Caribbean fish sandwich that the kids also enjoyed. We can always source local fish, but a lot of kids are too picky to eat it, so finding a potential way to feed them fish was exciting. The more time you spend making and serving food to kids the more you realize that there are certain things that work and others that don’t. We’re doing our best to figure out what works and what kids will eat, so we can effect change more quickly and efficiently. 

JS: Do you think what the kids are eating at school has an effect on their diet at home?
DG:
I think it has an effect on some kids for sure. People ask all the time what specific actions we’re taking to promote changes in kids’ diets, including at home. It’s hard to say to what extent we’re changing their diets, but we’ve had some instances of parents who get in contact and tell us their kid sent them a photo of a meal they liked. In general, and I hate to make generalizations, there's a lack of parent engagement and involvement. You’d think that parents would be excited about what we’re doing, but we get contact from people who don’t understand or are frustrated that their children don’t like the new food and aren’t eating. It’s not the easiest thing to sway parents who don’t already value good food and nutrition. It’s not as simple as just eating better food at home. If you’re eating fast food for breakfast and dinner there's probably a good reason; it's fast, cheap, and easy, and you like it, and your kids like it. Maybe you don’t have time to cook. You never know a family’s circumstances. I try to be sensitive to the fact that there are myriad situations that prevent someone from feeding their family wholesome, hearty food every day. I think the most appropriate thing to do at this stage is just to introduce the kids to good food at lunch. To do more and tell people what they should do in their own homes is too polarizing and leads to dissent, frustration, and anger. 

JS: What are you looking for from your chef applicants? 
DG:
Our criteria are fluid. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in the past couple years. You definitely need to be someone who can run a large kitchen because you might be managing 12 to 14 people. You also need to be able to maintain a certain level of cleanliness and food quality while building and maintaining relationships with the kids and people who work in the school. A lot of it is personality. You can’t be too egotistical or aggressive about making change. I find that the candidates’ tendency is to think, “I’m here to save the day, and I know best,” but that’s not the kind of attitude that works. It’s about being respectful and getting to know the situation and the people who already work there and why things are the way they are. The people who consider themselves saviors show up and point the finger and nobody follows them. That’s why our interview process is 60 percent character and 40 percent culinary skill. You have to be humble because not everyone is as grateful as you might expect. 

JS: How can chefs get involved?
DG:
There are various ways. We’re still trying to figure it all out, but it's super important for chefs to be involved in what we’re doing. Even if they're not going to do the work, just being aware that we’re out there is crucial. There are a lot of chefs who work in good restaurants and have acclaim who don’t see this as a real job. Getting those chefs to be involved and promote our work spreads the word and garners support. If enough people get behind us, people will see that this isn’t just philanthropy and that its a real, viable job and an important project. I think that everyone who has the platform should try to do this work.

We’ve had fundraisers showing chefs that you can cook a meal for $1.25. We had one fundraiser where we cooked outside on a farm in Connecticut to raise money for a school scholarship program in New London. The trick is getting chefs that people follow on social media to participate. Christopher Kostow reached out to me recently to organize a fundraiser on August 4, 2018, at Meadowood in Napa. Everyone involved is making a dish that changed the way they think about food. These types of events are key for spreading
Brigaid’s mission. 

JS: Tell me about your new launch in September. I read that it will be taking place at six schools in The Bronx. 
DG:
There are a lot of things that need to get done to move into New York. You have to make sure that they have all of the proper equipment and ingredients. We’re in the process right now of hiring new chefs and staff and figuring out their schedules. The transition process is really about identifying the things that have led to success in the past and bringing them to the new schools. We have to make sure that things are in line for the move in, and that everyone who’s involved in the schools knows what's happening. It’s really a collaborative process, one that we’re excited to begin. 

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