Can a Chef From One the World’s Best Restaurants Fix School Lunches?

Daniel Giusti left a coveted post at Copenhagen’s Noma to cook in cafeterias.
Daniel Giusti. (Photo: Courtesy
Feb 19, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

At 28, Daniel Giusti had the most coveted job in the culinary world: He was the head chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants.

Late last year, he left that post. Now, instead of cooking meals priced at $300 a person, he has shifted his attention to concocting public school lunches for less than $3. Giusti left Denmark to start his own venture, Brigaid, a company that aims to bring chefs into American school kitchens.

“Let’s be real. There’s no 18-year-old in culinary school that’s saying, ‘I want to go into school food,’ ” he said jokingly in a phone interview from New York. “But I’m at that point in my life where I just don’t care anymore. It may seem crazy. But I’m ready for a challenge.”

His company would employ chefs, but they would work in school kitchens alongside existing staff as third-party purveyors of sorts. His aim is not to eliminate those who are already employed in food service in schools.

“We would go in, take on that staff, which consists of six or seven generally. But also employ a chef or bump up a food service manager who could take on that responsibility,” he said.

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Given that school food is often outsourced to companies such as Aramark, a global food service purveyor, Giusti is proposing to make Brigaid another option for schools—one that offers better-quality food.

“I’m not going for local, organic in every kitchen,” he said. “I just want to see what small changes we can make to improve the quality of the food, within the means and funding available.”

Taking on such a daunting task requires courage, which Giusti isn’t lacking. An ambitious young cook, he worked in restaurants from the age of 15, doing whatever task he was assigned, such as peeling mounds of onions. By 24, he was the chef at 1789, a fine-dining restaurant in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. That wasn’t enough to satiate him. Two years later, he left D.C. for an unpaid internship at Noma. Within months, he was making his way up the ranks in the kitchen, and he ultimately helped Noma retain its glory as one of the top restaurants in the world.

But last spring, Giusti said, he was yearning to do something more. He had no interest in setting up his own fine-dining restaurant, as might have been expected of him, or even going the less conventional route of opening a chain of more casual places.

“If you’re going to open something and serve more food in a large volume, then that should serve some purpose,” he said.

For Giusti, that purpose is reforming school food—a complex issue that all-star chefs such as Jamie Oliver have tackled and struggled with.

“I thought about [a retail chain of restaurants], but I didn’t like the idea of opening up more units,” Giusti says. “That seemed irresponsible and wasteful, given the current problems we face,” such as the squandering of limited resources such as water.

School food, Giusti said, is a more important issue that goes beyond just selling another entrée. “If you’re making food that’s $5, $6, or $7, it’s just another lunch option—one of thousands. And I didn’t want to get into that.”

Instead, for the past month, Giusti has been visiting schools around the country, seeking to identify a school or district where he can pilot his idea.

He’s aware of the hurdles ahead, he said: He has to follow rigid nutritional guidelines set out by the USDA, stay within a price point (of about $3 or less, including overhead), and make it appetizing for the children.

Giusti has faced resistance: “It’s all about what you can’t do—you can’t do this, that, and serve this or that. It’s a terrible attitude to solve this problem, one that we’re teaching our kids.”

The debate over what is and isn’t allowed in school lunches is taking place right now in Congress. In January, the Senate approved legislation that would ease up on some restrictions. Under the Obama administration’s healthier meal guidelines, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, schools were asked to include whole grains in all meals. The School Nutrition Association, which represents food purveyors and school nutrition directors, has argued against these guidelines, saying that they’re too restrictive. The bill is headed to the House for review.

With Brigaid, Giusti wants to do more than just get into the nitty-gritty of USDA definitions of food. He wants to liven up the environment in school cafeterias. “Let’s actually ask the kids what they want to eat. And not every school is going to have the same answer, so we need to ask—like you are asked in a restaurant—what you would prefer.”

Pulling chefs into the kitchens is at the heart of his plan, distinguishing it from others who have tried to change what’s served but not who is serving it. “Chefs are perfect because they’re great communicators and are passionate about their food,” he said.

Is fixing school lunch as simple as dropping a chef into a cafeteria kitchen?

Adam Kesselman, program director of the California Food for California Kids initiative at the Center for Ecoliteracy, spends a lot of time examining school lunches. He is elated to see Giusti take on the issue but skeptical about the approach.

“Dan predicates solving what he says is widely referred to as an unsolvable problem on changing infrastructure, attitude, and thinking around school food, which sounds great in theory yet glosses over the immense complexity that is the National School Lunch Program,” he said in an email interview.

What does he gloss over? Kesselman gave a long list of hurdles: layers of bureaucracy that surround nearly every facet of the meal program, outdated facilities, complex labor relations and staffs in need of culinary training, procurement regulations and complicated supply chain challenges, and school board leadership. “To name some,” he concluded.

Giusti is not naive. He’s aware of the lobbying groups in D.C. rallying for easy, cheap foods, and he recognizes that his model is not one-size-fits-all. But he feels inspired to start somewhere, especially when he encounters disappointing meals on his school visits. Recently, he went to a school where every part of the meal was served in individually wrapped plastic bags, he said.

“You don’t really need the lunch tray when each item comes in its own plastic bag, precooked somewhere else. What about just taking it out of the bag and heating it up and serving it? Is that too much to ask for?” he said. “How can I not do something after seeing that?”