Noma chef Daniel Giusti keeps the world's top restaurant running

There’s a problem in the Noma kitchen. Chef de cuisine Daniel Giusti has raised a cautionary flag while inspecting a plate of lumpfish toast before it goes into the dining room. He notices it doesn’t have enough of the pan-roasted ingredient known as milt, or, to the less squeamish, fish sperm.

Giusti has been managing cooks long enough to guess what one of his underlings is doing: portioning an ingredient sparingly, hoping to make it through dinner without 86ing the dish and sending the kitchen into a tailspin. Giusti strides over to the offending cook’s station and confirms the meager supply. The head chef doesn’t explode in anger about the inadequate prep. He merely says, his voice as tight as handcuffs, “That’s something you need to tell me.”

Then Giusti replaces the lumpfish toast on the menu with a scallop dish, which sends an invisible ripple through the back of the house, forcing some cooksto briefly abandon their stations in search of ingredients or the proper dishware. The Noma kitchen — this high-strung orchestra in which chefs from all over the world perform solo and in concert on every edible composition — has struck a rare discordant note. And here’s the thing: The in-service crisis could have been avoided if the cook had just fessed up earlier that there wasn’t enough milt for dinner.

The cook’s obliviousness to the effect of his behavior on the crew clearly annoys Giusti. “I just make a decision,” he says, brushing off his role. “But others have to fly around” and fix the problem.

In the average restaurant, this kind of misstep probably wouldn’t rise to the level of after-hours gossip. But at Noma in Copenhagen, which recently regained the title of No. 1 restaurant in the world, the mistake is decidedly out of line. Giusti, the former Washingtonian charged with running the kitchen for executive chef and owner Rene Redzepi, knows that guests don’t travel thousands of miles and battle weeks for a reservation to dine on an incomplete dish, even if few would ever find anything wrong with it.

This is something the 29-year-old Giusti understands better than his charges: You cannot let the standards slip, no matter how insignificant some might seem to an outsider or even to a cook. A restaurant still striving for its third Michelin star cannever compromise. It cannot compromise on service, plating, decor, ingredients and certainly not on the amount of lumpfish sperm required for a dish conceived by Redzepi in the test kitchen upstairs.

Giusti is the lone sentry who stops compromises and mistakes from entering the 12-table dining room, where dinner for two with drinks can run upward of $800. It’s a job that he seems singularly qualified to do, even though Giusti is American, not Danish. His experience has been focused on French and American cooking, not on the so-called “new Nordic cuisine,” with its emphasis on foraged products, cleverly concealed sophistication and, increasingly, a wide variety of ingredients fermented in-house.

But Giusti, his peers say, has the necessary temperament, the work ethic, the culinary chops and, perhaps most important of all, the ability to almost absorb another chef’s DNA. Redzepi isn’t always forthcoming, so the goal of the chef de cuisine at Noma, notes Matt Orlando, who held the position before Giusti, “is to get inside Rene’s head and predict what he wants before he knows what he wants.”

If Giusti has become a Redzepi mind reader, it’s only because he knew himself first. As a young chef in Washington, he knew that he wanted to work at one of the finest restaurants in the world but that, in order to do so, he would have to cast aside almost everything in his life, including a high-profile gig as executive chef at 1789 in Georgetown.

Perhaps that was easier for Giusti than for others. From an early age, he understood that security was an illusion. Nothing lasts forever.

Early success

Giusti was an unusual child from the start, says his mother, Andrea Lang-Ritter. He never wanted to eat off the children’s menu at restaurants. He asked for, and received, an adult briefcase for Christmas — when he was 4. He preferred medical books over toys, and he bought a wok at a yard sale when he was 8.

“It was my first inkling that Dan wanted to cook,” Lang-Ritter says about the wok, though she added, “I don’t think he ever cooked with it.”

Giusti’s family moved a lot when he was a boy. The youngest of three siblings, Giusti was born in Vineland, N.J., but lived in several towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before moving with his mother and stepfather to Northern Virginia, where the teenager enrolled at Langley High School in McLean.

Giusti’s father had died when the boy was only 9. He died, in fact, on Giusti’s ninth birthday in 1993. A longtime smoker, his dad had contracted pneumonia and, within a week, was on life support. The hospital staff struggled in vain to keep him alive one more day. “They knew it was Dan’s birthday,” Lang-Ritter remembers.

The next day, when her children awoke, “I had to tell them what happened,” Lang-Ritter says. “That was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

Things didn’t get much easier for the family. Weeks after her father died, Cara Giusti, Dan’s sister, got sick as well. She lost weight and all of her hair; her condition stumped doctors for months until Crohn’s disease was diagnosed and she started to recover. The next year, two of Dan’s grandparents died. For more than a year, sickness and death circled over the Giusti family like vultures.

If that affected Daniel Giusti, it wasn’t always obvious. He was popular at Langley, where he was both the Saxons mascot and the senior prom king. His mom says he was a cutup — he’d wear suits from Goodwill to class — but kind to his peers, too. He worked with autistic students.

During his junior year, Giusti decided to enroll in culinary classes at Chantilly High School during the last periods of the school day. In short order, he met with a recruiter for the Culinary Institute of America, who suggested Giusti get a job in the restaurant industry.

The recruiter even called John Guattery, then corporate chef for Clyde’s Restaurant Group, who soon hired the 15-year-old Giusti to work weekends at the busyGeorgetown location. The teenager started at the bottom, peeling onions, but within months, he was working the grill.

“He got his butt kicked, but he stayed in there,” Guattery recalls.

Guattery would become a mentor to Giusti, not only explaining techniques but also taking him to some of the best local restaurants, whether Peter Pastan’s Obelisk near Dupont Circle or Maestro in Tysons Corner, where Fabio Trabocchi set the standard for Italian fine dining. The Clyde’s kitchen became a kind of surrogate father to the teen.

“In a lot of ways, I think he thought it was super cool that all these guys paid attention to him,” Guattery says. “He became part of the crew very quickly, even though he was only 15 or 16 years old.”

Even before graduating from the CIA in 2004, Giusti worked an externship at Aureole, chef Charlie Palmer’s restaurant in New York, where he met Matt Orlando, future chef de cuisine for Noma. Neither New York nor Italy, where Giusti kicked around after culinary school, panned out, so he winged it back to Washington and helped Guattery open Clyde’s of Gallery Place, a 23,000-square-foot operation that was the dining equivalent of nearby Verizon Center: big, meaty and designed for sports nuts.

Giusti was pining for more, however, and split for Las Vegas, eventually landing at Guy Savoy, the haute French restaurant with two Michelin stars. The economy’s crippling effect on Guy Savoy’s operations, though, made Giusti receptive to another pitch from Guattery: Come back to the mid-Atlantic and serve as head chef for the Clyde’s location in Broadlands, Va. Giusti instead proposed that he lead the kitchen at 1789, where the chef had given notice. Guattery bit, even though he would be handing over Clyde’s fine-dining flagship to a chef who had never before managed a kitchen. Giusti was just 24.

It turned out to be a forward-thinking move. Giusti changed purveyors, bringing in obscure citrus fruits from the West Coast and whole animals from­ EcoFriendly­ Foods in Virginia. He even helped relax the jacket requirement for men. Giusti tried to transform the old battle-ax into something hipper, which did not always endear him to veteran staffers.

But not even his first head chef position could hold Giusti’s interest for long. Three years in, he was ready for the next challenge. He wanted to work at Noma, and he was willing to do it for nothing.

A worrier mentality

To witness the ease with which Giusti moves around Noma’s pristine black box of a kitchen, you’d never imagine how difficult his journey was to reach this lofty perch.

At 6 feet, 5 inches, Giusti towers above most of his younger cooks, which no doubt helps establish his authority. But he also commands a room, his lean, bearded face rarely betraying his emotions. He sees everything inside and out of his open kitchen: a cook who might need assistance, a diner who might not be enjoying a particular dish or even just a black granite countertop that needs a wipe. Whatever he spots, he either finds a quick solution or seeks more information.

Giusti is an information junkie. For each service, he prints out a primitive outline of the dining room, on which he writes anything and everything he hears about a diner’s experience. There’s a stack of these papers sitting upstairs on his desk at Noma, waiting to be typed into the computer. The notes help Giusti not only improve future meals but also anticipate any negative reviews that might pop up on someone’s blog or, worse, on TripAdvisor.com.

If there’s one thing Giusti hates, it’s negative reviews. He actively seeks out all online commentary about Noma and frequently obsesses over criticism, no matter how small or stupid. He takes each one as a sign of failure. Giusti is a natural worrier.

“I’ve told him to relax. I mean, it’s not life or death. He treats it like it’s life or death,” says Redzepi before a Saturday night service in April. “I gotta say, I’d rather have somebody that obsesses than somebody that doesn’t. I obsess, too, but not to the point where it controls my life.”

Giusti was something of a wreck after he first tried to get hired at Noma. His initial two-week apprenticeship in the summer of 2011 gave him little hope. He left Denmark without any word about his future at Noma, even though he and his longtime girlfriend, Annika de Las Heras, had agreed to lease an apartment in Copenhagen.

The day before the couple was set to return, in September 2011 — Giusti had arranged to keep working at Noma without pay — Giusti received an e-mail from Orlando, the chef de cuisine. An entry-level job had opened up, a gig that would expose Giusti to a whole new world of ingredients, techniques and organization. “Everything you know about cooking, it doesn’t matter” when you start at Noma, Orlando says. Giusti took it.

Despite the stimulation, he was considering a return to the United States after just eight months. There were complications away from the kitchen: de Las Heras was working long hours from home and was having a hard time making friends.

Orlando told Giusti he might want to reconsider. “I said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk, because I have much bigger plans for you,’ ” Orlando says. Less than a year into Giusti’s tenure at Noma, Orlando had pegged him as his successor as chef de cuisine, second in command only to Redzepi.

Orlando saw that Giusti had not only the culinary chops but also the temperament needed to manage 40 or more of the largest egos in the restaurant business. “Cooking is the easy part. Managing people is the hardest part, the most mentally challenging part,” Orlando says. Giusti “respected everyone, and in turn they respected him.”

Giusti was promptly promoted to sous-chef and then spent the last few months of 2012 studying under the guidance of Orlando, a native of San Diego who now runs Amass, his own restaurant in Copenhagen. “I think the hardest time for me was when people found out I was going to take that job,” says Giusti, who assumed the top spot in January 2013. “I think a lot of people questioned that, not because they didn’t respect me or things like that. It was just that I hadn’t been there that long.”

Veteran sous-chefs had been passed over for the job. “In a way, some people were surprised a little bit, just because he wasn’t there that long,” confirms Thomas Frebel, a sous-chef who has worked two separate stints at Noma. “But also people [knew] it was with good reason that he got the job.”

To Redzepi, the others never really had a shot. “He’s young, but he has sort of this old soul in him. He’s way too mature for his age,” Redzepi says about Giusti. “He’s just a very natural leader [who] is not afraid of making decisions, which is one of the biggest factors in becoming a head chef, because you have to make decisions constantly.”

Well into his second year at the helm of Noma, Giusti occasionally ponders his next move. He’s feeling the pull for home, or at least the United States, as well as a different challenge. He’s not sure his next jump will be to another restaurant, which could be a sign that he no longer needs the camaraderie of a kitchen to fill that hole left by his father. Or maybe Daniel Giusti just needs a break from the worry.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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