After serving as Noma’s chef de cuisine for three years and maintaining the standards that earned it a top spot among the world’s best restaurants, former Washingtonian Daniel Giusti will leave the Copenhagen fine-dining destination at the end of the year and return to the District to launch his next project.
The big reveal: It won’t be a restaurant.
When he returns to Washington in January, Giusti, 31, plans to make a radical left turn into school food service. Consider that for a moment: The chef who has fed the world’s elite some of the most meticulously prepared dishes anywhere — at a restaurant where the tab can top $800 for two diners — now hopes to feed schoolchildren for $3.07 each, which is the amount the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for every free lunch served. It’s an abrupt and ambitious about-face for Giusti, who credits his boss, Noma chef and owner René Redzepi, for daring him to think big.
“This place has shown me you can do anything. I know that’s a cliche,” says Giusti during a phone call from Copenhagen. “But for me to be here now and to have the job that I have now. . . I have made myself believe that anything is possible.”
Giusti understands that his career change might sound naive: A fine-dining chef launches a company to tackle an area of food service that is tied up not only in politics but also in limited budgets, tough nutritional standards, finicky kids and long-term contracts with established providers.
“There’s a whole host of challenges that make it very, very difficult” to change the system, says Sam Kass, former White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy and a chef himself.
“But at the same time, there’s a culture of thinking in the school nutrition world that is a problem in itself,” adds Kass, who serves as senior food analyst for NBC News. “Someone coming from the outside with new ideas is good.”
If anyone has the fearlessness to face the formidable task of improving public school meals, it’s Giusti. This is the guy who in 2011 abruptly left 1789, the fine-dining flagship of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group that named Giusti executive chef when he was only 24, to take an unpaid apprenticeship at Noma with no promise of a full-time gig. By January 2013, Giusti was running Noma, replacing another American, Matt Orlando, as the chef de cuisine. Redzepi and Orlando passed over more-experienced cooks to select Giusti as Noma’s leader in the kitchen. (Incidentally, Canadian Ben Ing will become Noma’s next chef de cuisine.)
“He’s young, but he has sort of this old soul in him. He’s way too mature for his age,” Redzepi told me 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.”
Giusti assumed chef de cuisine duties while Noma was the No. 1 restaurant in the world, according to the arbitrary-but-influential list compiled by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Noma would fall to No. 2 later in 2013 but regain the top spot in 2014. Noma now sits at No. 3 on the list, which makes Giusti an extremely high-profile target for investors who want to open a restaurant with him. But for better or worse, the chef has little interest in having his own place, partly because he has already worked at one of the best.
“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,” Giusti says.
For years now, even as famous chefs and celebrities angled for reservations at Noma, Giusti has had other ambitions besides feeding the 1 percenters. One has been to figure out a way to provide good-quality food to the masses at prices they can afford. Ultimately, he determined that unless a restaurant chain could compete with McDonald’s on price point, it would just be adding more calories to the marketplace without improving the American diet much.
Then Giusti started looking into the National School Lunch Program, that surreal battleground where pizza sauce is considered a vegetable and the School Nutrition Association advocates against reducing the amount of salt in the students’ diet. This is the arena, Giusti thought, where someone could have real impact: He could feed American schoolchildren higher-quality food, teach them something about cooking and food, and perhaps even set them up for a lifetime of better dietary choices.
Giusti has been researching the people and organizations already committed to improving school meals. He has talked repeatedly with Kass, who has become something of a mentor. Giusti has also investigated the pioneering work of Betti Wiggins in Detroit, Ann Cooper in Boulder, Colo., and Revolution Foods, a group that started with just one charter school in Oakland, Calif., and now serves more than 1 million meals per week in 15 states.
Although Giusti says he respects the work of those who aim to fix the system, he wants to take a different approach. His company, Brigaid, would build whole new kitchens or improve existing ones at schools and then hire professional chefs to work full-time in them. Brigaid would differ from other chef-oriented programs, such as first lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools, in that Giusti’s crew would be working daily to address the issues, not once a week or once a month.
“One of the biggest problems is that there are no kitchens in schools, and all food is prepared elsewhere,” Giusti says.
Such a model, of course, would require serious capital investment. Neither kitchen equipment nor experienced chefs come cheap. Giusti says he has investors interested in Brigaid. Plus, he says, he wants to start small, just as Revolution Foods did. He hopes to have a pilot program in place with a school district by fall 2016. It could even be with the D.C. Public Schools system, which is now soliciting for new vendors after the embattled Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality decided this year to withdraw from its contract following allegations of mismanagement and a whistleblower settlement.
Giusti doesn’t pretend he has the solution to the problem of providing better-quality school meals at dirt-cheap prices. Nor is he naive about his chances of fixing the system.
“This is a huge undertaking and a risky undertaking, but for me this is worth it,” Giusti says. “I have no problem giving it all I’ve got, and if I fail, I fail.”