Great chefs seem to open up restaurants everywhere in every niche market possible. It seems like it might have just been a matter of time before those culinary skills found their way into the school food service category. Daniel Giusti of Brigaid seems to think so and has decided to lead the chair in this culinary revolution.
Daniel Giusti comes from a large Italian family, always loving the idea of going over to his aunt’s house to get fed these amazing large Italian meals. Daniel grew up with a passion for food, learning by watching his grandmother and aunt cook. Daniel’s passion brought him to CIA in Hyde Park and then eventually to the legendary Denmark eatery, Noma, where Giusti became head chef in 2013. After years at Noma, Daniel determined that it wasn’t about restaurants. Giusti determined that he had a passion for taking something that was there and improving it. “You have all these kitchens and all these institutional areas that are underutilized or unorganized or they’re not just every efficiently run. So the idea of going into those spaces and not creating more spaces, just making them better, as well the staff of people that’s already there,” Giusti said.
Daniel left Noma, returned to the United States to start Brigaid, a company that will attempt to change the way schools feed their students. Giusti is a talented and renowned chef who has a very interesting philosophy cooking itself. “You can cook for yourself. Which is an artistic expression that personifies in cooking. The idea is that you want to cook, it’s not so based off of what your customers are telling you they want. Or you can just straight-up cook for people. You’re feeding people. You’re cooking for people,” said Giusti.
School meals have always been a bit of an issue mainly because of the USDA’s nutritional guidelines and low budgets. Giusti looks at this challenge as a way to give them the best food possible and he knows it not easy. The USDA nutritional guideline is a 93-page document, it creates a general attitude of “well it’s impossible to make good food, per these guidelines and in reality it’s not. You just need to understand it and you can’t just look at it for an hour and then understand it,” said Giusti.
So what schools is Brigaid in and how does it work? Brigaid is in two schools out of a six-school district in New London CT. Brigaid has two chefs in two schools and have another four ready to roll out into the remaining schools between now and November. That is 3,600 students being fed by as of right now, Daniel and two other chefs. Brigaid is hiring but since this is such a unique and demanding culinary job, it has made Giusti a bit critical. Brigaid has had over 300 applications but is still struggling to find chefs who can handle this particular environment. Brigaid is looking for chefs who are able to obviously cook, have character, can manage a staff with extremely limited training, and have the patience to deal with the students in a professional manner. Giusti wants applicants to understand that this for the children and it is a challenging, frustrating, humbling job and that if we don’t do it, no one will.
The facts are that school lunches are strict. Other than the USDA nutritional guidelines, there is not a tremendous amount of money set aside for school food. An average school service program has about $1.30, give or take $0.05 to prepare lunch. The schools and our children find themselves at the mercy of the companies that are preparing the food. “I think a lot of the problem with school food is antiquated thinking. I’ve received a ton of flak since I’ve started doing this from people in this arena saying, who is this guy doing this? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I know I’m new. I know there’s a lot I don’t know. But I do know how to cook and I do know how to run a kitchen. And I do know how to organize a kitchen. And it’s easy for me to go into one of these kitchens that I’ve seen and really question a lot of things that are happening. Because they don’t make any sense, so there is a lot of antiquated thinking that’s prohibiting some forward movement. Because I don’t think the idea that I’m proposing here is very innovative at all. Putting a chef into a kitchen that prepares a thousand meals a day seems like a pretty logical and almost essential thing,” said Giusti.
For Giusti, it is about two things: the chef and the children. “That if you get to 10 to 15 kids a day, really talk to them. That’s huge, you’re gonna get to more than 1000 kids a year talking to them, physical interaction How was this? Did you enjoy it? And we’re seeing that if you create a rapport with these students then they come up to you, they talk to you,” said Guisti. It created a level of trust that these students have never had before. Even for the parents, it creates this trust that has never been there before where the parent can trust what their kid is eating. “I didn’t really expect it. A lot of people come and speak to myself and the chef in the high school and just say ‘Wow, my kid never used to eat school food, now he does.’ Or we had two groups of parents who came and showed us their cell phone, that they had received text messages a few times during the past two weeks with their kids taking pictures of the food and sending it to them while they’re at school saying, Is what we’re eating today, it’s amazing,” parents told Guisti during an open house.
For more information on Daniel Giusti and Brigaid, visit their website.