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Can one of the world’s top chefs change K-12 foodservice?

You’re the top chef at what’s hailed, from Denmark to Dayton, as the best restaurant on the planet. What’s next on your career ladder? Opening your own gold mine of a restaurant? Hosting a hit cooking show while you date starlets and make the A-list party scene at night? How about moving to the Riviera and writing best-selling cookbooks with no more exertion than pouring another pastis?

Forgoing those opportunities to try your hand at school foodservice isn’t the usual next step for a world-renowned chef, but little about Dan Giusti is predictable. 

From a job cooking at one of Washington, D.C.’s old guard restaurants, a 56-year-old place where patrons might have first come with their parents, the New Jersey native ended up at Noma, the Copenhagen shrine to adventurous Nordic cooking. Giusti, for the record, is an Italian-American who grew up in southern New Jersey, where reindeer are more likely to be seen harnessed to a shopping mall Santa’s sleigh than listed as a possible dinner component. After serving in Noma’s kitchen and learning from local master Rene Redzepi, Giusti alerted management that he felt it was time to move on. They revealed their plans to make him executive chef, in charge of the kitchen.

But after holding that dream job for three years, Giusti felt the desire again to try something different. Brainstorming what that next thing might be, he thought about where he could make a difference, as well as break new culinary ground.   

“I started thinking, ‘Why am I doing this in the first place?’” the 34-year-old recalls to FoodService Director, adding that he’s been working in restaurants since age 15. “I wanted to feed a lot of people. More important, I wanted to cook for them every day,” a big change from preparing once-in-a-lifetime dinners for the globetrotters mounting a pilgrimage to Noma.

“It was a matter of making food accessible for people who didn’t have a lot of other options,” he continues. “I had this idea of going into places that have food and making it better.” Ditto for their operations: “There are kitchen places that are not really well run or organized,” he says.  

Going noncom

Noncommercial institutions, he realized, offered all of that, “as well as having people in the kitchen who have not had a lot of training.” The channel most in line with his mental checklist were schools, a realization that came somewhat from afar: “I don’t have kids. I haven’t spent a lot of time around kids.”

“It had nothing to do with that,” he continues. Rather, he knows that school meals are often the one healthful meal some kids eat all day. “And it’s been reinforced that, over the first few years, they don’t have any choice about what they’re given.”

Giusti decided he’d try to trigger a fundamental shift in school foodservice by systematically cultivating hands-on change agents. He developed a for-profit company called Brigaid, whose mission is to recruit and place a chef in every school, with ultimate responsibility for the menu, recipes and operations. 

“Thoughtfulness is what we’re trying to do,” he says.

The task is daunting, as Giusti and his colleagues have learned as they worked to implement their program to New London Public Schools in Connecticut, the pilot project for Brigaid. “It’s so hard, between the budget—we targeted $1.25 a meal, 25 cents of which goes to milk, so you’re down to a dollar—and the nutritional guidelines,” he says. 

Red tape, administrative politics and helicopter parents aren’t a boon, either, he adds. And then there’s the sheer volume. The New London district has 3,800 students. Still, “we’re putting as much thought into it as we can,” he says. “The scary thing [is], [can] we make food that we [think is] good?”

So far, he says, the answer is yes, though he acknowledges that it’s been a struggle. Each of the six pilot schools now has a chef on the premises, an employee of the school board. They work with a chef who is part of Brigaid, which brings such additional resources as recipes and the know-how of a whole team. The schools pay Brigaid a fixed fee per chef.

Finding success

He mentions such signs of success as the use of fresh herbs, a way of delivering flavor and freshness without busting the budget. But he acknowledges that it’s still early in the process, because the effort amounts to re-engineering the DNA of a foodservice operation.

Still, he notes that the Connecticut situation has led New York City, the nation’s largest school district, to bring Brigaid aboard at six schools.

Finding the right chefs is the biggest challenge, says Giusti. “We need someone who can cook, who can manage and maintain a clean kitchen,” he explains. But “when we put a chef in a school, they should be a good role model, too. Not just for cooking, but in everything they do. They need to be well-spoken, and everything about them should be exemplary.”

He foresees a day when Brigaid may be able to tweak its model and train those chefs, sending them forward in considerable numbers as apostles for changing K-12 foodservice. 

Otherwise, the process of changing a single school district can take years, starting with a survey of what’s currently being served, what the budget is and whether capital expenditures such as an investment in additional equipment might be necessary. Even then, it’s iffy as to whether the project proceeds. “There are a lot of people who want us to do this, and it is a big transition,” he says. “But at any mention of capital expenses for new equipment, they disappear.”

To succeed in his mission, “you’re talking about changing the whole system,” he says. 

But he’s optimistic, even in a place as daunting as New York City. 

“It’s not just about those six schools,” he says. “We’re going to change these six schools in their entirety. But they’ve got 1,600 schools. Where we are today is much different than where we’ll be tomorrow—where we’ll be a year from now.”

Photograph courtesy of Allegra Anderson

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