This summer in New London, Connecticut, Daniel Giusti, formerly the head chef of Noma, cooked dinner for an eighth-grade graduation. One of the diners who’d be entering eighth grade the next year surveyed simple plates of green beans and roast beef and asked Giusti a question: “Will we be getting food like this every day?”
He answered affirmatively. This was not a one-off dinner, but the beginning of the relationship between New London and Brigaid, Giusti’s new company that aims to put working chefs—and real food—into public schools.
How did it go working with the staff of the school for the first time?
The event was a microcosm of how this project will work. We told the team, “We’re doing this event, for X amount of hours, for X amount of people” and saw who wanted to take the job.
It ended up being completely positive. There was not one moment where I felt it was limited. They did everything. They were enthusiastic. One woman didn’t seem particularly thrilled at the beginning, but at one point, she mentioned, “I can make some grits.” I was getting a bit nervous and struggling, so that was a massive help. A lot of people have said that I would have trouble convincing some staff to do what is essentially extra work, but the process seemed quite fun for her, and the positive feedback was important to her.
When the dinner finished, a lot of the teachers who had been helping in the dining room asked if we had food left over. I’m used to working in restaurants, where the last thing you want is to feed the service at the end of a grueling night. But this was different. We were all very proud of the effort. Parents came in and thanked us. It was especially wonderful to see how seriously the seventh graders took the act of serving. They would come back to the kitchen and share information about preferences and allergies throughout the service.
Balled up in this one dinner were a lot of little successes. I haven’t felt that in a long, long time. I’ve worked in restaurants that create once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but this was a thrill. It wasn’t really about the food—it was about the entirety of the evening, which is something we can overlook as chefs. The way you make someone feel is more important than the way the food tastes.
In the dining hall, some people were devouring the food, while others left dishes—like the salad—untouched. What was your take on the response?
I know that some of the stuff wasn’t everyone’s favorite thing, but that’s okay. When I first started thinking about this project, I wasn’t really thinking straight. I said, “We’re going to revamp everything, we’re going to change this, we’re going to change that.” It’s naive of me to declare that I’m going to prepare something that’s ten times better—to act like I know that whatever I produce is going to be an improvement in the minds of the students. That might not be the case. I have to remember that what matters is that they like it. What’s most important is making the food good and making the kids happy.
Then why do so many people say that school food is not only crap, but also not good for them?
That’s the absolute wrong argument to have. The sugar guideline is not good, since you can serve a ton, but otherwise, the guidelines make sense. When making school lunches, you have to start by wanting to make them taste good. If you’re goal is just to make the guidelines stricter, that’s off. There just aren’t enough people trying to make recipes that taste good within the guidelines. You’ll hear people say, “Food can’t be nutritious if kids don’t eat it.” If it’s going in the garbage, it doesn’t matter.
A lot of people want to blame the individual schools or the food-service directors. But if you are a food-service director with a dietician’s background, as is mostly the case, it’s almost impossible to cook from scratch. Who is going to make sure that the cooking happens? Everyone wants to blame individual districts or individual people, but that’s unfair. That’s how it’s set up.
How does it work in New London?
In New London, they have a self-operated program, which is different from sourcing the food production out to a larger company. It’s run by a food-service director who does a fantastic job, but she will be the first to admit that it’s good to have a chef around to prepare the food, to teach the staff. Most schools will say, “We don’t have the money to do that.” But even though it’s quite tight in New London, they feel it’s integral. They’ve made that commitment. The goal is to prove ourselves here and open the door for future districts: you might need to spend a little money in the beginning, but it can work.
Can you walk me through the financial aspect of this?
The reimbursement rate is the place to start. You serve a meal and get reimbursed from the federal government. Depending on your district, that means different things. Here, every student eats for free. We get fully reimbursed. They haven’t announced the exact rates for next year, but last year it was $3.09 for a lunch service. That’s for food, labor, and anything else within the program, like a truck that’s carrying food and breaks down and you need to fix. It’s the only revenue that goes to the program, and your program is self-sufficient. There’s no money from within the district coming into the program.
A lot of these meals—if it’s $3.09, the school is aiming to produce it at $2.80 or $2.90 so they have some extra to put aside and use for maintenance and everything else. So, it’s even harder. Then when you break it down, you are looking at a 30 or 40 percent food cost on a meal, so you are really getting down into the dollar-and-a-quarter range for food—for ingredients. It’s so low. And it needs to fit those guidelines that are not only daily, but weekly. Even though I support them, it’s a puzzle. I understand why there are so many dietitians doing this. But how can you train the staff to come up with recipes and produce them consistently? I think it’s doable, but even for the most organized chefs, it’s an enormous challenge.
A lot of people think that what we are doing is radical, but for me, it’s logical, since the chefs we are hiring have been thinking like this their whole career, worrying about how to tackle problems like these.
You’ve mentioned before that these people need to have very particular communication skills and certain character traits that are just as important as preparing food. What are you looking for in candidates?
You also need chefs who can listen. This position has taught me to listen again. We are novices in this space, for one, and there are a lot of people who work very hard and have done this for a very long time with whom we need to collaborate. You need to ask first, “What do you think should happen? What works, in your opinion?” They know the kids, they know how they act, what they like. You need people who will solicit that information.
You also need people who are extremely motivated and aware of everything around them. You need people who really care about what they are doing. Most of all, it’s always, always remaining calm and taking the high road—most chefs are wired to simply dictate. It needs to be collaborative. I’m looking for character and professionalism.
But if they can’t cook really well, we’re going to have a problem. So far we’ve only hired two people—and there are six school cafeterias in the district.
So you won’t have the whole team ready for the school year?
The original plan was to have six by September. After receiving applications and letters of motivation, we narrowed it down to fifty phone interviews. From that, we invited a select group to come to New London. When they visited, a lot of the process was personal interviews with everyone involved in the program. The candidates also had to create a lunch based on the specifications. I didn’t give them the guidelines, which meant that they needed to look them up and interpret them on their own, which is a huge task.
They also had to prepare a lesson plan. I gave them a food topic and a grade: “How are you going to communicate this topic to this age level?” For example, there was one on food waste for twelfth grade, and another on how to articulate if you do or don’t like a certain food for first graders. For the latter, we taught the students specific words so that they could give us a clearer idea than “Eww” about their preferences.
The final part, which the candidates didn’t know about, was to cook a meal with a bunch of ingredients I laid out for them. The idea for this was to see how they could come up with something that could potentially be catering or feeding the community. One of our initiatives, for funding purposes, is to use the kitchen on the side for other projects. This one gave me the clearest idea of how well someone cooked.
What do you say to people that might view having a chef in the school as a luxury that can’t be applied widely?
A lot of people here question why the school district would spend the money on this. The whole point of this model was to do something that could be applicable everywhere. We wouldn’t do it just to do it. We want this to expand. The reason we are able to do it is because we can generate revenue through outside sources. You need to make it self-sustaining. The bigger picture: I wanted to make a dynamic model. One thing I didn’t anticipate is how different schools are from one another in terms of facilities, leadership, and everything in between. A static model will not work. It’s inefficient, for one, but most importantly, inconsiderate to the people in the community.
“Chef” sounds luxurious, but this is a food-service program and it should have a chef. How can you produce that much food without someone who knows how to develop recipes or adapt to what a student likes and dislikes? I actually think it’s essential.
A lot of people assumed we were a nonprofit. Then they questioned our motivations when we said we weren’t. My motivation is entirely to make change. The reason I decided to do this is because you don’t have the limitations of having to raise most of the revenue from the outside. I have firsthand experience watching nonprofits struggle to do that. You would also need to deal with a board. That’s not to say I don’t want to listen to opinions at all, but it needs to be efficient and swift at the beginning.
My business plan isn’t projecting a lot of profit right now. Investing in a for-profit program that isn’t going to make a lot of money isn’t something people are crazy about doing.
It’s a challenge, but being here is great. I have been welcomed so warmly. They found me a house right on the water, and it’s the first time in a really long time that I’ve been in a community this small. It’s tight-knit, and that’s important for the beginning of this. I can’t wait to get into the schools and meet some of the kids. They’re who I’m here for.