Daniel Giusti started cooking at Noma in September 2011 and became the head chef in January 2013. After three years at the forefront of one of the most lauded restaurants in the world, he is moving back to the United States to launch Brigaid, a company that will attempt to change the way schools feed their students.
What prompted you to leave fine dining now, to do something that’s so radically different?
I don’t want to think of it so much as leaving fine dining, because that has a connotation that I’m not happy with. I definitely love it. I love restaurants. I love working in restaurants with high expectations, with high pressure. I thrive off of that, as I think most chefs do. I know I’ll miss it.
You can look at cooking in two ways. You can look at it in the way that it’s very much about being innovative and developing masterpieces. You see things in food that other people wouldn’t, present it to them, amazing them with what you can do. That’s where we’re at here at Noma—looking to inspire people and produce flavors that people aren’t used to eating.
And then there’s another side of cooking, which is cooking to feed people. From the beginning, a big part of cooking, for me, was feeding people. That’s where I came to love it. I come from a big Italian family and I was always enamored by the ability to make people happy and satisfy them with cooking.
As someone who gets into cooking and is competitive and ambitious, you’re definitely led to understand that, if you’re ambitious and you really work hard, you’re going to end up in fine dining. That’s where you should be. That means you’re excelling.
I went to CIA in Hyde Park, and everyone wanted to be a head chef of a restaurant in New York City. In culinary school, that’s what you want to do—that’s what everyone wants to do. So you get on that path and you learn to really appreciate it. Obviously there’s a lot of perks working in a restaurant like Noma, and it’s exciting. But I think at some point when you climb the ladder you understand what it’s all about.
After I came here I gained the confidence to tell myself, Maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. When you know people like René and what he sees in food, you just realize at some point: that’s not me. He sees things in food that I don’t see. He is tremendously talented when it comes to being innovative. It takes a lot to understand where you stand in the game. I’ll never be the most creative chef out there. That’s just not what I’ll be. I have a certain skill set and have the confidence to know where I want to take my career.
For me what would make me happy is to wake up every day and know that I’m really feeding people. I’m making them happy and I’m changing the way they live because I’m changing the way they eat.
As far as what makes me want to get into school food and leave fine dining for that, it comes from being here. I’ve never met anyone like René. He’s swinging for the fences every single day. Everything he does, he’s looking to go bigger and better; he never stops. I’ve always been ambitious myself, but I’ve never known someone that’s not content, but in a positive way. Like, this is good but it’s got to be better, and we’re going to continue to make it better.
Everyone talks about school food as this unsolvable problem and I said, Well, if I’m going to feed people, I want to feed a lot of people and I want to wake up every day thinking that what I’m doing is affecting a lot of people’s lives in a positive way. Having prior knowledge of the problem with school food it quickly became the idea. This is what I have to do. The more I researched it, the more I locked in on the idea. And it was one of those things that the more I learned and the more I mentioned it to people around me and they said, Oh that’s a tough thing that’s going to be really difficult. Naturally that just made me want to do it more, because it’s a challenge.
What is Brigaid?
Brigaid comes from brigade, which obviously means a group of chefs. The “aid” will be in shooting to solve some of the problems with our food system, predominately involved with school food. Brigaid will be a for-profit company that aims to put chefs in schools. What makes it different from other food-service companies that are catering to schools at the moment is that it’s based on having kitchens in schools and chefs cooking in those kitchens.
Aramark, Compass—statistically these are some of the highest grossing companies in the food industry, not just in school food. A lot of these big companies like Aramark are pushing for like 20 percent profit margins, which is extremely high in any food business. In restaurants you’re lucky if you’re making 5 percent in bottom-line profit. So to shoot for 20 percent—that’s not what we’re going for. In the end we want a profit margin that allows us to maintain the business. The goal is not to become rich.
Profit, for me, means that we continue to push forward and makes sure we can pay people—and I’m not talking about myself or other higher-up people. I want to be able to train people who are currently working in school cafeterias. I want to train them to know more, and also pay them more for that knowledge.
The whole point of this is to make it a more attractive space for people who are passionate about food to join in. I want to be able to pay the sous chef at whatever restaurant, who really likes to do this kind of stuff but would never do it because there’s no money in it, and it’s just not something that will ever challenge you in any way. It’s not set up to do so currently, when you work in some commissary kitchen where you’re plating food to be frozen and packaged and delivered.
What can you bring to schools from the culture of the kitchen you worked in?
From a very simple standpoint, we’re talking about putting kitchens in schools. The design of those kitchens, the thought behind them, how they work—that’s going to be a big part of it. That excites me, pairing up with a kitchen manufacturer and saying, Okay, we need to design a kitchen, we have X amount of dollars to spend every time we do it. My goal is that we design a singular model, prototype kitchen. Build a kitchen that’s cost-effective, that has all the equipment you need and none that you don’t. It works; it’s efficient; it’s well-built and we can just pop them into schools as needed, and they don’t take up much space. I’ve seen a lot of these school kitchens, and some of them just don’t make any sense. Kitchens they think are well-equipped are equipped in the wrong way. That’s obviously paramount when you’re talking about cooking food for a certain amount of people and in a certain amount of time.
In terms of the organization of the people, there is a certain discipline in a kitchen that needs to be there. I’m not talking about screaming at people. Discipline in the sense that there needs to be a solid organizational system that makes it efficient. Because, obviously, when you’re talking about providing people a meal for $3.07— current federal reimbursement for school lunches—you really don’t have much room to wiggle there.
Above all, I hope we can bring the energy from fine dining and restaurants. At Noma, when we’re in the kitchen everyone is so into it and running around. I’m not saying that I’m going to go into the school kitchen and get everyone running around, but I want to get people genuinely excited about what they’re doing and how that translates to better food, a better experience for these children, and better nutrition.
It also provides an opportunity for better learning for the kids. A lot of these kids don’t have much to look forward to on a daily basis. How nice would it be if at lunchtime they went through the line and someone served them food that they were proud to serve and smiled at them, and gave them a cooked meal that was delicious? It would be great if they sat down and ate it and enjoyed it and talked about it. I grew up in a family where eating was important and it was a social thing, and for a lot of kids eating has no meaning outside of it being a chore.
What do you see as being the major weaknesses in school food right now?
If I have to be very broad and blunt, it’s the thinking. The biggest problem is closed-mindedness about fixing it. Ever since I’ve announced I’m doing this, there have been a lot of people saying it’s impossible. The same day I’m reading comments on the Washington Post article about Brigaid saying that what I want to do is impossible, I’m reading that Elon Musk landed a rocket and he’s talking about colonizing Mars. That’s a legitimate story, but improving school food is impossible? That’s a joke.
People say this isn’t feasible to put kitchens in schools all over the country. It’s too expensive. It’s not feasible to have chefs in schools. Nobody’s going to accept this food. The kids won’t like it.
I’m putting my career on the line; I’m hopefully going to get an opportunity to give this a shot in the schools. If it fails, it’s on me.
Everyone puts the blame on the government—there’s not enough money allocated for school food and so on. And don’t get me wrong, the current federal reimbursement of $3.07 for providing a meal, including food and labor, is super low. Instead of just saying that’s crap and just letting the kids eat shit food like that’s acceptable, let’s do something.
I’ve also received so many emails over the past week from chefs, dieticians, chefs in culinary school, people with policy backgrounds, parents, people who want to work for free. And to have kids at the Culinary Institute of America saying we’re interested in this—to me, that’s a victory already. And the only reason that has happened already is because I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity at Noma. Coming from here, people just look at it differently. The kid in culinary school who’s eighteen says, He was the head chef at Noma, he’s going to do this, so that sounds like something that would be cool for me to do as well.
What I know is, we’re going to bring a ton of energy. I’m going to get more people involved and we’re not going to stop if the model doesn’t work. We’ll try something different. There are already people working very hard at this and doing a great job, but there just aren’t enough of them to change everything. Let’s get everyone working together for once and hopefully we can get somewhere.
Some people would say it’s naive to expect to get all these people working together, but I don’t think it is. This is not a partisan issue. This is food for kids—people want their kids to eat well, so let’s fix that.