– not replacing the kitchen staff, but working alongside them: ‘By having chefs present in the school kitchens on a daily basis, I hope to introduce a model that not only provides students with quality meals but also furthers their understanding of what they are eating through basic food education.’
Dan Giusti is a passionate and humble man, a young Italian-American who gave his job up in December as the Head Chef of NOMA, voted best restaurant in the world for four-years-running to feed and nourish American school children for $3.07 a head.
As Master Chef of NOMA where meals cost upward of $400 per person, Giusti has moved back to Washington D.C. to focus on what attracted him to cooking in the first place: nourishing people. The difference is that this time it will not be for fine-diners but for school children getting state lunches.
Giusti’s passion for feeding people and making them happy has grass roots, which originate just outside of Pescara, Abruzzo. His father moved to America in 1955 with his family, and the family bought with them their culinary heritage and genius. To this end, Giusti learnt to love and appreciate food not at the Michelin starred restaurant in Copenhagen, nor at the Culinary Institute of America where he trained, but sitting at the table whilst his aunt, Zia Rosa, made his favorite lasagne. Now into her 70s, Rosa still makes 350-400 jars of tomato sauce each year and is famous for her pizzelle. She taught her nephew that the magic of cuisine goes far beyond food, into the realms of environment, wellbeing and nourishment: ‘Because of my work, I’ve had the opportunity to eat at a lot of nice restaurants all over the world. But for me, my favourite food, no doubt, is the food that she makes. And it’s not just the way it tastes, but the whole experience.’
It’s precisely the experience that Giusti is tackling head on with his start-up company, Brigaid: ‘A lot of people think that it’s outrageous that I’d compare eating in a cafeteria to eating in a restaurant. But of course it’s the same thing – you’re providing food to people’ he explained. ‘And the fact is, if you go to someone’s house or a restaurant, the environment plays a vital role in your enjoyment of the meal.’
Giusti’s angle is a new one. He doesn’t simply want to tick nutrition boxes, he wants to serve delicious food and give children something to look forward to in the day: ‘I’ve got something to look forward to every day and I have amazing memories of eating at home. But some kids don’t even eat at home, it’s a chore for them and they have nothing to look forward to because they are living tough lives.’
In many school districts, over 50% of children are eligible for free meals and Giusti’s mission is to provide something that is more than food groups on a plate: ‘The main things people talk about are nutrition and education. But we can’t overlook wellbeing. That goes into things like the timing of the lunch, the design of the cafeteria, the lighting – are there windows, is there natural light?’
Giusti is realistic in his venture. He is not promising to deliver organic, home grown produce to every American child. He is about putting a focus on school food, and making small changes that cost little money. He cited as an example the presentation of food: rather than presenting frozen muffins in cellophane bags, it would cost nothing to take them out, warm them up, and put them in a basket with a cloth.
With Zia Rosa as his muse and inspiration, Giusti is courageously pursuing change in the school lunch sector. They already have great support and are gaining more and more backers. Project Chef, an award-winning non-profit program tweeted in encouragement: ‘This is an achievable, necessary and worthy goal.’
In a few weeks time, Brigade will have selected where they will pilot their first project. It isn’t every day that a Michelin-star chef dares to commit himself to school meals, but Giusti has a passion that is propelling him at all costs, to succeed.