A decade ago, Dan Giusti was the head chef at Noma, which repeatedly has been named the best restaurant in the world. These days, the average person he cooks for is around 4 feet tall and likely missing a few teeth.
In 2016, Giusti left Noma and founded Brigaid, a program that places professional chefs in school kitchens to help cafeteria lunch staff cook up delicious, nourishing meals for kids — all within budget.
Six years later, Brigaid is still going strong. In this edition of Voices In Food, Giusti shares in his own words what he loves about cooking for kids, what’s most challenging, and how he’s taking Brigaid’s mission to populations outside of school cafeterias.
There’s a lot that’s different about cooking for a cafeteria full of elementary schoolers than a table of people who can afford to fly to Copenhagen and spend thousands on a meal, but one thing they have in common is that they’ll tell you what they think of the food. You don’t pay $250 for an entree to grin and bear it. And with kids, you always know exactly where they stand about something.
The stereotype for what school lunches taste like... isn’t great. The same goes for hospitals, senior centers and prisons. In every single one of these institutions, food plays a hugely important role. Despite this, they aren’t places that traditionally attract top-tier chefs. That’s what I’m trying to change.
I’m hoping that when chefs graduate culinary school, they get excited about using their creativity in kitchens that serve these populations. Right now, in addition to public schools across the country, Brigaid has started to work with senior centers in New York and we’re in the process of piloting a program that places a chef in a prison. But it all started with kids.
When it comes to making school lunches, there are a lot of challenges, but the biggest ones are staying within budget (on average, $3.81 per meal), hitting the government nutritional guidelines and making foods kids actually want to eat. I’ll tell you this: Kids are a heck of a lot more likely to eat fruit when it’s sliced and seasoned than when it’s in the form of a waxy apple not even cut up. But these challenges are part of the fun of getting creative as a chef: “You have $3, a fridge full of fresh ingredients, and a building full of hungry kids. Go!”
Creating lunches for kids, I’ve learned that they love pizza from scratch (not so surprising), but they also love broccoli, steamed and cooked in garlic oil. Other cooked vegetables aren’t a crowd-pleasure just yet, but kids crush garlic broccoli.
“When it comes to changing the way massive institutions like public schools or prisons approach food, the ingredients aren’t what’s most important. ... Without strong relationships, no lasting change is going to happen.”
Just like everyone else, we pivoted the way we worked during the height of the pandemic, but our chefs didn’t stop cooking; Kids still had to eat. We just worked differently, depending on the guidelines different school districts set in place.
The first priority was safety. Unfortunately, many people working in school kitchens weren’t being provided with masks, so getting protective materials was the most pressing priority. Then the focus became: How do we keep these kids fed? In some places, parents could come to the school and pick up packed lunches. In other places, we delivered the lunches to the kids’ bus stops so the parents didn’t have to drive to the school.
We were also realistic about the type of meals we could make. Before the pandemic, the emphasis was on making everything from scratch. But with other new constraints, we relaxed on that a little. The focus became more about logistics: What was less labor intensive? How could we keep the food hot? It’s a lesson that applies in the broader sense: When life gets hard, find ways to give yourself a break.
Here’s something else I’ve learned: When it comes to changing the way massive institutions like public schools or prisons approach food, the ingredients aren’t what’s most important. Sure, it’s great to have fresh produce, but what matters most are the people. The thing is, cooking isn’t all that complicated. But without strong relationships, no lasting change is going to happen.
I think sometimes in the food world, the importance of food can be placed over the importance of people. There are some chefs who are really ambitious and they want to focus on the quality of the food and how each carefully crafted entree comes out. That’s great and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, ultimately, people are what’s most important — and that goes for any system, not just food.
The pandemic has really shaken up the restaurant industry and it will be interesting to see what happens moving forward. I hope the chefs in culinary school right now start thinking about working at places like schools, senior centers and hospitals after they graduate. I think that would be really cool. And it will make you a better chef, too.
Because, again, kids don’t hold anything back. If they don’t like your pasta with homemade Alfredo sauce, you’ll know it. There’s no doubt about that.