Story at a glance

  • Chef Dan Giusti used to run the kitchen at Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen with multiple Michelin stars, and now he’s making school lunches.
  • His company Brigaid is trying to reform student meals from premade, processed foods to ones made from scratch using fresh ingredients.
  • Brigaid now feeds thousands of students at public schools in Connecticut and New York.

Four years ago, Dan Giusti was running the kitchen at Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen, considered by many at the time to be the best restaurant in the world. What more could a young chef want?

But after three years at the height of fine dining, Giusti yearned for something different. 

“At Noma, we were 45 people feeding 45 people,” he told The New Yorker in 2018. “I realized that I wanted to feed a lot of people, and feed them every day.”

After some deliberation, Giusti landed on the audience for his next culinary overture: thousands of kids in public schools, The New York Times reports. He started his company Brigaid in 2016 with the goal of revamping school meals by replacing processed and premade foods with ones cooked on site by professional chefs. In school lunches, Giusti saw both a business opportunity and a chance to nourish the next generation. 

Brigaid now cooks for upwards of 3,500 students in the Bronx, New York, and 3,792 more in New London, Conn., who are eligible for the school-provided free lunch program. 

Reheated bags of chicken nuggets are replaced by bone-in, barbecued chicken; frozen pizzas step aside for freshly baked pies from dough made in the cafeteria kitchen. 

The food has made an impression on students.

“In the morning, you see them cutting the fruit, and you know you’re going to eat fruit that’s fresh,” Sonia Scarso, a senior at Bronx International High School, told the Times. 

“Last year when I used to eat lunch it was, like, it tasted like prison food,” said Matthew Soto, a senior at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies. But now, he said, “it looked like fresh out of the oven.”

But changing how students eat on a large scale is a formidable challenge, and Giusti’s pioneering approach means he must make up the solutions as he goes along.

A dining experience at Noma would run upwards of $350 per person. Now, he’s crafting meals that cost around $3.40 — the amount the federal government refunds schools per lunch. The portion of that budget that goes toward food, after the expenses of staff, equipment and transportation, is only about $1.30.

On top of that, the meals must adhere to federal nutritional guidelines that dictate each must contain a minimum of half a cup of fruit a day, three-quarters of a cup of vegetables and an ounce of meat or meat alternative.

Brigaid has also run into challenges finding qualified chefs willing to forgo the cachet of a restaurant job. And, perhaps most fundamentally, the students’ reception of less familiar foods on the menu has not been universally positive. 

At the Morrisania Educational Campus in the Bronx, student participation in the free meal program went gone down from 66 percent to 53 percent for the first half of the 2018-2019 school year.

Giusti knows expanding students’ tastes will take some time, but he’s also accepting the feedback. Dishes that are less popular, such as hummus, are being served less often, and he’s bringing back old favorites like peanut butter and jelly with tweaks like using sunflower butter.

For Samantha Wilson, the New London Public Schools’ director of food services, serving more diverse, healthful foods is a project worth sticking with, even if it’s slow to catch on. “We have to recognize that the successes will come a little slower than perhaps what we’d like, but that’s OK because we’re changing their preferences.”

But the bright spots offer a window into the potential of Giusti’s approach: in the Bronx, apples, included with school lunches to fulfill the nutrition guidelines, have been replaced with fresh-cut fruits like pineapple or watermelon. Where apples used to wind up in the trash — or worse, used as de facto projectiles — the chopped fruit gets eaten. 

Brigaid is looking to bring fresh, healthy food to more schools by offering consulting or programs like a 55-day training program that walks schools through the process of setting up a kitchen, food safety and cooking techniques for a selection of recipes.

Giusti wants to recruit chefs out of culinary school to help conduct these trainings.

“We could be creating the new leaders in this industry that doesn’t have any leaders,” he told the Times. 

The chef doesn’t have any illusions as Brigaid works out the kinks, but its future looks promising: “We’re still at the stage where we’re figuring out how to move things forward. Either way, something good has started.”

Published on Jan 17, 2020