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Dan Giusti generated headlines in the high-end food world last fall when he announced he was leaving one of the top restaurants in the world to focus on school lunch through his startup company — Brigaid. After all, a typical chef departure means another high-end restaurant is opening up . . . not a “moonshot” experiment focused on school nutrition.

Giusti's Aunt Zia Rosa
Giusti’s Aunt Zia Rosa

For Giusti, the surprising news flowed from his own research and life experiences. His introduction to the kitchen stems from his beloved aunt who is still jarring tomatoes and cooking every day at 80. Food became an exciting, interesting part of his day due to her hospitality when he was young.

“We had a meal every ninety minutes when we were in her house,” recalled Giusti with a laugh.

You can draw a straight line from those experiences to his career today. Giusti shared, “Eating became a deeply special part of my every day… Through my own experiences, this idea of taking care of people through food came to mean the world to me and that spurred my interest in food (as a profession).”

Beginning at the age of 13, Giusti attempted to replicate the recipes he learned from his aunt, which was the beginning of his own creativity in the kitchen. The creativity was burnished in culinary school and eventually at Noma — for most people who are fortunate to eat there, a once in a lifetime meal due to the price point and the difficulty of landing reservations. Yet for Giusti, he felt as if those experiences — the dream of many prospective chefs — had created a disconnect between the reasons he landed on food as a career in the first place as he moved from shaping the daily experience of food to creating a culinary experience.

Institutions

The disconnect between the food experiences Giusti gained from his aunt and the experience of cooking in the fine dining world led him to consider ways to touch more people on a daily basis. Giusti shared, “This led me to the idea of moving into institutions and training people, working to equip as many as I could to transform dining, and to even look at revolutionizing spaces like cafeterias in any setting.”

Dan Giusti
Dan Giusti

In many ways Giusti felt that revolutionizing institutions would have multiple impacts. “Let’s take food already being made and make it better. One way is to combat food waste. And people moving through institutions — such as hospitals, or cafeterias — need and deserve folks who will help take care of them. As I considered institutions, I began to focus in on the idea of transforming dining from a young age so that we change lives. It isn’t about changing the dining experience alone, it is about changing the food system, transforming students from all angles in ways that carry forward.”

From this idea came a vision — powerful in its simplicity.

The vision of Brigaid is that school lunch becomes more thoughtful, with students not treated as a captive audience, but rather as an audience with a choice — just like food world will treat them when they graduate. The idea is to create an experience that treats students with respect and works with them to make the food system better moving forward.

The food might be easier than the cultural shift that Brigaid hopes to see one day. For example, Giusti said that after spending a lot of time in schools lately he believes, “All new school construction should pay attention to quality of life — cafeterias should be large enough to not have six waves of lunches beginning at 10:30 in the morning. We need to ask ourselves what does the student experience look like — if we frame it around experience, it can be a powerful thing.”

A simple question from Brigaid:

What can we do to delight students?

Before re-envisioning school construction, and even before dramatically reshaping school lunch, Brigaid is beginning by being present in the schools themselves to learn through listening. Already they believe it isn’t about spending more money alone, it is about spending wisely — and making sure the little things happen. Reflected Giusti, “Even we go to McDonald’s and pay $2 for a meal, we expect the condiments and floors to be clean. The same should be true for our schools. We need to even look at the current food supply. Apples should not be cold Red Delicious apples that have been stored for a long time with gashes and mush and stickers all over them.”

Beginning small

“We had to begin small — either one school or a smaller district.” – Daniel Giusti

As Giusti weighed where to begin, he ultimately settled on the idea of a smaller school district. To him, the idea was a district allows Brigaid to test different schools with different facilities in an effort to learn how to build a true ecosystem that encapsulates an entire district and the entire education continuum so they would know how to better serve students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

This decision would lead Brigaid to New London, Connecticut where they recently reached a deal to work with the district. “We loved the leadership in New London and it is clear that leadership matters. New London was already thinking about how you recreate school nutrition. They were organized and focused on making things happen,” remarked Giusti.

When Giusti and I spoke he was busy putting together plans for catering the local graduation ceremonies — a big leap from putting together experiences at Noma which delighted the entire food world, but one that seemed to energize Giusti as he was racing around the entire time we were on the phone.

For all of the dreams of Brigaid, they are taking a bite-sized approach to launching. Giusti wouldn’t have it any other way because “school lunch is complicated.”

Initially Brigaid, and the chefs they bring on, will listen, research, evaluate facilities, get to know the food service crew, and figure things out through their own analysis. The goal is to build leadership and stakeholder support while also understanding the local culture and concerns.

Each school district will pay Brigaid to manage the district, but the business model calls on them to earn the money back, and to eventually generate a profit, as every dollar generated by the school nutrition program will be utilized by the district itself. The model will work within existing budgets initially with increased revenue allowing the chefs to up the quality of the food over time. The hope is the model will first begin to pay for itself by increasing participation in school meals, while also beginning to generate outside revenue through catering events on school grounds and off.

At the end of the day, the goal for Brigaid is to “put chefs into the schools to not make fancy food, but to transform school food.”

And to delight our children enough that they will love good food. Just as Giusti’s aunt once did for him.

It’s that simple — and that complicated.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.