Daniel Giusti: No Challenge Unconquerable
Once head chef at one of the world’s top restaurants, he’s transforming America’s school lunch line.
Who would’ve guessed that something as wholesome and Italian as Aunt Zia’s pasta sauce would be the catalyst for a life of challenges met head on, and crushed one by one? Well, that’s where the story of Daniel Giusti’s meteoric rise in the culinary world began, believe it or not.
The First Self-Imposed Challenge
Giusti began setting goals for himself early on that sprang from his curiosity. He grew up in a big, Italian family that loved eating and no doubt excelled at cooking. One who absolutely did was Aunt Zia Rosa. As the family sat gathered around the table one Sunday eating dinner, Giusti decided to deconstruct his auntie’s recipe. He failed, and it might be the only thing he didn’t nail, culinarily-speaking, his entire life. It was however, that failure that sparked a desire in him not only for cooking but accepting all challenges head-on. From that moment he became the guy who looks at a million hurdles and says “no problemo.”
The curious kid from the big Italian family grew into an unstoppable 15-year-old with a culinary dream. Giusti toured the CIA as an ambitious teen. (The Culinary Institute of America, not the federal spooks, although he would’ve crushed that too.) While checking out the CIA he took a week-long course that convinced him he was on the right career path. The appeal of finally dissecting his aunt’s recipe may or may not have played into this decision. We’ll never know.
The School of Killin’ It
Wanting to start immediately, he met with the admissions representative about studying there and was advised to go get a job in the restaurant industry. So said, so done. He began working for Chef John Guattery, then corporate chef for Clyde’s in Washington, D.C. Later, for his externship at CIA he worked at Auerole. It was his first gig in ultra-fine dining; crisp white tablecloths and a pressure cooker kitchen atmosphere. Add to that working with strange ingredients from around the globe he’d never seen before. How did he handle being challenged with these weird raw foods and a hyperspeed pace? He crushed that too.
At this point, Giusti is barely into his 20s and needing new challenges. You’ve heard of adrenaline junkies, right? His is sort of a conquer-junkie. And I say, why not? If you got it, roll it out. He travels to Italy to learn the regional dishes of his ancestors. Then back to D.C. to open a second location of Clyde’s at Gallery Place. After achieving that, he moves to Las Vegas to work at Guy Savoy’s two Michelin-starred restaurants. This is no small thing. Working at a Michelin-star establishment demands perfection from everyone, all the time, at everything they do. It was a demanding position. Never one to back away from an even taller and seemingly unscalable wall, he then returned to D.C. for an executive chef position at Restaurant 1789.
The man was just 24-years old. Let that sink in.
The Ultimate Career Challenge
After three years mastering the role of executive chef, Giusti was ready for something new to conquer; something big. We’re talking Michelin-star big, with the added challenge of being commonly referred to in culinary circles as the best restaurant on the face of the earth. That sounded perfect to him. The restaurant in question is Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s located on the gentrified island of Dokøen, historically known for ship docks and the Royal Danish Navy. The area has developed very quickly over the last 10 years into part of the “New Copenhagen.” Nearby in the area are the exquisitely designed National Opera House and the National Library for Architecture & Design. In Denmark, gorgeously designed things are commonplace and a national birthright.
The Standard of Absolute Perfection
He had the necessary background to begin working at Noma, even as young as he was. A tasting menu at Noma is 12 courses paired with wines setting you back around $500 a person. They have a waiting list and slipping the maître d’ a few bucks won’t help you. The menu radically changes three times a year to take full advantage of local fresh ingredients: seafood season, vegetable season, and game and forest season. Chef Rene Redzepi designs meals with the Danish spirit of painstaking perfection born from genius. Then you get to eat it.
Chef Daniel Giusti was born for this.
Giusti loved the international atmosphere of Noma. He was surrounded every day by the world’s most talented chefs. Each would challenge the next making everyone more perfect, like knives sharpening knives. He got to prepare the best food in the world in the best restaurant in the world. By 2013, he was selected by his predecessor to be head chef. But for Giusti, the challenge of being Chef de Cuisine at Noma was just an amuse-bouche.
Eating Challenge for Lunch
Shocking foodies and aspiring chefs around the world, Giusti announced he was stepping away from Noma to challenge himself again. He would be making school lunches. The collective gasp was palpable. Aspiring chefs want to be him. Foodies love him for his achievements. What would possess him to throw his success away to be a lunch lady?
He explained it this way: he wanted to feed more people, solve bigger problems, and contribute something meaningful. Feeding the Queen of Denmark, although an honor, didn’t feed his soul.
A Reformer with Heart
In 2016, Giusti started Brigaid, an organization whose mission is to transform school lunches from a punch line to a healthy, tasteful experience. Brigaid would partner with local school districts to teach staff about kitchen safety, basic chef skills, sanitation practices and efficiency. The goal is to give kids real, healthful food prepared well. He feels if anyone deserves to eat well, it’s our kids. The challenge was to create a meal for each child on a strict school budget. How strict?
Try $1.25 a meal.
To launch the program he partnered with a school district in New London, Connecticut, and was given the daily challenge of feeding 3,500 students. Developing menus using efficiency techniques from his extensive career, the challenge was met. And it hasn’t cost taxpayers a dime so far. Fundraisers and sponsors have eased the transition from testing to application of the program. The kids are loving the yummy food and trying dishes they never would have otherwise. Parents are no doubt thrilled about their children’s expanded palates. Ask any mom whose kid will only eat chicken fingers.
The Next Challenge
The Brigaid program has already expanded to the New York City school district in the Bronx. The plan is to eventually feed every kid in the U.S. a healthful, tasty, chef-prepared lunch. Last count there were 31 million children enrolled in schools across the nation.
That’s 31 million challenges. Enough to keep Daniel Giusti busy for a while. Check out his website at chefsbrigaid.com.