Mojo pork shoulder with black bean salad and caramelized plantains; butter chicken with green lentil salad and a mango lassi; and roasted chicken with homemade biscuits, corn salad and watermelon. Those are some of the lunch items that a team of restaurant chefs are creating for DPS students as they head back to school.
So, parents, you might want to think twice before packing that PB&J with baby carrots.
Starting this year, Dan Giusti and his 12 Brigade chefs are working across the Denver school district, helping cafeteria staff to make lunches that kids want to eat. The chefs will be training workers on everything from knife skills to food storage. They’ll be organizing kitchens, making processes more efficient and, of course, putting food onto plates — at scale, at cost and meeting all regulatory health guidelines along the way.
“This is a true partnership and collaboration,” said Giusti, a former chef at Noma in Copenhagen (you may have heard of it as the world’s best restaurant) who founded Brigade upon his return to the United States.
“We are not running the school’s (cafeterias),” he added. “They have an infrastructure, a hierarchy … and we’ve created basically a training program over the course of three years that goes in conjunction with (DPS) food service’s five-year strategic plan.”
While the district has been making cafeteria food from scratch for more than a decade, its current goal is to improve the quality and consistency of that food across more than 150 schools, said Theresa Peña with DPS Food & Nutrition Services.
In order to make lasting change, each of the 12 Brigade chefs will be paired with a supervisor who oversees a grouping of schools. Together they’ll implement a training program that will loop in kitchen managers and cafeteria employees. The curriculum covers food safety and handling, kitchen organization and management, and finally, recipe development.
With the help of three large grants, the district brought on Brigade for a three-year contract that amounts to $3.7 million, Peña said. By the end of the program, their goal is to have more students eating school lunches, and a cafeteria staff armed with the skillset to make consistent meals, like at a large restaurant franchise.
“So many students and families have no idea about the quality of the food that we’re serving,” Peña said. “They still have this misperception that it’s, you know, mystery meat. What we need to do then is just up our game in terms of culinary skillset of employees and also recipes. If we can demonstrate proof of this in a large urban school district … that just creates such a significant opportunity not just for Denver kids but also for public school children all across the country.”
Peña and her team have been in talks with Giusti and Brigade since before the pandemic. Leading up to this first year, they’ve toured each school kitchen, interviewed cafeteria and administrative staff, and “counted everything down to the last spoon in each kitchen to do an inventory, to understand where they’re at,” Giusti said.
This year, he received 200 applications for 12 Denver-based Brigade chef positions. They came from a variety of chef applicants, including those working in top fine-dining restaurants across the nation. And the chosen group includes chefs from San Francisco and Washington D.C., as well as six local to Denver. They’ve worked in popular restaurants such as Cart-Driver and Olive & Finch. Now they’ll be cooking for a very different customer.
“People think of a chef in a school as this extraneous luxury,” Giusti said. “But, no, chefs are trained to cook food, organize kitchens; they belong in every food-service space. Once people realize it’s not about making fancy food, but making really good, thoughtful food, putting as much thought into the food as you can within the context of how we work, and in the process treating people properly … of course it makes sense.”
Giusti has faced his fair share of skepticism. After leaving the head chef position at Noma, he came back to the U.S. searching for a direction that would give him more purpose than, say, working in a fine-dining restaurant. He wasn’t interested in serving an exclusive clientele anymore, or creating more food waste or even opening “another sandwich shop” in places that really don’t need one.
“I want to work in a way that I’m feeding a lot of people, feeding people who need it and feeding people often,” Giusti explained. The idea to better institutional food clicked for him after seeing something in the news. And his goal is loftier than just fixing school lunches; he’s also interested in going into prisons and other, more neglected institutions.
“These places are here, the kitchens are here. They’re usually not very well organized, some of the equipment doesn’t work … there’s a ton of hardworking people, many of whom have never received proper training, and then the food,” Giusti said, “it’s being produced every day, it’s just a lot of it is not that great and could use some assistance.”
For proof of Brigade’s work so far, Giusti points to New London, Conn., where a smaller group of local chefs are starting their sixth school year in a district of around 3,500 kids. He’s also worked in New York City schools, and some in Richmond, Va. But DPS and its near-100,000 student population are Giusti’s biggest challenge to date.
Students, families and the community can watch over the coming weeks, months and years as Brigade and cafeteria staff slowly remake what goes into their lunch plates. Maybe the preparations will start to look different, the meals will get a facelift. Mostly, Brigade will be working behind the scenes so that students (and staff) at Abraham Lincoln are as happy with their food as they are at Northfield High School and beyond.
And at a time when the restaurant industry is facing major staffing shortages, when the career path of becoming a successful chef is certainly cloudy, perhaps Giusti and Brigade can serve as an inspiration for the next generation they’re feeding.
When he first went to work in Copenhagen, without a paying job offer (just an internship), Giusti said his mother thought “it was crazy.” She eventually got on board as Giusti rose from a temporary intern to the kitchen’s top position, “and then when I decided to leave to do this, she thought I was crazy again,” he said with a laugh.
People will often ask him, “Oh, you’re a chef. Where do you work, what restaurant?” And Giusti is proud to tell them, “No, I work in schools.”
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