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World-renowned chef to bring talents to New London schools

New London — Just a year ago, Daniel Giusti was head chef at the prestigious Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world, where it was not unusual for a patron to fly in for lunch on a private jet. 

For the past several weeks Giusti’s been in New London walking through the school system’s kitchens, speaking to staff and students and looking over menus in preparation for the launch of an initiative called “Chefs in Schools Program.”

In collaboration with the school system, Giusti’s newly formed company, Brigaid, plans to help hire and retain full-time chefs for each of the district’s six schools in a first-of-its-kind initiative.

They are promising higher standards of food preparation, quality meals and creation of an environment “that embraces cultural diversity, nutrition, developing healthy habits and benefits in a multitude of areas.” 

On Wednesday, the Board of Education met with Giusti, 31, and authorized Superintendent of Schools Manuel J. Rivera to enter into a three-year contract with Brigaid, effective July 1, 2016.

Rivera called it “another innovative and unprecedented initiative consistent with our overall plan to transform public education for the southeastern Connecticut region.”

The school system is undergoing a transition into the state’s first all-magnet school district with several schools already online and funding approved for the construction of two new schools in the coming years.

“Brigaid will help us achieve new levels of excellence in our food services, which speaks to our overall mission of continuously improving the district’s service to our students, families and community at large,” Rivera said.

Giusti said he will be seeking chefs who are “passionate and motivated,” something he said will in turn help to motivate food service staff at the schools.

“One big piece of this for me is to get these people excited about their jobs,” Giusti said.

Once a chef is in place at each school this fall, he said, the chef will start to implement changes in the daily menus and in the food preparation, eventually offering educational opportunities and meeting with student and community advisory boards.

The cafeterias serve about 3,300 students a day.

“By having chefs present in the school kitchens on a daily basis, I hope to introduce a model that not only provides students with quality meals but also furthers their understanding of what they are eating through basic food education,” Giusti said.

Giusti said “Brigaid is looking to make people rethink the whole experience of eating in school,” and exploring not just new food choices but things like the design of food trays or the layout of the cafeterias. He said it could eventually lead to a new network of food suppliers.

Funding for the first two years of the program will come from a combination of external funds.

Rivera says he is confident the program can be funded through individual donations and support from foundations.

The district will pay Brigaid, a for-profit organization, about $130,000 for each of the first two years.

Additionally, each of the new chefs will be paid a $60,000 salary and become school employees.

In the third year, Rivera and Giusti said the program strives to be self-sustaining with an influx of additional federal money coming in with the increase in food services.

Rivera said the cafeteria will be open longer hours and serve more breakfasts, lunches and suppers, with all free lunches funded at different rates from the federal government.

Estimates show that the service of after-school dinners will increase from 23,250 served last year to 280,000 by 2020.

Rivera said he intends to have a funding source in place before he signs a contract.

The program was met with enthusiasm from school board members who said the initiative will benefit the children while putting New London’s school in the national spotlight.

Giusti said through the program he intends to tackle some larger issues such as food waste and federal policies related to school food service.

How Giusti landed in New London has a lot to do with Rivera, Giusti said.

When he was in Copenhagen and announced his intention to start a school food service initiative, he was approached by Rivera’s stepdaughter, who was at the time working with a nonprofit organization founded by Noma’s owner that works to expand knowledge of food.

She told Giusti to talk to Rivera. He did.

“I reached out said ‘Hey, come to our place. We have a lot going on in New London. We’re in a time of change and something like this would reinforce the high standards in the things that we do,’” Rivera said.

Giusti said New London was his first stop in a countrywide tour to find the right school district to start his initiative.

“It was my first option, but in the end it was the best place to go,” Giusti said.

g.smith@theday.com

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