The chef who left a brilliant career to feed poor students

From gourmet meals for $ 500, it prepares and offers healthy options for young children

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It has been named the best restaurant in the world by the institution World's Best Restaurants a few times (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014), while it is also awarded the coveted Michelin star. Chef and owner Rene Redzepi has opened up new horizons in world gastronomy, with the new Scandinavian cuisine he introduced to the public being one of the top trends in recent decades worldwide.

The reason for Noma in Copenhagen, the innovative restaurant that guarantees a unique gastronomic experience, in which to find a table a taster will have to book well in advance.

Each chef, therefore, who respects himself and has set the bar high for his career would like to work in it and apprentice next to one of the best chefs of his generation in the world.

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As was the case with Dan Justi, who five years ago was at the top of the culinary world as Noma's head chef, during whose "headquarters" the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars, managing to extract rave reviews and brilliant comments about his cooking ability.

Today, however, Dan has left this enviable, for many, gastronomic career behind him and is cooking for a much larger and much more demanding group of critics: thousands of students in the Bronx suburb of New York.

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So in January 2016, Dan felt the need to offer a lot more and influence the lives of many people with his knowledge of gastronomy, than preparing the $ 500 meals he used to make for Noma's select customers.

According to the New York Times, he began researching how he could influence the eating habits of American students through the National School Lunch Program, which provided free or low-cost meals to economically ill students.

Inspired by the momentum and vision of Michelle Obama and the teachers who participated in her effort to raise nutritional standards in schools, she returned to America in 2016 and in September of the same year founded the non-profit company Brigaid. His goal was to upgrade and redefine them school meals, placing professional chefs in their canteen kitchens and replacing processed foods with healthy suggestions. His vision today has taken shape and is being implemented in four public schools, where his company prepares meals for more than 2.400 students.

"Kids are so excited about the exciting new kitchen menu they can now enjoy with the help of Brigaid," said Chris Tricarico, Director of Nutrition Services for New York Schools, where the company of Dan, is the only outside company that prepares the meals of these schools from scratch.

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Justi knew from the beginning that his vision was not very easy. In addition to having to change the culture of the new generation of American students, he also had to find the right chefs who would be willing to go behind the kitchen of a school cafeteria, in place of a creative kitchen of a famous restaurant.

As he characteristically states, in fact, in the New York Times "They do not think of it as a real chef job, as it does not offer them much in their CV".

Besides, of course, the most worrying in all his effort is the number of students who eat the specific meals provided in schools. Only 55% of them for the first semester of the 2018 school year on the Morrisania campus, up from 66% compared to the same semester of the previous year.

However, both he and the school staff are not surprised by the numbers. Important for both sides is the fact that the daily routine of the students starts and changes, as two years ago the students preferred to eat only in the classrooms, while now everyone chooses the cafeteria area.

In fact, Samantha Wilson, Director of the Food Service for New York Schools, acknowledged that it would take time to change the preferences and habits of children, stressing that "we must recognize that the success of the project may be delayed. However, this is something that does not worry us as we are slowly managing to change the eating habits of children and this is very important ".

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since company of Justi is a for-profit business, balancing its finances but also its budget, is an equally demanding and necessary factor that must be taken seriously, along with culinary skills.

So in addition to the $ 475.000 the company has raised from private equity - including the contribution of Noma founder Rene Redzepi - Brigaid charges the schools it works with with annual consulting services. He receives about $ 110.000 from the New London school and another $ 295.000 from the New York schools, enough to cover the operating costs and salaries of the company's employees.

In return for the above fee, Brigaid assists in the training of chefs working in schools, while a company chef oversees each area, supervising school staff, assisting in the development of recipes and compliance with food safety standards.

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Another model that Justi is considering that could help change the eating culture in American schools is a 55-day program that teaches schools how to create their own kitchens, handle food safely, and cook a selected menu. recipes, which will be approved by the National School Meals Program.

In fact, to support this model of collaboration, Brigaid is collaborating with a non-profit architecture company, MASS Design Group, in a pilot study that evaluates the suitability of the existing school kitchen.

A personal bet for Justi himself, to recruit chefs directly from cooking schools and not already arrived chefs from various restaurants. "We could create new leaders in this field of school gastronomy, in which we do not meet anyone."

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Homemade food cooked with selected raw materials mostly stars in the company's menu suggestions. The raw materials are cleaned, cut and cooked by the staff, instead of just being heated in the oven, which is why those behind the kitchen are trained not only in cooking skills, but also in the ability to manage and process the raw material.

Fresh fruits such as strawberries, watermelon and pineapple have replaced the apple (previously flown) in the Bronx schools, with Justi considering it a small victory that students have now, on a daily basis, been included in their diet. the fresh fruit.

Finding the extra money, of course, for these new fruits that were added to the school menu was not easy, the chef reveals, as the federal government has a certain amount per school ($ 3,44 in the Bronx in particular). So, after spending on staff, equipment and transportation, the food budget is $ 1,25-1,35 / student, however, "even if you spend more, you ensure that these new additions will be consumed for sure".

In Justi's menu, the reheated fried chicken has been replaced by grilled chicken with Caribbean spices, yellow rice and boiled beans, fresh salad and melon from Australia, while the pizza is no longer frozen, but with homemade fries. , handmade dough.

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