NEW LONDON, Conn. -- The students waiting for tacos are growing impatient. One furrows her brow in theatrical annoyance. Another nervously taps a black tray against his pants leg, as if counting down the seconds in the lightning-fast, 22-minute lunch period at New London High School.
Missing lunch can be a serious matter in New London, a once-prosperous shipping and whaling town in southeastern Connecticut, where the economy in the 21st century has run aground. So many kids qualify for free meals here that the entire student body, around 950 strong, doesn't pay a cent for breakfast, lunch or after-school meals. Some students can't afford to stop at Burger King after school if they miss lunch.
But the stakes are higher on this hot, damp Thursday afternoon in September, the first day of class. As principal William Tommy Thompson announced at each lunch period, this year marks the launch of a grand experiment at New London Public Schools: The all-magnet district has contracted with a startup company, Brigaid, to rethink the student dining experience, down to the dishware.
"We have plates this year, not trays, not Styrofoam," says Thompson to the first wave of students.
The kids break into spontaneous applause, as if they're starved for respect as much as for lunch.
Brigaid is not your typical school foodservice giant, like Chartwells or SodexoMagic. The company was founded by Daniel Giusti, former chef de cuisine at Noma, the Copenhagen innovator frequently cited as the best restaurant in the world.
Giusti, a former Washingtonian, has sworn off fine dining and moved into the school lunch program. His concept may sound familiar - hiring chefs to improve school food - but his company takes a more hands-on approach than previous efforts involving professional cooks. Every cafeteria in New London will be run by a full-time chef who will create menus, improve systems, train staff members and address the problems, large and small, that arise daily. In theory, each chef will become invested in a school, treating its students as customers who need to be satisfied, not just anonymous mouths that need to be fed.
"The whole point of this is that we're taking care of these kids," Giusti says. "We can never lose sight of that. It can't be about anything else."
When Giusti put out a call for chefs to join him in New London, he received 275 applications for six open positions. To start, he hired only two, because of the district's tight budget and because of his own high standards. Giusti wants chefs who can develop delicious recipes that adhere to the government's rigid nutritional standards and who consider feeding schoolchildren to be just as important as feeding the one-percenters at Noma. Too many applicants, it seemed to Giusti, wanted the school job so they could enjoy a normal work life, without the punishing weekend and evening shifts of a restaurant.
"They didn't have the conviction to do this," he says.
Giusti found everything he wanted in April Kindt and Ryan Kennedy, who followed radically different paths to reach New London. Kindt graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. (she was enrolled at the same time as Giusti, though they never met then) and began climbing the career ladder via hotel and independent restaurants in Arizona and Rhode Island. Her last job was as executive sous-chef at 22 Bowen's, a high-end steakhouse and wine bar in Newport, R.I.
Not formally trained as a chef, Kennedy has had a more modest career: He cooked at a fish house owned by former NBA star Vin Baker and, for eight years, has prepared soups and sandwiches at a market in nearby Old Lyme. It's not a résumé that immediately calls attention to itself, but Giusti liked Kennedy's accompanying letter.
"When he came and cooked in the final interview process, he showed that he can cook really well," Giusti says. "He also showed that he understands already, at a very early stage, how these [nutrition] guidelines work."
Kennedy now leads the kitchen at New London High School. Kindt runs the cafeteria at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. The district expects to place chefs in the remaining four schools later this year and now has the budget to hire them, says superintendent Manuel J. Rivera.
Rivera is the riverboat gambler who has taken a chance on Brigaid as part of his larger plan to overhaul a district that, until recently, was under state supervision because of its financial and management problems. Rivera's stepdaughter first told him about Giusti's interest in school food service; she was working at Noma when the chef de cuisine was formulating his exit strategy. Soon, Giusti and Rivera were trading emails, then phone calls. Initially, Rivera worried that Giusti might be naive about the difficulties he faced.
"Your first reaction is, 'What does this person really know about all the crazy nutritional guidelines and all the regs that you have to follow?' " says Rivera as he sits at a cafeteria table at the high school. "It was really clear to me after the first conversation that this was something really interesting."
The superintendent became convinced that New London would be the ideal location for Giusti's pilot program. The district is small and manageable - only six schools and about 3,300 students - and it had no contract with an existing food-service provider. Soon, others saw the value of Rivera's gamble, including the board of education, which authorized the superintendent to enter into a three-year contract with Brigaid. There was a caveat: The school district would cover only the six chefs' salaries (along with the usual supplies and ingredients). Rivera had to find outside revenue to cover Brigaid's fees.
Rivera eventually found the cash via Target Stores. The discount retailer has agreed to a one-year, $100,000 deal to sponsor Brigaid's work in New London.
Giusti's reward for landing the contract in New London is that he and his two chefs have to face down one of the most daunting challenges in American schools: They must prepare food for some of the pickiest eaters on the planet, while still following the government's strict limits on sodium, fats, calories and more. They must offer fruit, vegetables, proteins, milk and whole grains at every meal, and they must prepare everything at a cost of less than $1.35 per student.
Giusti and team figured they would rely on recipes previously developed at other schools while they focused on more pressing issues, such as staff training, equipment upgrades, kitchen organization and improving the quality of ingredients. But once Giusti, Kindt and Kennedy started testing the existing recipes, they quickly realized they couldn't serve that food. It just wasn't good enough.
So they developed their own recipes. It forced the chefs to create flavor in food without relying on salt, butter or fresh herbs, which had the potential to push them over budget or over the nutritional limits.
"A lot of the flavor here is going to come from dried spices, and it's going to come from vinegar, because we can't afford the sodium in a lot of cases, and we can't afford more expensive olive oils or fresh herbs on everything," said Kennedy.
The chefs' opening-day menu was a testament to their ingenuity and organization: They marinated, roasted and sliced-up chicken thighs. The spiced meat was then tucked into yellow corn tortillas with a homemade cabbage slaw on top. Pickled vegetables were available as a garnish, as was a jalapeño hot sauce that Kindt prepared. The chicken tacos came with a side of Spanish rice. Spanish brown rice, that is.
And that was just the entree.
Kindt's middle school team also prepared two sandwiches, including one with freshly roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, romaine and a mayonnaise flavored like stuffing. Kennedy's high school team was responsible for two salads, each served in individual containers, including a Mediterranean bowl with greens, chickpeas, cucumbers, olives, feta and a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. Each school would then share either sandwiches or salads with the other. The schools also split soup duties - chicken soup in Kennedy's kitchen, corn chowder in Kindt's - and shared the results. Both offered a "pineapple popsicle," a piece of fresh-cut fruit impaled on a stick. The chilled slice of pineapple had been brushed with lime juice and sprinkled with lime zest and cayenne pepper.
Despite all those options - and more - the high school students flocked to the taco bar. Giusti and Kennedy had tried to prepare for the rush by having nearly 100 plates ready to distribute, but those pre-made tacos disappeared fast, as 300 students flooded the cafeteria during each lunch. The line started to back up, and the staff was soon overwhelmed. Both Giusti and Kennedy jumped onto the line to assemble tacos, but even the pros couldn't keep pace with the heavy demand.
If the students were annoyed, they didn't express it in their initial reviews. Junior Carlos Pomales said his lunch was "way better" than last year's fare. He gave Giusti an A. Junior Victoria Vasquez assessed the tacos as better than those at Taco Bell, a comment that was considered high praise around her table. Several students were thrilled that they could grab a cup of lemon-and lime-infused water instead of the required milk, which they would have just thrown away.
There were, of course, the haters. One unidentified student called the tacos - well, a name that's unprintable. Another student, a senior who would identify herself only as Elizabeth, refused to try any of the chefs' dishes. She selected a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, perhaps the lone holdover from the pre-Brigaid era, when most foods were cooked from frozen or came straight from a jar.
Asked why she didn't try food prepared by a chef from one of the world's greatest restaurants, Elizabeth didn't bat an eye. "Not even Gordon Ramsay could get me to eat his food," she said.
Giusti had expected problems on the first day, and he and Kennedy were quick to address them at the high school. By day two, both chefs had figured out ways to speed up the lines. They added a third station for entrees, and they pre-sauced a whole-grain cheese ravioli, allowing the staff to produce plates at a much faster clip. The changes worked: At every lunch period, students moved through the lines swiftly and without complaint, with plenty of time to eat.
Still, Giusti was stewing at the end of his second day, obsessing over some negative student comments. He couldn't dismiss them as the rants of a finicky teenager or a mean-spirited kid. He wants nothing less than 100 percent satisfaction, no matter how unrealistic that is.
"I just spent the past five years working at a place where everything we did was unrealistic. We chased it every day," Giusti said about his time at Noma. "If you set out to say your goal is realistic, then you're not really too ambitious, are you? This is a life's work right here. It's a project."