#20. Dan Giusti is the founder of Brigaid, an organization dedicated to revolutionizing institutional food service in places like public schools and prisons. Before shifting his focus to improving food systems in these institutions, Dan was the Chef de Cuisine at NOMA, one of the world’s top-rated restaurants.
During the episode, Dan highlights the importance of self-awareness, humility, and recognizing one's strengths and limitations as a leader. He also discusses the significance of being comfortable with oneself and having the courage to start something new, as Dan did with Brigaid. Dan reflects on the physical and emotional aspects of his work, highlighting the significant contrasts between being a chef in a restaurant kitchen and an entrepreneur overseeing chefs in various organizations nationwide.
While the physical aspects of the job are vastly different, Dan emphasizes that the mindset remains similar. He believes in the importance of approaching every task with the mindset of striving for excellence, regardless of the context. Drawing from his experience at NOMA, Dan stresses that there should be no limit to the effort and thought put into preparing food, even in school kitchens. He encourages chefs to bring the same level of passion and dedication to every aspect of their work, no matter the circumstances.
Where to find Dan Giusti:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
In this episode, we cover:
(2:18) Dan’s background
(8:28) How Dan ended up at NOMA
(11:36) Comparison is the enemy of joy
(12:46) Dan’s leadership superpowers
(15:31) Why staying humble is important
(17:41) Restaurant vs school kitchens
(25:40) Why does Dan cook?
(28:56) External gratification and reviews
(35:33) Dan’s first experience at a school
(38:13) How Brigaid works with schools today
(40:52) What is the National School Lunch Program?
(43:14) Nutrition guidelines at school
(48:24) How Brigaid preps meals during the week
(51:18) What does the future of Brigaid look like?
(53:45) Why more chefs should work in schools
Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world-class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
My guest today is a chef that you probably know, but if you don't, I think it's incumbent upon all of us in the culinary industry and beyond to get to know what he's doing and the impact that he's driving in the us. Dan Giusti is the founder of Brigaid, an organization dedicated to helping institutional food service like public schools and prisons, create delicious, wholesome food and generally just thrive as food service operators.
And there's a catch here. Prior to founding Brigaid, Dan did not have a background in institutional food service. Rather, he was the Chef de Cuisine of NOMA restaurant, lauded, of course, as the best restaurant in the world for quite some time. Dan spent the majority of his career working in the upper echelon of fine dining.
That said, I think he actually values his leadership and management skills far more than he does his creativity as a chef. In getting to know Dan, I can tell you that he's also one of the most humble people you will ever meet. Dan and I talk about what it's like working in these school systems and where there's opportunity for improvement.
And more importantly, Dan continually praises the incredible people that are working in these food service establishments. On top of that, we discuss what it really means to be a chef and where our responsibilities lie, how reviews and rewards can sometimes have a negative impact on the motivations of chefs.
And we spent a lot of time talking about his plight to improve the food system in America. I'm really grateful that we have chefs like Dan using their craft to effectuate positive change in our food system. And I learned a lot, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
Maybe if we could start like how you got to Brigaid, because you started at Clydes, CAA, back to Clydes/ You probably worked at Clydes like 600 times before. You went to NOMA and then somehow from NOMA to Brigaid. So I would love to hear like, how did that happen?
Dan Giusti [00:02:18]:
I started working in restaurants when I was 15 and that was at Clydes of Georgetown in Washington DC. I happened to be going to high school in Northern Virginia at the time, so I became interested in cooking primarily because I come from a big Italian family where I have some folks in my family who are really good cooks.
I would consider them above your stereotypical good home cook for some folks, really your strong, strong cook. So I just became interested in it at a young age, and I went to a high school where people were really ambitious and really talking about career goals and colleges during Freshman year of high school.
So I started doing the same, and because of my interest in cooking, I thought, why not give that a shot? I had the opportunity to kind of go to a career fair. I met a representative from the Culinary Institute of America, so that woman told me that I should get a job, so I got a job. I can't really remember.
I think actually she knew the corporate chef applied and she put me in touch with him. At which point I was able to apply and then I got a job. So I started working in kitchens when I was 15. In that kitchen, I was primarily doing a lot of prep work the first year that I worked there. So just cutting things and whatnot.
And really, through high school I continued working at Clydes of Georgetown and worked my way up. And by the time I was a senior in high school, I was doing most of the work in that kitchen. So working at all the different stations on the line. And that restaurant is a very, very busy restaurant. I would say that stations that I worked at during certain services were some of the hardest things I probably have ever done in my career.
Working at the grill station during Saturday brunch was always interesting because I had a big grill and on each side, on the left side and the right side of the grill, I had four inch hotel pans with water that you would poach eggs. So on that station you would do burgers, toast buns, cook burgers to temperature.
And then you would also do eggs benedict. So you'd toast English muffins, do eggs benedict. You would get rocked. It was super busy. I learned a good amount in high school.
Josh Sharkey [00:04:22]:
How old were you? So you were, you were in high school still when you were working at a brunch station.
Dan Giusti [00:04:27]:
15 to 18. Yeah. So by 18 I was pretty good.I mean, in the grand scheme of things, not amazing, but I would say that if I worked that station now, I would probably struggle just the same. So, when I was a Senior, I applied to go to the Culinary Institute of America. I got accepted. I only applied to one school and then I went there. So really leading up to the CIA though, my kind of idea of working in restaurants was just, I enjoyed being in a restaurant.
I enjoyed the environment, I enjoyed cooking. By that time, I was involved with coming up with maybe like the soup of the day, I'd make the soup of the day and we'd get great feedback on it. And it was amazing to hear that positive feedback. So for me, that's what working in a restaurant was like.
It wasn't about, you know, I didn't really know much about famous chefs or fine dining restaurants. It was a little bit of a different time. This was in 2002. This is like the Food Network work was just kind of coming about, but it wasn't like now where, you know, you see all these Netflix shows and all these famous chefs.
But then I went to culinary school and it was like, literally, I swear it was like the day I got to the CIA, people were talking about where are you gonna go on your internship in basically like five to six months. And it was all about, all these restaurants, a lot of which were in New York City and where are you gonna do your internship and do you know who this chef is?
And it kind of boggled my mind because I wasn't familiar with all these places. But very quickly being an ambitious person, I was like, okay, let's start researching these restaurants. This is what it's about, I guess. Like, I'm gonna be successful as a chef. Like this is the direction I need to go. And so that's kind of really put me on this trajectory of starting to really think about a career in fine dining.
I did my internship at Oreilles in New York City and that was my first taste of working in a more kind of upscale restaurant. Was there for a few months for this internship and I really liked it. Went back to school, finished school, went to Italy for close to a year. Worked in a Michelin star restaurant there.
Really liked it. Came back from Italy, went to work for Clydes again, in one of their big restaurants that had 500 seats. So it was a different one and I really liked it. I liked that environment. I think I always liked the management component of working the restaurants too. So in a bigger restaurant there were a lot of people, there were systems and I think I really enjoyed that, but I still had this itch for fine dining.
So Clydes is not a fine dining restaurant. Part of the Clyde's restaurant group there is 1789 restaurant, which is also in Georgetown, which is their fine dining restaurant. So from that Clydes, I went to 1789 as a Sous Chef. From there I went to work in Las Vegas at Gisawa. That was in like the 2007 eight period where a lot of big time French chefs opened restaurants in Las Vegas.
So it was cool to go there. That was probably at the time, I mean Oreille was fine dining. Everybody was wearing laundered bragger jackets and then there was carpet in the kitchen and granite countertops. And that was my first kind of introduction to that level.
And I was like, this is wild. I didn't particularly enjoy living in Las Vegas, so I was really just there for a year. Went back to 1789. Now as the head chef, they hired me as the head chef and I was 24 at the time. And that restaurant had been there forever. And this is like a really well established restaurant in Washington DC that was very well known for Rack of Lamb and Caesar's salad and creme brulee.
And I came back like a cocky 24 year old from Las Vegas and I was like taking everything off the menu, changing the menu. And I would chalk up my three and a half year tenure in 1789 as maybe one of the biggest growing experiences in my life. It's like in terms of personal things like becoming an adult, I did a lot of things cuz I thought it made sense and I was trying to change a restaurant.
It didn't need to change and it was tough. It was a tough time for me. I think I just kind of missed the mark in a lot of ways and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about people and basically after about three years I was like, you know, I still had this itch. I was like, I want to go work in a restaurant.
I want to go higher, I wanna go see if I can work. You know, at the top they basically made a list of restaurants and it was, at the time it was NOMA, it was The Fat Duck and L’Atelier. I wrote to all three of them.
No, figuring I'm gonna write to these three restaurants, two of which were in different countries, was pretty ambitious. The Fat Duck, I never heard from them. L’Atielier was able to set up a kind of a two day trial to go there and then at NOMA I was able to kind of get in there and schedule like a two week trial.
So I went to L’Atelier. It wasn't necessarily my cup of tea. I mean, it was cool what they were doing. I just don't think it was like my style, like I didn't really fit in there. But I also was planning to go to NOMA a couple weeks later, so I went to Noma. I loved it. Basically went back without a promise of a job.
Went back to DC, quit my job in 1789, moved to Copenhagen, was able to get a job at the very bottom level upon getting to Copenhagen. And then really after about eight months, I was considering what my next step was because I didn't really think I was particularly doing a great job. You know, at the time, I think I was like 28, 29, most of the people there were like 21, 22 running circles around me.
I had been in a job that really became primarily administrative in 1789, so I was rusty, like I didn't think I was doing an excellent job. After eight months I was like, I went to the head chef at the time and I was kind of like, Hey, I don't know if you know, I'm doing a great job here, I think should I leave?
And he basically told me that he was leaving within the year and they wanted me to become the next head chef. So within eight months of being there, I was kind of told that this was gonna be my new role and you know, it was just as daunting as it was exciting. And then, you know, basically for the next six to seven months, they brought me up to the level where they wanted me to become the head chef, and I became the head chef and then held that position for three years.
Josh Sharkey [00:10:27]:
What was the gap of, like, you, so you thought you were doing terrible, they thought you should run the kitchen. What was it that you thought was going so wrong that they didn't?
You know, I think for me, I'm a very self-critical person and I saw a lot of people around me who knew a lot more than I did. They were more experienced than I was in terms of the ingredients we were using or different techniques. I think up until that point in my career, I never looked too much into maybe my abilities beyond the kitchen and whether they be organizational from a character perspective or leadership perspective, or a management perspective.
I don't think I ever really looked at it in myself. I do very much now. I've found that those are really my strengths. And in a place like NOMA, when you're there, you see all these people that are just so talented when it comes to food that it's hard not to just compare yourself to them in that sense.
And that's what I did. And by no means was I ever even close to the most talented person there. There were so many people that were so talented and incredible when it came to food and so creative, and that wasn't me. So I think for me, I thought I fell short in that sense, but in other ways, I think I had a lot of strengths. I think that's where it came from. They saw someone that could be in charge and could lead the kitchen. And I just didn't see that in myself at that point in my career.
Josh Sharkey [00:11:36]
Isn't that so interesting how we, I mean, the old saying, comparison is the enemy of joy, so much of what we struggle with is internal.
Dan Guisti [00:11:36]
It was crazy because literally, when I really think back at that moment, you know, I'd spent a lot of effort to try to get there, to try to get to NOMA, and then I was finally there and that first seven months or so was really hard for me. But it did fly by. And then to think, I remember like, man, I'm gonna have this conversation now. Like, should I even be here anymore? Like this kind of seemed silly. Like I was so in that mindset that things were not right and things weren't going well, and I just had no idea that in fact they really were.
And I just didn't see it at all. And when I look back in retrospect now, I feel like I'm so in tune to kind of what's going on around me and where I stack up and very self-aware and I don't know what it was, but at the time I clearly, clearly was not.
Josh Sharkey [00:12:38]:
Can you pinpoint something like leadership skills or management that are sort of some of your superpowers, that it's obviously such a big, it's a different skill set, right?
Dan Giusti [00:12:46]:
Like I think one of the things that I became good at and maybe just didn’t realize it as much as, I think first of all, it's this idea of being okay with an understanding that you don't need to be the best at everything. And if you are leading a team of people that in fact it's extremely important that you understand your own limitations and can really utilize and take advantage of the people around you and your team say, wow, okay, and not let your ego get in the way of that.
Like, it's very easy to be like, well, I don't wanna recognize that this person next to me is better at this than me. I don't wanna do that. But if you can't do that, then that means you can't really take full advantage of the people on your team. So if you have someone next to you who's better at something than you are, and you're okay with recognizing that, it's like, wow, okay, well I have a gap here.
I'm not very good at this, but this person's excellent at it, so let's utilize that. I think that's really important to be very self-aware, know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and know how collectively as a team you can do things and how that works. And I think that also allows you to determine and decide what maybe you need to work on.
Because I think sometimes as a leader you can get caught up in working on things that maybe you don't really need to work on. And then that kind of gets in the way of working on things that you actually do need to work on, that you are the only one that's gonna be able to provide that function to that group or that team.
So I think for me, particularly in a place like NOMA, that was really important because there were so many people that were better at a lot of things than I was, and I needed to recognize that. Not only recognize it, but embrace that. I think there's a big difference too, but recognizing it and then really embracing it and being like, okay, like I've got all these people at my disposal to make this happen on a daily basis.
And that's kind of how I do things till this day. It's just being self-aware and not letting that be a negative thing. Like I think it could be very easy to look at someone and say, wow, they're better at this than I am. It doesn't mean to be a negative thing. That's just, you know, because I'm a firm believer that we all have strengths, we all have weaknesses.The person next to you might be better at something than you are, but surely you're better at something than they are, and that's just how the world works. We all have our strengths. So I think embracing that and using that to your advantage is really important.
Josh Sharkey [00:15:09]:
Yeah, absolutely. And you said self-aware, but I think also like being humble.Like the first time we met, that's the first thing that I felt was like this humbleness to you, which you have to be, if you're gonna run a kitchen like NOMA, because everybody is at a really high level. And you have to be able to build something like Brigaid.
Dan Giusti [00:15:31]:
You gotta be humble. You gotta be humble. And I think to a fault, sometimes I can be humble. I think sometimes you do have to step up and you are in charge, you're a leader and people want that. People wanna see you. But I think for me, a big part of being self-aware, you have to be humble because you have to recognize the fact that there are people that are always gonna be better at things than you are.
The more comfortable you are in that, I think the stronger you can be as a leader, like the more comfortable you're. Because I think if you're not comfortable with that, you reach for things. You get involved with things or you're using brain power and you're getting frustrated about things that just waste energy. If you're comfortable with who you are and what you're capable of and you can just stand behind that, you're not wasting any energy.
Josh Sharkey [00:16:19]:
Yeah, a hundred percent. And I think the idea of just also being okay with it is so important. I don't think you could have started Brigaid if you weren't someone that was okay knowing that. It’s just like any sort of entrepreneur, I feel the same thing.
Like no business would ever be started if the first question was, is somebody more equipped than me to do this? Is someone better than me at X, Y, and Z? Because if you dwell on that, you would have never fucking started Brigaid.
Dan Giusti [00:16:54]:
You know, sometimes part of the strength of a person is saying I started it. I started Brigaid. I started it. No one else started it. I started it. That's a strength. To make a decision at a certain point in time and do it. That's a strength. And I think there are too many people sometimes questioning themselves. Like good for you. You made a decision and you went for it, and you did it. That's something to be excited about and something to celebrate, I think all in itself.
Josh Sharkey [00:17:27]:
A hundred percent. Let's get into Brigaid a little bit. And start, because we're gonna talk a lot about the school system, the people, the kitchens. There's probably a lot that's very different from working at NOMA or Clydes or anywhere like that to start.
Maybe what's the same, like what is the same about what you do today relative to what you were doing in kitchens, whether that's sort of like how you go about your starting a day emotionally, tactically, like is there lineups? Like what about what you do today is like the same?
Dan Giusti [00:17:41]:
I think in terms of like the physical aspect, the emotions I go through on a daily basis probably couldn't be more different than they are now in terms of working in a restaurant as a chef of a restaurant, of a singular kitchen versus being an entrepreneur who has chefs working in organizations all around the country. My role is very different as well. The organization is very different.
So in terms of the physical aspect of it, I don't think it could be any more different. I think a lot of the work I do is very much rooted in communication, speaking with people, meeting folks in kitchens, whether they're staff in kitchens or people running food service programs. I don't do a tremendous amount of hands-on work with food anymore.
It's not part of my role. But I think in terms of the mindset, I think it's very similar and that's a thing that I try to preach with our team. I try to preach as we look to get more chefs to join our team, this idea of when I was at NOMA. There was kind of no limit as to how good things could be.
The expectation was that they were right. There was like a right and a wrong. It was either as good as it can be or it wasn't good enough. And that was the expectation of guests. They would come in and their expectation, what was going to be the best failure of every in their life. And it was day in and day out, lunch and dinner, every single plate, trying to make them as good as they could be every single day.
And I think that thinking should be applied across the board. And that what I try to preach when it comes to what we do now is you might be making a sandwich, literally heating something up, but the only limit to how much thought you can put into that is comes from you. It comes from you. And only if you wanna decide that you wanna obsess about how to heat something up that's in a bag, then you can do that.
And the only reason not to do that is from you. So no one else. So we encounter this idea often that I hear from most people, to be honest. And I think it goes across not just food, but anything really. It's like if you're gonna spend a lot of money on food, then a lot of thought should be put into that food.
If you're getting lunch for free at a school, then maybe you don't need to put so much thought into that. That's again, just a decision. Now, of course, logistically and financially there might not be as much money to be able to put into paying people to spend as much time as they can spend on something in say a kitchen like NOMA, where you have a research kitchen always thing.
But individually, on a kind of individual basis, you put as much thought into something as you want. And that's something that I preach a lot. And I think that's how mentally I approach my days now, everything I do, it's kind of like, man, did we do this as good as we could have done it? Did we do this as well as we could have done it? And that's really kind of something I fell into when I was at NOMA. That was a mindset that was ingrained in me, and I don't think that will ever go away.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:00]:
Yeah, I mean, it's so interesting, like the paradigm shift that can happen, having good food, and not just schools, but any institution.
Dan Giusti [00:21:00]:
I mean it's the context. It's like, yes, the budget in a school is different, so therefore the food's gonna be different. It's different people we're feeding, we're feeding kids than we're feeding, you know, these traveled diners. But again, within that context, it's like you can still approach it the same way. And I think that's where there's a disconnect.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:29]:
Scarcity has usually bred the most innovation throughout time. And I think we talked about this last time, but for me, it reminds me of like when a cook comes into your kitchen, you know, within five minutes if they're a good cook and it's not because of something you tasted, it's the way they walk up to their station. It's the way that they open the box. It's how they put their side towel down and their right angles and it's the way that they like, you know, opening a bag. Those things all matter and that's actually usually indicative of someone that's a really good cook. I bet that there's probably a ton of people working in those schools that have been there for years that either have the same propensity or actually do that already.
Dan Giusti [00:22:05]:
A hundred percent. I mean, a lot of the folks we meet in school kitchens cook at home and they're great home cooks and they've just been, the way things are set up at the schools, it's not really conducive to them, like being able to show off what they can do.
And that's for a lot of reasons, that's not the school's fault. There's nutritional guidelines, there's budgets, they might not have the right equipment in place and so on, but we meet so many people and it's so cool and it's so fun when like you go into a kitchen and like you see someone doing something that they don't even recognize that like what they're doing is so like, it just makes you smile.
It's so exciting. A lot of the schools we work in, for example, do use kitchen towels and like we'll go into seven kitchens and you'll see all the towels and they've been folded perfectly in their order. It's so cool to see little things like that where people are working in a way that's just at such a high level and the best part about it is that no one's giving them recognition.
No one's asking them to do that. They just do it because that's the kind of person they are. No one's even told them that this is a good way to do something. They're just naturally doing things in a way that make sense to them and they're just sharp and I think of all the times working in restaurants, meeting cooks, young cooks who are like so ambitious and passionate, and I hate to say it, but like you would try to like really get some of these themes into some of these cooks heads and like, some people just don't think that way.
It's a real struggle for them to work in a certain way. And then we go into these school kitchens and you just meet people who very naturally are just doing things in a very particular way, and they're just very organized and they're very smooth with it. And it's very cool to see.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:58]
And it really does sort of bridge the gap of skillset to your point. Like there are a lot of cooks that you can ferment a piece of kohlrabi and put some dish together with that. But if you want to make a ham and cheese sandwich, it might not be good.
Dan Giusti [00:24:12]:
Yeah. It's crazy. It's, but I think, but honestly Josh, I think that comes down to a desire. There are people who are just disinterested in certain types of food. You know, food's a funny thing, and I've come to realize this, that I'm not gonna go off on a tangent, but it's like, really? I think it is very specific. The passion of cooking can be very specific. I think people say, I'm passionate about cooking, but I think when they say that a lot of people are passionate about cooking. They're passionate about cooking in a certain way. They're not passionate about cooking in general. They would be passionate about fermenting that piece of kohlrabi and making a dish out of it. But like you said, not passionate about assembling a ham and cheese sandwich the best way they could.
Josh Sharkey [00:24:48]:
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You know what, you went on a tangent, and this is something I was gonna ask you at the end, but I'm just gonna ask it now because I've been thinking about it so much over the last couple years. Really, why do we cook, right? Because for me, like I actually love the mise en place part of it and like knowing that I have this list to do and like, and my timing when this is gonna go in the oven and knowing there's a braise going overnight, knowing like I have to taste this sauce and like this thing is marinating.
Like that feeling, right? It's intrinsic. It is sort of still narcissistic. It's not as narcissistic. Maybe it tastes like my food. Do you like it? But we come from the same era, right? We started cooking in like 99, 2000, 98, whatever. We didn't do it because we were gonna go be a famous chef. That didn't exist back then. But we wanted something out of it that was gratifying, right? We wanted to be the best chef. We wanted to make sure people loved our food. And I think about it like, why over time? Why do we continue to cook? And I wanted to ask you, have you thought about like, why are you a chef? You could do a lot of things and now you're more than just a chef, obviously, but why? Why are you in this industry?
Dan Giusti [00:26:38]:
Yeah, it's a great question. I think, you know, I told my story and I didn't realize or this and that, but I think when I really think about it, maybe it's not like you didn't realize why you started cooking. I think it probably changes, like what brings you joy is cooking. And I think for me now, like I said, I don't do a ton of cooking per se now, but like in terms of working with food and being part of preparing food, I think I'm into a lot of that stuff too.
Like when, if it comes to actually working in a kitchen or if I'm cooking at home, like I get a lot of joy out of getting organized and putting things together in a certain way and I like that process. That's something that, you know, that's exciting to me. I think there was definitely a time where one of the most important things for me was like being a part of making food that people were impressed by.
That was for a good amount of time. That was something that was really important to me, that I was in a place where we were preparing food that people were blown away by. Wow, that's impressive. That was important for me. And so I think that changes and I think now what's most important to me, it's kind of like knowing that you have a certain experience and ability and like sharing that with someone.
Like that's important to me now. I think so much of the work we do is based in this idea of like whether experience of our company or usually it's really the experience of the individual chefs who work on our team and then being able to share that with staff in these kitchens and then inherently, that leading to food quality improving and it's sharing it.
It's like sharing what you know. To me that's really important to me and I think utilizing my experience to someone's benefit. And I think that can be done in a variety of ways. And I think for me right now, the way that we do that is through working with food service programs to help them reach their goals of improving food quality.
And that's how we use our experience to benefit others. I think, for me, the most important thing now. But when I worked at Clyde's, I think I genuinely just liked that it was a busy restaurant and I genuinely liked the idea of working in a busy restaurant where it was fast paced and you had to be organized and there were systems in place in those restaurants. To me that was extremely fulfilling. So I think you probably go through different stages of your career where cooking becomes fulfilling in different ways.
Josh Sharkey [00:28:56]:
That's so smart.There are different stages of your career as a cook. And to your point though, I think that it doesn't last forever. That sort of external gratification, right? So I think that's something for chefs and cooks to consider, especially when they consider possibly coming and working with Brigaid. Relying on external gratification to be happy is really dangerous. If that's what you're looking for, it's fleeting. Where I think that, you know, with what you're doing, there's an opportunity to like find joy by actually having an impact. And that's not fleeting. That lasts.
Dan Giusti [00:29:27]:
I think what I've come to realize is that, and you know, I've been more outspoken about this recently, is that the way this external gratification comes. I don't know, it's like basing your emotions on whether you're feeling good or not, and your success basing that off of an individual's opinion.
One person who might write an article or a group of people. That's tough. And you know, there's a lot of reasons why ratings are the way they are and there's a lot of reasons why top 50 lists are the way they are. And is that what you want to base your whole life on? And I think one of many things I've come to really love in the institutional space, it's a very transparent space for good or for bad.
If kids don't like the food, you know about it. There's really no nonsense at play. No one's getting caught up in anything. I get it to be a chef who puts blood, sweat, and tears into cooking. And you work so hard just for someone to write something that they wanna write or even these days, it's very easy obviously to have influence just by being someone who has following on social media to base everything that you do off of those opinions.
That's tough. That's a tough way to live. And I don't think anyone should be living a life where they're judging their own success and themselves based off of an individual's opinion. When I was at NOMA, I mean, I would live just searching and scouring reviews of the restaurant and knowing who had eaten in the restaurant on Instagram and what did they think.
And like I could handle that. I could handle it, but I also don't think that like that leads you in the right direction. Like if you're basing your future and where you want to go with your career and your life off of what you read, someone thinks about your food on Instagram. I don't know if that's taken you in the right direction and that's gonna ultimately lead to you being happy and being successful in your own mind, because that's what's most important, that you feel successful for yourself.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:27]:
There's a big difference between feedback, like curating the right kind of feedback as opposed to reviews or accolades. You know, because you need feedback. You wanna walk to a table and say, Hey, how is that? And here it's great, but you know, it's a little acidic. Okay. If I hear that a couple times. Food is sort of subjective, but some things are objective but you also can't really be truly like putting your food out if the way that you make decisions is based on an arbitrary review.
Dan Giusti [00:31:58]:
I'm assuming that's what a lot of people do. I mean people who are like, I want to get three Michelin stars and I'm not knocking people at three Michelin stars, but like, they're kind of like ways to go out and get that three Michelin stars. There are things that these people wanna see and people are working towards getting these accolades working in that direction.
I think a lot of chefs out there are very much influenced by that kind of thing. And I understand why not only because obviously that feels good, but also that's going to drive business. And if you start a business, you wanna drive business and it's like a cycle. And like, so I get it. I don't wanna knock chefs for chasing these things at all, but I just wonder, like at a certain point it would always kill me.
Like when I was at NOMA, Renee, who's the chef of NOMA of course, I would just look at him and I'm like, everything he accomplished in such a short period of time. And you know, we're sitting there and I would just sit there like, someone would say something on Instagram or someone would say something on our review.
And part of me, I was like, why does he even care? He has accomplished so much. He is like, in my opinion, the guy's, he's a genius. And to think that there's these chefs out there who have accomplished so much and worked so hard and are so talented. That someone in a very casual and really kind of reckless way can just write something somewhere and then that somehow has influence on this person's mind. It's pretty crazy to think about.
Josh Sharkey [00:33:24]:
Yeah, and I agree, like first of all, it's about intention. It's not wrong to have three Michelin stars. I think if you love this and you're devoted to it, I think that's incredible. It's about the right intent. But part of that, I think, is also human nature no matter what.
Yeah, Renee is a genius and his food has changed the way we think about food. Some writer who has never cooked a day in their life, who might even this be their first job. And that could impact. I think about Renee, just more about, it's part of human nature that once you're in that environment, it's tough. It's hard to sort of, you know, distinguish between the two. And if that guy was sitting in a room with Renee, he'd probably never say that.
Dan Giusti [00:34:11]
Sometimes I'll read an article and I'll look the person up and they're, you know, not saying there's anything wrong with people being young. But to think you can be like 23 years old. And like write a scathing article about a restaurant that could literally ruin a restaurant and maybe not have all the facts or not completely understand it, or not really have the experience to understand the full depth of what you're talking about. That's the world we live in. Like that's okay, like that works now. Like you can do that. Like if I'm a chef in a restaurant, that's a tough reality to wake up to every day.
Josh Sharkey [00:34:28]:
It's also not isolated to being a chef. Anytime we put ourselves out there, anytime we do something.. Elon Musk just changed the entire world yesterday, launching a rocket that ended up exploding but the ability to get to Mars is now possible. No one else is testing that. No one else is building these kinds of rockets. But the headlines are that a rocket explodes and it's a disaster. Yet we literally broke new ground. And you started Brigaid, there's probably lots of people, you know, maybe on the other side of the coin, they're like, school systems are never gonna change.
Why are you wasting your time? Who's this fancy chef trying to change the school system no matter what we do? You put yourselves out there, there's always gonna be people that put you down. But it's also like how you let it affect you. Choose not to be harmed and you won't be. We went off on a bit of a tangent. I didn't mean to go down the NOMA rabbit hole, but I'm glad we did a little bit and, maybe we'll circle back on it, but I wanna get back into Brigaid. I wanna learn some more about what goes on there. So you talked about starting at 1789 and you changed the whole menu.
I think as chefs, a lot of us have made this mistake where we step in and we just change everything without learning people's names or why this dish is the way it was. And is there a reason that customers keep ordering it? I'm sure you learned a lot from that. Fast forward, you start Brigaid. I gotta imagine you step into these kitchens in schools and you're like, okay, holy shit, there's a million things that I need to do. Did you start off that way, okay, I'm gonna take my time. Or did you jump in full force and then have to sort of learn the hard way again.
Dan Giusti [00:36:00]:
As much as I learned at 1789 and that experience, I definitely didn't learn enough. Maybe cuz the first interaction we had and when I first started Brigaid, I hired two chefs and we hired them. They started in June and we were getting ready for the following school year, which would've been the first time we'd ever cooked in a school. And our idea was, you know, we're gonna start slow. We don't really know how things work. So I think our intentions were right. We don't know what we're doing.
This is the first time we're gonna do it. Let's look at the menus. Let's see, maybe if there's some small stuff we can change. And the more we looked at the menu, ego got the best of us. We changed it. Basically the whole thing. Really not taking it into consideration. First of all, the fact that we had no idea what we were doing and really no idea what to expect when it came to starting in the schools.
We had no idea what kids were gonna enjoy, what they weren't gonna enjoy. We really had no statistical information from the previous years, which was on us. Because they had that information. Like some of these things that we were taking out, many of the kids really enjoyed, but it's like it didn't matter to us.
We're like, this isn't what we wanna serve to kids, so we're gonna just take it off the menu. We didn't take into consideration the staff what this would mean to them by making these changes and would it become overwhelming. And so, needless to say, we did all these things and we started the school year and it was a bit of a disaster.
The one place where we were successful was we were making meals that we could, and we weren't even doing it consistently, but we could put together a few meals and take a picture of them and show them on social media. And people thought that was cool. People were like, wow, it's pretty amazing that you can make this meal from scratch for $1.25.
That's where we were successful. A lot of the food we were serving, the kids didn't enjoy. There were a lot of kids who depended on meals who were choosing not to eat because the food that we were serving at the time didn't feel comfortable with the staff and felt very overwhelmed and that was a lot for them. So really, anything that could have gone wrong, I would say went wrong because we did not really think it through and we just wanted to come in as chefs and kind of do what we thought was best.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:04]:
Look, I think we probably all would have done a little bit of that. How does it work today when you step into a new school?
Dan Giusti [00:38:13]:
Yeah, so now it's so different. The first step, we do what we call an assessment. So whether it's two schools in a school district or 150 schools in a school district, we go to every single school. We look at the equipment, we look at the size of the school. We basically try to get the gist of the whole program collectively.
You know, in a lot of these school districts, you might have one school that has all the equipment in the world and another school that has a warrant and that's it. So in order to really be able to give proper suggestions and advise, we need to understand the full extent of what's going on. So looking at all the kitchens first, understanding the labor models, understanding the menus, interviewing people when they're available.
So understanding what's successful, what's not successful, and then really moving into the most important part is this is your program. So speaking to X School district, this is your program. Where is it right now? In your mind? What's going well? What’s not going well? What are your goals for this program?
So everything we do, we do in the context of what they're trying to get to. So, you know, in the beginning I did have this idea of Brigaid. We are gonna have this model where we're gonna implement this model across the country.
This is how it's gonna work. So we quickly went away from that. Once we realized that every community is different, every food service program is different, and who am I to go into whatever part of the country and say, this is how you should feed your community. This is how you should work with your staff.
Now obviously, we have a certain level of expertise and obviously there's a certain level of expectation from Brigaid and our chefs to advise on things. That's what we get paid to do. But it's always done by asking questions first. What are you trying to achieve? Do you like serving this food? Is this particular meal something you're excited about?
It is perfect. That's great. Let's keep it on the menu. This is something you're not excited about. Well, let's find an alternative to it, and really try to gather as much information as possible. That's why so much of what we do is based on the chefs we hire. We don't have some slick model that we're trying to implement.
That's like a cookie cutter thing that we put in place in different districts. It's the people we hire, chefs that we feel are strong chefs that have the right experience and the right background when it comes to working in a kitchen, but they also have the right character to go into this situation as a representative of an outside organization and to work with the food service programs, help them reach their goals.
And that can mean very different things in very different places. Some school districts we work with really are already doing a lot of scratch cooking and they really have a lot of great systems implemented. Some don't. They're really at those beginning stages. So of course where we start can be very different from place to place.
Josh Sharkey [00:40:52]:
Yeah, absolutely. If you don't mind, I'm just gonna ask some random questions just cause I'm just curious, how's the government involved? Are you subsidized at all and are there regulations? Do you have to get approvals for the food that you're cooking?
Dan Giusti [00:41:04]:
Yeah, so basically in a nutshell, the way it works is there's what's called the National School Lunch Program, and that's administered by the USDA, federal level. So if you're a school district, which most public school districts participate in the National School Lunch Program, if you're a school district participating in that program and you serve a meal that meets specific nutritional guidelines, these guidelines are given to the school districts. You get a certain amount of money back from the government.
If you do not meet those guidelines, you don't get that money. So basically that's how it works. So all of these school districts participate in the National School Lunch Program, follow these guidelines. There is a system in place to prove that they're following these guidelines. So there's a good amount of administrative work that needs to be done and basically proving that you're following nutritional guidelines, that you're documenting how many meals you're preparing, you're documenting how many meals you're actually serving.
This information goes to the government, usually first through the state. And then you get a reimbursement back from the government. So the way it works, and this is an important fact that I think most people don't understand, is you have a school district, and that school district has its own budget and its own fund, but in the vast majority of cases, that money never touches the food service program.
The vast majority of cases, the food service program's budget is entirely based off of that reimbursement from the government that is specifically for food service. So when you hear these arguments and sometimes where people are like, well, does it make sense to use money for food or for new computers? It's really not the same thing. It's really budget. And usually the only time the general budget of the school district will support the food service program is if they absolutely have to, meaning that really the food service program is run like a business. If they're not keeping up and they're losing, then the kids still need to eat. So then the general fund will put money into it, but you're really kind of on an island with that set amount of money.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:54]:
So there's guidelines, which means there's like arbiters of who those guidelines are. Are you thinking about, or maybe you are already getting involved with what those guidelines are, changing them, if there's things that you feel like that you believe could be changing.
Dan Giusti [00:43:14]:
Yeah, I'll say I haven't been very involved and at this point I feel like we as an organization should be more involved and should be more vocal. I guess my thinking on it always has been like I never wanna get to a point where we're spending more time thinking about those kinds of things than we are thinking about the food that we're preparing for kids today.
So there's no question that these changes take a long time and we should be involved. We should be more in that conversation of making changes. I think for the most part, the guidelines themselves aren't outrageous. I think they can always be better. They can always be in a very simple way. Where things are going now and one of the, kind of the most restrictive guidelines that makes it difficult to make delicious food is the sodium requirement.
So they're actually looking to reduce sodium further, the allotment of sodium further, which quite frankly, makes it difficult to make a meal that kids will eat and enjoy eating. So yeah, we should be more involved in that. We're not super involved in advocacy work or policy work.
Really would say that our main focus has been really just, I don't wanna say head down, but kind of head down like in the schools, work districts. That being said, a lot of the districts we work with have, like their food service director, someone who is very involved in these conversations. And I will say that it's probably, to be honest, more effective for them to be involved in those conversations because they represent a school district, whereas we represent a private company through proxy, we are involved in the conversations.
You know, obviously we have conversations with these folks in terms of what's working, what's not working. But it's definitely a big thing and there's a lot of money at play as well. If you can imagine, one of the parts of the guidelines is we have to offer five components for a meal. You have to offer a protein, you have to offer a grain, you have to offer a fruit, you have to offer a vegetable, and you have to offer a milk. So I ended with a milk cuz that obviously it tells you something there that is like part of what you have to offer. So there's a lot of business at play, a lot of things happening there.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:21]:
Yeah. It's interesting. The salt one's a tough one. I mean, my kids, they eat Maldon salt like it's candy.
Dan Giusti [00:45:27]
Well it's tough because you end up in a place where you just wonder like, look, I'm not the most healthy human being on earth, but I've turned out well. Like sometimes I ate sweet things as a kid sometimes, you know, I ate candy, I ate things that have enough salt to make them taste good. And I do think we are going down a road with some of this food sometimes where I'm just wondering like, is this necessary? There is a problem across the country, you know, there are significant health problems across the country, but is it completely related to some of the adjustments that are being made? I don't know if one really knows.
Josh Sharkey [00:46:05]:
Yeah. Well, I mean, you said something the first time we spoke that essentially like your primary goal is make sure the kids are eating.
Dan Giusti [00:46:12]
That's a good point, Josh, because I think when people think of the National School Food program, the conversation is primarily about nutrition. And don't get me wrong, when we're feeding kids, we want that to go hand to hand. But good nutrition, of course we do proper nutrition. Of course we do. But that oftentimes the case, that's how it happens. But if we do need to discern between making sure a child eats versus the nutrition piece, then we'll do it.
For example, cereal's always a great one. Kids really want to eat cereal. You know, the name brand cereal that all kids like is the Cinnamon Toast Crunch and these things and you know, are they the best things for you? No, they're not. But if it's a difference between a kid eating breakfast who maybe has not eaten since the day before at lunch at school and not eating breakfast, then in my opinion, then that's okay.
There are plenty of folks out there who will tell you that it's better off. They don't eat that at all. And I completely disagree with that. And I think that's coming from a place of ignorance to be completely honest with you. Because if you see kids who aren't eating, it's pretty hard to say, oh yeah, you know what, I'd rather them just continue to not eat, than eat cereal with a little bit of sugar and like, it's just kind of crazy.
Josh Sharkey [00:47:26]:
It is a tough conversation. I mean, I'm a parent of two children and I'll tell you my son, there's so many things he won't eat. I would kill for him to eat some cereal, over not eating breakfast because yeah, there are like breakfast and lunch will pass by where he just doesn't wanna eat any of it. And I'm like, just please eat something. I'll take Cinnamon Toast Crunch over nothing any day.
Dan Giusti [00:47:45]:
Sometimes I'll post things on Instagram. We made a cinnamon roll from scratch and served it for breakfast. And people are like, well that's great, but is that really what we should be serving kids? Where do we get to a place where eating a cinnamon roll every once in a while was like something we can't do. I think that's very odd to me.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:04]:
Obviously it's all moderation, but either way I'm sure it's a lot of stress. So, okay, a couple more, even more random questions and then I'm gonna move on here. So it's Monday to Friday. How do you operate a kitchen where everything is done on Friday after school. I mean, nothing happens on the weekends.
Dan Giusti [00:48:24]:
Yeah. It's tough mentally. It’s an interesting thing. I mean, for sure you're planning in a way where, first of all, Monday's menus are just significantly easier than the rest of the week. One thing that's actually very different that we've seen in school kitchens than say a restaurant kitchen is, it's a pretty common practice, no matter what's going on, it's Tuesday. This is what we're serving for lunch. We're gonna make it today. It's Tuesday and that's it. There's no advanced prep.
So a big thing that we work on with school districts is like, okay, like Monday's menu is light because it's Monday and we just came out of the weekend and nothing really prepared in advance. So Monday's menu is lite. We have the afternoon to kind of get ready for Tuesday or Wednesday, and Thursday. There's no days that are, like, what you'll see in a lot of school kitchens is there's days that are crazy busy and it's super chaotic.
And then there's days where nothing's happening. And we try to get everybody to even that out. So yeah, it's different. And that's something we see actually often when we do assessments in school districts. We're like, the staff will tell you, they're like, don't know why the director made this menu on Monday, it's too hard to come into.
And they're right. It's like a difficult menu to come into on Monday. There are things that, for example, like if we're doing baked goods and things like that, we'll put baked dry ingredient kits together. So on Friday afternoon it's a little slower because we're not getting ready for the next day of service.
So it's like, okay, well on Monday we're baking muffins. Let's get all the dry ingredients weighed out, measure out whatever we can do to get ahead. But it is definitely, it's difficult. I mean, anybody who's worked in a restaurant where it's closed two days a week, it's a lot to come into. So it's a little bit of a beast.
Josh Sharkey [00:50:00]:
And imagine like a lot of what you have to figure out is. What is most important is just that they can actually execute it more than like the actual food that you decide to make is like, can you execute this every day? Yeah. Sort of like the notion of like, you know, it's more important what you can do consistently every day than one amazing thing you can do once, once in a while.
Dan Giusti [00:50:20]:
And then to compound that theme back, this idea that in any school district it could be a three school, school district, that the capabilities from school to school are very different. So basically we're always looking at the lowest common denominator. So it's like, okay, if there's 10 schools in the school district, this school has a tilt skillet.
This school has a kettle, this school has a six burner stove, but this school only has two ovens. So like that's the lowest common denominator. We know that every school has two ovens. So whatever we're asking the staff to prepare needs to be able to be prepared in two ovens. So much of what we do is figuring out too, like cross the board how things can be made and how they can be made in a way that's not only consistent but that's not gonna be so burdensome for the staff.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:00]:
Yeah. But man, you must be learning so much. This is a long play. Obviously what you're doing is going to be years and years of working on this. But that's what innovation is, right? Like what we can do today is always limited to like the technology or the capability we have.
And then as that sort of utility delta increases, you can do more. But you're learning like the constraints here. I wanna ask you what you think about the future of Brigaid and what you're doing? And also just generally, and I might be sort of assuming some things here, for schools and hospitals, some like office buildings cafeterias, why isn't it like good food oftentimes? And is Brigaid here to change that?
Dan Giusti [00:51:36]:
I think I've said it before that I think that there are a lot of limitations within institutional food that make it challenging. And I think that's a big part of the reason why it is the way it is. But I also think a big part of the reason the way it is is because people who are trained to cook, trained to train other people to cook who are chefs do not work in the space.
And more about the people who don't work in space than the people who do. Now we meet all these amazing people all the time working in institutional kitchens. They're usually not chefs. The people who run the programs are usually not chefs. They're usually people with more of a dietetics background.
So it's not to them at all. They're great people, hard working people, but most of them are not trained to run in kitchens and trained to prepare food. So again, in my opinion, and this segues into the answer to your question really, is that like if more chefs, more of the right chefs, meaning chefs that have the right character to do this work, they're patient, they don't have egos and so on, getting to the institutional food space, inherently the food will be better, whether they're working for Brigaid or not.
One of my goals, of course, is that we can grow. As big as we can grow and get as many of the right chefs in place in these positions as possible. But another one of my goals is just to change the narrative behind what it means to be a chef in general, or maybe a successful chef. Like being a successful chef doesn't just mean to work in fine dining.
It can mean a lot of things. And I think I'm trying to get as much information out there as possible. What does it mean to be a chef in a school district, and what does that comprise of? And you know, and trying to entice more chefs to at least consider it. I'm not trying to persuade anyone to do this, I think they should make a decision to do it on their own.
But again, that's such a goal of mine. It's just to get more chefs in the space. And like I said, I think inherently that will, there's no way it wouldn't, that it would lead to food changing in this space. That would also, probably the more chefs in this space would probably also lead to more questions being asked about the guidelines that exist, which would also lead to change and so on. So I think about having that kind of shift. I think it would be huge. And it will take time, but I really confidently feel like it will happen.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:45]:
Yeah. I have to say, I mean honestly, generally Dan, like I've been in the restaurant industry my whole life. I'm so grateful that someone like you is taking this on because it does need a change. And I think you've started a flywheel, to your point, more chefs get into this system. The more questions get asked, the more things start to slowly change. And it's not gonna happen overnight. It's gonna be a 10, 20 year thing, you know? But that flywheel has started now, and I think that part's just in, you know, incredible. It's inevitable now. I think as long as this keeps going. So like with that, how do chefs get involved, whether it's Brigaid or not, but you're here, so like, let's just say with Brigad, how do they get involved with Brigaid?
Dan Giusti [00:54:36]:
I mean, with us, you know, we have social media. We don't do a lot of promotion beyond social media. We have our Brigaid account on Instagram, and I have my own personal account, which is just my name. That's how we mostly stay updated on what's happening in our world, whether it's new projects or hiring. We have been consistently hiring for the past several months.
We will continue to hire as we have several positions available now. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are only hiring full-time chefs. Many people express interest in getting involved in some way or another, but we are currently unable to accommodate that.
Having said that, the full-time positions we offer are excellent with competitive pay and great benefits. If you're interested in this topic but don't want to work full-time, I encourage you to learn about it. Educate yourself by reading articles, understanding nutritional guidelines, and exploring related aspects. Many chefs, especially those with children, are interested in why certain foods are served in schools, so understanding the program can be beneficial. It's not about expecting all chefs to join this cause when I talk about it, I simply believe that chefs who are personally affected by these issues, particularly those with kids, should have knowledge about the program and why it operates as it does. They can offer valuable insights and opinions.
Additionally, if we are considering hiring someone, it's preferable to find individuals with more experience who can step into a kitchen and effectively manage it. While our long-term goal is to train newcomers to the culinary world, currently, we are seeking chefs who already possess culinary skills and kitchen management experience. Although we provide extensive training for our team on leadership, mentoring, and coaching, we are not in a position to train individuals in cooking and running a kitchen. Thus, we are looking for experienced professionals, and we compensate them accordingly.
A lot of hiring is taking place in California. Positions are available from the Los Angeles area to Monterey and the Bay Area. We also have openings in Fresno. Additionally, we are currently hiring in New York City. These positions are regularly updated. We have consistently advertised and offered positions for the past two years without any gaps. We will continue to advertise job opportunities. To apply, interested individuals can visit chefsbrigaid.com/joinourteam or find the application links on my Instagram account (@Dan.Guisti) or Brigaid’s account (@Brigaid).
Josh Sharkey [00:57:52]:
Thank you for taking the time to join us. Is there anything else you would like to share with chefs, cooks, or the general public?
Dan Giusti [00:57:58]:
I would like to emphasize the importance of being open-minded. I wasn’t always this way. Working in this field has changed my perspective significantly. Initially, I had the vision that we would change how others think about food, which now seems a bit embarrassing. In retrospect, I've undergone more personal growth in my own understanding of what constitutes good food than anyone else I've encountered. It's crucial to be open-minded and acknowledge that everyone has their own definition of what good food means. There is no right or wrong answer. As a chef, especially if you aspire to feed a large number of people, it's essential to be receptive to different perspectives
Josh Sharkey [00:58:54].
Absolutely, and even when discussing the role of a chef, it's important to consider those individuals who have been working in the field for 20 years, who are dedicated, organized, and genuinely care. They embody the qualities of a chef.
Dan Guisti [00:59:07].
It's essential to remain open-minded about the title and the role itself. I used to hold the same narrow mindset. If someone had told me during culinary school that I would work in a school or institution, I would have found it laughable. But I couldn't have been more wrong. It's an incredible career, whether you're a chef leading the way or a staff member in a school kitchen. The work is vital, fulfilling, and requires the same skill set. There's no reason to perceive these things differently.
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit www.getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Keep innovating. Don't settle. Make today a little better than yesterday. And remember, it's impossible for us to learn what we think we already know. See you next time.