"It is great to have someone who you know is your friend but has no problem telling you that you are wrong or something you have cooked is shit."
April 4th, 2012

Daniel Giusti Chef

Daniel Giusti is a chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, an institution consistently ranked as the best in the world. Before that he was cutting his teeth as executive chef of 1789 in Washington, D.C. And before that? Before that, Daniel was flipping burgers as a teenager. He's a young dude and a true Horatio Alger. We were thrilled to speak to him.

You dodged a rather large post-adolescent bullet by discovering your calling at the tender age of fifteen. But you didn’t obtain a degree at the Culinary Institute of America until 2004. Tell me about what happened in between. Did you know that food was your destiny, or did you have doubts and pursue other things?

I got a job when I was fifteen at Clydes in Georgetown. I worked there more or less full time throughout high school. It was definitely my focus. My mom could tell you that work for me was much more important than school. I had posted a 3.5 GPA in high school through my senior year taking AP classes, so for that last year I opted for an easier schedule and worked more. Really I worked as much as I could. I had applied and been accepted to the Culinary Institute of America early my senior year, so I knew where I was going and what my focus needed to be. I worked very hard that year trying to prepare myself for school. When I arrived at CIA in the summer of 2002, I was very ready to go. Needless to say, I never lost interest in pursuing cooking as a career once it crossed my mind at age fifteen. For me though, the only avenue that was acceptable was to finish high school with a respectable GPA, and then go to an accredited culinary school. Others take more direct approaches, no culinary school, maybe even leave high school early; but like I said, that was not for me. It just took that many years from the time I made my decision to the time I graduated from CIA. It was as fast as I knew how to do it.

Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose to go to an accredited culinary school as opposed to more of what you call a “direct approach”? Restaurant work seems like one of the last bastions where perseverance and skill alone can bring success. Was your degree obtained with a specific goal in mind, or did you just want to go to college?

Well to be honest with you, there were two factors. One would be the influence of my mother. She supported me 110 percent to become a chef and helped me in every way possible, driving me to and from work, taking me to career fairs, allowing me to miss family functions to work. With that said, as a 15 year old making a big decision to pursue a career in cooking, just going to work in a restaurant after high school did not cut it for her. I was a hardworking student at that point in my life, so the only avenue I feel she found acceptable was a formal education in the culinary arts. The other factor in all this was probably one that influenced my mother as well. The first people I had met in the hospitality industry (chefs in restaurants, chef instructors at vocational schools, CIA admissions representatives) all had gone to school. That’s all I knew. At the age of 15, it did not occur to me to do anything else but to go to culinary school. Thinking now at this point in my career, I would say 99 percent of the people I have had the most respect for as chefs have all gone to some hospitality/culinary school. Obviously some of the best chefs ever did the deal without formal education, but I think it takes a special type of person and more importantly the right restaurant/restaurants to provide the right learning experience to provide a great base of knowledge. I am happy with the decision to go to school in that I learned quite a bit in only two years and more so because I made a lot of great connections which have really helped me in my career.

School aside, chefs train under other chefs, in a very old-school system of tutelage. Who was, or were, your favorite teachers, and what was some of the best advice they gave you?

I have worked for some great chefs and people. But more specifically, I’ve worked off and on for a guy named John Guattery. He has been more of a mentor than someone who taught me individual points of cooking. He has given me quite a bit of advice about my career path as far as where to work next, and why, as well as life in general. He has always been there to answer questions and be super critical about my ideas. It is great to have someone who you know is your friend but has no problem telling you that you are wrong or something you have cooked is shit. I worked for him for a total of eight years off an on and left three times during the period to go work elsewhere, and each time I left he supported me because he knew that it was good for my career development. That was the best unspoken advice I have ever received: support to leave a well-paid, comfortable job to take on one that does not pay very well and is extremely difficult for the sake of learning more.

Can you tell me about one of these instances where you had to choose between keeping the high-paying job (and professional stasis) or take a leap of faith (and drop in salary) for the learning experience?

Well, my last move fits that description to a T. I was an executive chef at a reputable restaurant in D.C. with a lot of decision making ability and also getting paid very well. I set my own schedule, and I was the boss. I dropped all of that and moved to Copenhagen to work at Noma. When I arrived here, I had no paying job lined up; I was a stagiaire, which is kind of like an intern. I was at the very bottom. Now I have acquired a job as a chef de partie which puts me a little further up but still very far from the boss. But I am getting paid. Still though, the reason for dropping the solid job in DC was for the experience, and as of now I consider it the best career move I have ever made.

So let’s talk about Noma, whose specialty is a genre entirely of their own making — Nordic cuisine. What exactly is Nordic cuisine?

It has actually been defined in many places now, but I will give you my interpretation of it. First of all, Nordic cuisine in Denmark utilizes only Scandinavian ingredients. I presume if you wanted to adapt “Nordic cuisine” elsewhere, you would use the ingredients indigenous to that place. To me, the larger role of vegetables in the cuisine is the biggest difference. The focus is actually on vegetables rather than meat. This is obviously different than many Western cuisines. After vegetables, seafood plays the next largest role, and then meat as the least prevalent staple. Another large difference is the absence of food that is overly sweet. Desserts in the cuisine are balanced and fresh, not full of sugar and overly sweet. Herbs and salt are used to balance desserts. Acidic components such as yogurt and vinegars are used in desserts, as well as vegetables people would not typically associate with desserts such as carrots and cucumbers. Once again, this makes for a more balanced and fresh finish rather than one that puts you over the top.

Aside from the cuisine, what are some of the other differences between working in a Danish kitchen and an American one?

In the case of Noma, I do not think it’s a typical Danish kitchen. With that said, Noma is obviously very different compared to the average kitchen in the United States. First of all, we can work for sixteen hours a day here, whereas in the states that’s just not legal. That makes for a much different feel. Noma is super intense and requires each employee in the kitchen to know what’s going on among all of the sections, so everyone must be able to help plate every dish as well as have the ability to deliver each of the dishes to the customers and describe them accurately. I would say those things are what make it very different. With most kitchens, you focus on your section and that’s it. Here that doesn’t work. You really need to follow what’s going on in the whole kitchen.