Shortly after Matt Orlando announced he was stepping down from the head chef position at René Redzepi's Noma to open his own restaurant, the chef revealed his successor in the world's top-ranked kitchen: a fellow American, Dan Giusti. It was only a year and a half ago that Giusti left his comfortable executive chef position at Washington, DC's 1789 with only the hope of a job offer from Noma. Upon arrival, Giusti worked his way up from chef de partie to head chef in record time. Here now, Giusti — who refers all questions related to Noma's recent norovirus outbreak to the restaurant's website — discusses how he got a job that so many chefs covet and the big risk that was worth it all.
How's the new job going? How are you settling in?
It's good. As you can imagine, it's definitely an interesting job to take over. It was quite an honor, and I feel quite fortunate to have the opportunity to have the position that I do. I can definitely say it's going quite well in the sense that we have a very good team of people, and I have a lot of support here. Without that, it would definitely be an extremely difficult job. But I'm very fortunate.
You left DC for Noma about a year and a half ago without even a guarantee of a job and now you're the head chef. That's pretty remarkable.
To be honest with you, of course, I didn't really foresee this. I was at 1789 and, as you know, it's a relatively conservative restaurant and I learned a lot there. Not just cooking, but management and understanding how a restaurant works. It had run its course and I wanted to try something new. I had been gifted the Noma book, ironically by my former boss there. It spurred my interest to come check it out, so I came here for a couple weeks with the intention hopefully of coming back. It kind of blew my expectations away. I was amazed by what I saw, and I really did want to come back.
Unfortunately at the time there was no job available and the visa thing was definitely an issue. It was quite difficult to — especially for Americans — to get working visas here. But with all said, I returned here without a job and without any kind of visa or anything like that. I wasn't even really allowed to come here because I didn't really have any paperwork. But I was able to figure that out really quickly. I was able to get a visa. And a job did come available for the chef de partie within weeks of being here. So it all really fell together.
Did you have a back-up plan?
No, to be honest with you, I didn't. I think in my whole lifetime and still to this day, I've been kind of a wary person in the sense that I always like to know what the next step is and have everything planned out. But I think everybody maybe has that kind of feeling once in their life where it really is a gut feeling. For me, it was that. The 1789 gig was a good one, and I really enjoyed being there. Also I lived there with my girlfriend. She had her career there. We were doing well for ourselves, but there was something that we were just kind of lacking. I said, "You know what? Let's just do it."
It was a very nervous time when we got here. There was definitely a moment where it could have been, we arrived here, spent all the money to come here, and it could have just fell flat. It's definitely the biggest chance I've ever taken in my life, that's for sure. It wasn't only a risk for myself, but my girlfriend had to kind of put her career on hold in a lot of ways as well. But we were quite lucky.
And it seems to me too that most people would chafe at the idea of going down in rank in their job, even if it's at the world's top-ranked restaurant. Matt Orlando told my colleague he even knew you were more than that at the time you got hired for that job. Was that tough for your ego or were you just psyched to have a job?
Of course. Being at 1789 and being in DC, you know you're not in contact with a large quantity of people that are really at the top of their game. I don't want to say my skill sets had fallen down, but I definitely knew that when I came here it was going to be hard to compete with a lot of these guys. And it's not like when I was at 1789 as the head chef I was running around, running a station and doing this. I was doing a lot of administrative duties.
So when I first arrived here, it was a tough blow to my ego because I was at the very, very bottom getting yelled at by people that were six or seven years younger than me. But with that said, maybe justifiably so because I was a bit rusty. That's what you get. I won't lie. Within a few months, maybe less than that, I was up to speed and I knew where I stood and I could hold my own. Then you start to naturally gain the respect of your peers and the people around you. It's not about having a title. I could have been given a title, but if people didn't genuinely respect me, it would really make my job difficult. So yeah, it was a blow to the ego, but everybody needs that. I definitely needed it, and it's really done good things for me.
And Matt said he was also secretly grooming you for the job. Did you suspect that at the time?
Not at all, to be honest with you. I did know when I arrived here that at some point he was leaving. I knew it would probably be during my time I would spend here. But there had been at least three or four chefs working at the restaurant that in my eyes could have easily been the next candidate for that job. For whatever reason he decided to do what he did. I still have tremendous respect for those other chefs. Some of those chefs have since left to do their own thing. They're quite successful in their own right. But I didn't have any idea. I knew there was an opportunity maybe early in to be a sous chef. But I never imagined this.
Tell me about when you got the head job offer.
My girlfriend had been working from home for the consulting company that she had been working with in DC. At one point, it must have been like seven, eight months in, she was really having a tough time with it. She wasn't meeting any people, of course, because she was working at home. I didn't really know what was going to happen. I was coming to the point where I needed some answers and I was looking for some advice, so I asked to sit down with Matt. I said, "Look Matt, things are real tough right now for my girlfriend. There's really no foreseeable option right now because she doesn't speak Danish." I was contemplating that at the end of a year of being here, I might have to leave.
The first thing he actually said was that the PR job here was coming up available. And then he proceeded to tell me also that he had now concrete plans to leave and it was going to be the upcoming December, that he was going to probably phase himself out and that he wanted me to take his place. Of course, when he told me that, that changed things a lot. It really kind of blew my mind. When I told my girlfriend that, she being the supportive one that she is, she knew we were going to stay here and she probably would want to take the [PR] job. So she did, and she is here working at the restaurant.
Of course, I took the job. At that point, there's no question in my mind that I was going to take that role. But a lot of feelings come through you at that point. I was actually still a chef de partie. I hadn't even been a sous chef yet. It was around that time they were going to make me a sous chef. So I was still chef de partie, I was still running a section and this is what I'm told. It's a hard thing to take because most of you is just amazed and overjoyed. What an amazing opportunity. And then me being the type of person I am, I just immediately went into thinking, "All right, I need to start figuring a lot of things out very quickly to make sure I'm prepared to do this job."
How did you?
Just trying to think of everything and asking as many questions as possible and writing things down. Matt, in total, had been here for many years. He had been here previously a long time ago and then he left and came back. He spent almost three years as the head chef. So he has a lot of history with this place. I, at that time, had been here about seven or eight months. I was just kind of understanding the cooking style. I was really getting a good grip on how things worked. So then to think that I needed to understand it to the extent that I could be a part of running it and making it work on a daily basis was really a daunting thing to think about. An exciting one, but a daunting thing as well.
It was just a matter of trial and error, and of course I'm still learning to this day. I can't say I know exactly how everything works now in the sense there are situations that arise that I still haven't dealt with. Like I said when we first got on the phone, I'm surrounded by an amazing group of people, whether it be René himself or all the other chefs who work here that really support me. If it wasn't for them, it really would be a challenging job. It's challenging in itself, but I wouldn't be able to do it.
What are you focusing on now?
Hiring people. Hiring the right people. It's not the easiest place to hire for in the sense that our staff is so international. When you hire somebody here it's usually a three or four month process. It's not like you just say, hey, you start tomorrow. With three or four chefs leaving who had been here for some time, you encounter problems with making sure you have enough experienced staff here and you have enough staff that you can trust. So my focus over the past few months has definitely been putting a team together that is very strong.
What are you focusing on next?
I wish I was moving onto the next thing. Putting together a strong team is not a quick thing. We have a great team in place already, but it's really just the development of it. As I am very new at my position, we have a lot of other people who also stepped up in other jobs as sous chefs. We hired new chef de parties. When you come and work here, there's definitely a learning curve. Outside of the food itself, the restaurant runs very differently than other restaurants do. We serve a lot of the food as chefs. So there is a lot for people to understand. And it is getting stronger and it's a nice thing to watch develop. When it comes down to it, the people are the most important part of the restaurant. You can't overlook that fact.
What we do here, the food and the ideas behind the food, are something really amazing. That's why I originally came here. But when you eat here you see the same thing. The guests bring a lot of the energy to the restaurants as well. But what makes the restaurant special, aside from the food itself, is just the energy and the aura amongst the people who work here and their passion for being a part of this. Part of a big team that is moving forward and trying new things.