Exit Interview: 1789’s Giusti on a Quest for Food Perfection at Noma

1789 Restaurant's general manager Dan Harding with executive chef Daniel Giusti.

When Clyde’s corporate chef John Guattery gave 1789 chef Daniel Giusti a book on the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, “Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine,” he had no idea the gift would prompt his executive chef at his best restaurant to quit and run away to Denmark.

“The company has been gracious,” said the 27-year-old Giusti, speaking at 1789’s pub bar before the dinner hours.

In return, Giusti recommended Casa Nonna’s executive sous chef Anthony Lombardo – his friend and one-time roommate – as 1789’s top chef.

“We think the same as far as food goes,” Giusti said of Lombardo, giving the Clyde’s Restaurant Group a smooth continuity between chefs. Giusti’s last day at 1789 will be Aug. 28; Lombardo begins work at the 36th and Prospect Street fine dining spot this week.

For Giusti, who departs with his girlfriend Annika De Las Heras for Europe in September, it is a leap of faith. He is heading to Noma, cited as “the best restaurant in the world,” with merely a job possibility from owner Rene Redzepi. “There’s a good chance that I’ll never get paid,” he said.

What would make a chef at a top restaurant leave without a firm job offer for another in an old warehouse by the docks?

Noma – its name short for “Nordisk Mad” or Nordic Food, or so it is said – is admittedly the best and known for its unique and complicated recipes from local sources in season with epic gastronomical results (a meal with wine can pass the $300 mark).

For the departing 1789 chef, it is the Scandinavian restaurant’s precise pursuit of excellence on all levels fueling his passion for food. He wanted to know: “How is the best kitchen in the world run?”

What struck Giusti was “the intense energy of 60 persons” working in the kitchens along with a combination of contemporary and traditional techniques. The “tame-looking food,” he said, surprises with the tastes of the mixed ingredients. Noma— where the cooks bring diners the food and where Giusti briefly helped around the kitchen in July – is “the best as far as their thinking” goes in search for the “best or pure food,” he said. “What I love to do is to cook at seasonal levels.” And as far as making the top of that restaurant list? “Being on the list gives the owner the freedom to think. I can do what I want,” he said.

The adventuresome Giusti began working at Clyde’s of Georgetown at the age of 15. Attending the Culinary Institute of America, he then worked in New York — where he met Noma’s current chef Matthew Orlando at Aureole — and Las Vegas. He returned to D.C., becoming 1789’s top chef for a little more than three years. He was nominated by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington for a 2009 and 2010 RAMMY Award and received a regional nomination for “People’s Best New Chef” from Food & Wine Magazine.

While Giusti said he was disappointed to be in New York during the surprise visit to 1789 by President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in June, he said it was pretty cool to have met the Clintons as well as Paul McCartney there.

Not bad for a kid from New Jersey who moved to Northern Virginia and was Langley High School’s prom king in 2002. See you in Denmark.

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