Chef Michel Nischan: Serving the Underserved
01 May, 2012
by Anna Soref
It’s not everybody who could turn down a request from the late Paul Newman to open a restaurant, especially if that someone were a passionate chef. But for Michel Nischan, when that offer was made, the time wasn’t right; he was too busy helping nonprofits and socially responsible businesses make the world a better place. Yup, he turned down what most would see as a dream job with a dream partner to continue doing the right thing.
Meet Michel Nischan, a chef celebrated for more than his kitchen skills.
Cookbook author and James Beard Foundation Award winner, this acclaimed restaurateur is more interested in helping others than gathering fame and riches for himself. Whatever he touches—whether it’s mixed heirloom grain risotto, a truck-stop café, a New York City bistro, or a nonprofit—success abounds. Yet instead of reaching for material rewards, he takes the road less traveled and follows his inner guides of values and passion.
Nischan readily admits to myriad mentors along his path to success, but his true heroine is his mother, whom he credits with making him who he is. Nischan spent many a day in the kitchen with his mother—though this was not the typical baking-cookies-on-a-Sunday-afternoon kind of cooking. At three years old he was working the apple peeler to skin bushel after bushel, and by twelve he was frying chicken, smothering pork chops, and canning tomatoes and bell pepper. “I just loved being with her in the kitchen. After school my brothers would go play sports; I would go hang out with Mom in the kitchen,” he says.
Having experienced the Great Depression while growing up on a fourth-generation farm, his mother was keen on food security. “My mom saved all fat; we rarely had beef because it was expensive, but when we did, she’d save the fat and put it in coffee cans in the freezer. This is a woman who could dispatch a live hog and turn it into bacon.”
The connection between nature and food was always present in the Nischan kitchen. “When Mom wasn’t happy with the anemic vegetables she found in the grocery stores, she dug up the back and side yards to plant a kitchen garden that the neighbors called ‘the farm.’ We had an above-ground swimming pool that we had to put in the driveway because there was nowhere to put it in the yard,” he relates. From this garden, Nischan learned what ripe, just-picked fruits and vegetables tasted like—a taste that would guide his future culinary endeavors.
From Nightclub to Kitchen
In the late 1970s when Nischan first struck out on his own as a young adult, he headed not to a kitchen but to nightclubs as a musician. However, the money was a losing proposition. “We were good; still we’d come home from a tour and do the math and we’d have lost $500 to $1,000. During this time my mom saw how thin I was and she said, ‘Let’s get you a job at a restaurant so that at least you can eat.’”
And so, at a local truck stop, began the career of a world-renowned chef. A string of restaurants followed, where Nischan impressed with his cooking skills. “There’d be someone struggling to break down legs of veal, and I’d offer to help and then surprise them because of all the venison and pig legs I’d done; and they’d see that and make me in charge of butchering.”
The $2-an-hour raises kept coming and Nischan officially quit music, though not for the money. “It was a little heartbreaking, but I was getting much the same thing out of food as I was getting out of music. Putting together numerous plates and dishes requires a lot of people to work. You all have to be on the same page and—just like with a band—when you are, the audience loves you. I was doing well; people liked me. I was a natural at it.”
His abilities landed him in a number of upscale restaurants. “So here I was, cooking at these classic French restaurants, getting busted for calling stock ‘broth’ and sautéing ‘frying.’ Then I’d come up with something like roasting shallots with lardon, pouring off the fat, which was very sweet because of the shallot juice, and then mounting it back in to make a sauce. People would go nuts over the stuff. I didn’t have the terminology but I sure had the creativity,” he remarks. In 1981, his creativity led him to become chef at the Fleur de Lis restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
On the way, the one thing Nischan could never get used to was the quality of the meat and produce delivered to restaurants. He figured that if he could get farm-fresh produce (no more huge, round, pink tomatoes), he could beat every other chef based on that alone while creating awareness of local farms. He started driving out to the country looking for farmers to buy produce from, only to discover there weren’t any small farms. The seeds of advocacy were planted. “Those were the days when you could make 30 phone calls and have 5 percent of the stuff in your cooler come from a farmer. It was really tough back then,” he says.
By 1991 Nischan owned his own restaurant, Miche Mache, in Connecticut with his wife, Lori. By this time Nischan was making 20 phone calls and getting 40 to 50 percent of his food from local producers. “We would take the seats out of our minivan and drive to the country for organic eggs, pig and veggies.” Although they were buying local, Nischan was reducing cream, cooking with foie gras and butter, and using every weapon in the arsenal to get great reviews. The health of the food wasn’t in the equation.
Then his son, Chris, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
“It was a time of turmoil in my life,” Nischan recalls. “I was now making the connections between food and human health, realizing that everything I did with food would have everything to do with Chris’s long-term outcome.”
The solution? He opened Heartbeat at the inaugural W hotel in New York City. “You could order anything at Heartbeat and you’d know it would be healthy,” Nischan says. Heartbeat was based completely on local, sustainable and organic, with no processed foods of any kind—no white sugar or flour and no butter or cream. “We were juicing a lot of starchy vegetables so the juices could thicken themselves without our using flour or cornstarch,” he says. Heartbeat became very popular and so did Nischan’s mission to create a cuisine of well-being. He began speaking publicly about sustainable, local healthy food.
Life was good. But something nagged at Nischan. That something was a deep desire to provide healthy food to other than the wealthy Heartbeat clientele.
Then 9/11 brought the hotel industry to its knees, and the W New York told Nischan he would have to order food from approved purveyors to cut costs. “But look on the bright side,” they said. “You’ll cut costs and max out on your bonus.”
During this time his mother would become sick and pass away. “My mother’s illness had me thinking about the difference I could make in other peoples’ lives the way she had made a difference in mine. I was deeply troubled that at Heartbeat we could feed people this healthy, local food because I could charge $40 an entrée. Now they wanted me to use boxed beef and conventionally raised stuff. I had these intense feelings that I just had to quit. I talked to my wife and we looked at the checkbook; we had enough money for five months. I resigned.”
Working as a consultant in the local, sustainable food movement, Nischan helped Delta’s Song airline develop one of the first in-flight food-for-sale programs, and it was all based on organic and sustainable produce. “It was great; you could fly on Song and get Stonyfield organic yogurt, and an Earthbound Farm organic apple instead of some year-old Washington State apple. I was beginning to really love life; I wasn’t working 80 hours a week or tied to a range. I was particularly proud of the work I was doing with Song because they were flying about 35,000 people a day. I set up the distribution to allow this to happen and I felt like I was truly starting to make a difference.”
Meeting Paul Newman
Out of the blue came a call from Paul Newman’s daughter Nell asking for Nischan’s help because her dad wanted to open a restaurant based on local and sustainable values. “I need you to either talk him out of it or help him with it,” she said. The restaurant would be housed in the historic Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut that Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, had worked to revitalize. “I told Nell I was really flattered but that I was finally at a place in my life where I was gaining momentum, although I’d be happy to offer advice,” Nischan recounts.
Click any image above to see a larger version.
“I went to a meeting with Paul and a potential operator, and Paul started the whole discussion by saying that we really needed to buy from local producers. Immediately the operator says that won’t be possible; that he’d like to buy from Connecticut farmers, but they don’t deliver and he can’t drive all over the state. So I looked at Paul and said, ‘How about a farmers’ market in the parking lot?’ I suggested getting a dozen or so vendors and having the market on Thursday when there were no plays so that the parking lot would be empty. The restaurant could get its weekly produce delivery then. Paul looked at me, his eyes twinkled and this grin popped up across his face; he stood up and stuck his arms out to hug me. That was our first meeting.
“The subsequent operators we interviewed kept disqualifying themselves because their values didn’t align with Paul’s. About a year later he asked for another meeting at the playhouse, but when I got there it was just him waiting for me; his entourage of trusted advisors was absent. He gives me a hug and we walk into this mezzanine level where he had all the light bulbs in the ceiling unscrewed except one, and two chairs opposite each other under the one burning bulb, and he made me sit facing him. ‘Why won’t you just do this damned restaurant with me?’ he asked. I said, ‘I don’t know, Paul; I need to ask my wife.’ The problem was that I had completely fallen in love with the man.
“Lori said, ‘Michel, this is the first time you’ll ever work with somebody that you don’t have to convince of anything.’ And the lights went on and the sky opened up. In every job previously I’d always had to fight. So it was an opportunity to have my first ever restaurant that could really be based on my personal values. I took the job.”
When he told Newman yes, he said it was on the condition that he could start a nonprofit based on food justice and food security in order to bring a more sustainable food system to underserved populations and balance out the white-tablecloth restaurant.
Dressing Room, dedicated to local, sustainable cuisine, opened in October 2006. Nischan’s dream nonprofit, Wholesome Wave, with a mission to bring healthy, sustainable food to underserved communities, opened in June of 2007.
The world lost Paul Newman in 2008, but today Nischan owns the vibrant and successful Dressing Room. “If Paul and I have a handshake, it’s until the last man standing—and I am the last man standing. And boy, do we miss Paul! Joanne comes in a lot and the girls come in a lot, and we see the partnership is alive and well—which it is. It’s a wonderful thing,” he says.
Nischan works at Dressing Room on weekends but his wife really runs the show. Nischan’s heart and soul belong to Wholesome Wave.
A Wholesome Tidal Wave
Nischan didn’t want Wholesome Wave to be another nonprofit descending upon a community, determined to change things. He wanted to offer a program to already established community nonprofits to help them raise money, teach them, and give them the technical assistance they needed to be able to run consistently.
“The way we work is completely based on trust. It’s how I wish the restaurant biz always worked; but the margins there are just so slim and competitive that it’s really hard to get chefs to collaborate, even though that was my dream. When I was buying from farmers, I was reaching out trying to get other chefs involved, thinking, ‘If we all can buy more from local farmers, they can grow more, and maybe we can get them to deliver.’ It never worked out, but we now have that sort of collaboration at Wholesome Wave.”
The first Wholesome Wave program was the Double Value Coupon Program, for which pre-pilots were conducted in 2007, followed by its official launch in 2008. The program doubles the value of food stamps and other federal assistance when customers purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. It’s doing extremely well; after four years, DVCP is in 25 states in almost 300 markets. “The success just exploded, but a lot of that has to do with the talent, passion, drive and innovative nature of our Wholesome Wave team and of the many nonprofit program partners that we work with,” Nischan points out. “Often the funder has a nonprofit that they’ve identified, and we go in, teach them everything, and then fold them into our learning community.”
The learning community involves nearly 60 nonprofits throughout the country that Wholesome Wave connects. “Another reason we’ve been able to grow so fast and be so effective is that everybody learns stuff in real time instead of a single, isolated program taking four or five years to figure it all out on their own. For example, one nonprofit informed us that if your marketing brings people to sign up for federal assistance, you could actually get half of your marketing budget reimbursed by the government. So it’s things like that that one partner learns and then reports to us, and we push it back out onto the field and now all the partners know it. Many meaningful relationships among nonprofits have been created in this way; hence the success of great networks.”
A key objective of Wholesome Wave is data gathering from its programs that, among other things, can be used to influence government legislation. Nischan is a big believer in the fact that, regardless of economic status, if people could choose to eat healthy food, most would. “Our data shows that, yes, when people can choose healthy, they do.”
In 2010 they surveyed 1,700 farmers and 550 consumers receiving federal benefits and using DVCP at farmers’ markets. The average sales increase after DVCP was implemented was at least double in every market; some have seen up to 600 percent increases. Over 90 percent of the consumers said the amount of fresh produce they could buy with DVCP made a significant difference in the health of their family’s diet. Additionally, the increased sales helped local economies and certainly the farmers themselves.
Wholesome Wave’s next program, launched in 2010, was the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx). This provides underserved communities with produce from farmers’ markets by allowing consumers to redeem healthcare provider–generated “prescriptions” at participating markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Each dollar invested in the Family FVRx program pays forward threefold by nourishing the consumer, boosting the farmers’ revenues, and uplifting the community as a whole—not to mention the potential savings to our nation’s spiraling healthcare costs.
Has this chef on a mission finally found where he wants to be? “One thing I’ve learned in life is that I don’t plan that much. I do know that doing a white-tablecloth restaurant, selling food to those who can afford it, definitely creates awareness, but it’s not going to change things. We have to work on all aspects of sustainability and bringing real food to everyone, regardless of income. That will create change, and that’s what I intend to do.”
To find out more about Wholesome Wave, visit www.wholesomewave.org.