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Michel Nischan - Activist, Farmer, Chef

by Matt DeLucia

March 1, 2009

Most chefs are all too familiar with the unremitting conflict between their desire for the best and most wholesome ingredients, and their restaurant’s bottom line. They will eagerly do battle with the scrappiest of general managers or the cheapest of accountants, and are often fortunate to escape from these encounters valiantly clutching the remnants of imported truffles or the properly farmed meats and veggies that they crave. The increase in the incidences of these noble conflicts can cause irreconcilable strains on the precarious culinary partnership between the financial and creative forces, and are often a sign of trouble, especially in recessionary times such as these. Michel Nischan first recognized a sign such as this, not while he was at work, but ironically during the creation of an enormous backyard garden on his 1-acre lot in Connecticut. The garden was designed to honor his mother, who had become very ill at the time. In establishing the garden he hoped to instill in his children some of the same memories he was blessed with growing up in rural Missouri. The idea was to have it built and flourishing while she was still alive, a goal that unfortunately fell short. But its creation seemed to put the finishing touches on an intuitive feeling that had been building ever since he began to experience some of his own cost versus ingredient problems at Heartbeat in New York, where he was the executive chef. Influenced by repeated outside offers due to his flourishing reputation as a proponent of organic and healthful food, he could no longer ignore the waves of internal pressure to institute significant changes in his life.

“People were calling me constantly saying ‘can you help us with this, can you help us with that,’ and I was always saying no,” Nischan remembers. “The week after my mom died, when I went back to work, I had this intense feeling that I just didn’t belong there. It was really powerful, and I started freaking out a little bit because it would not go away.”

After a meeting with his wife Lorie, he made the decision to resign from his job at Heartbeat, ending a stretch of over two and a half decades in which he worked as a restaurant chef. He started his own consulting business, and at the same time increased the work he had already begun with a variety of charitable foundations that promoted healthful eating and locally produced food. The timing worked out well; he wrote a well-received cookbook (Taste Pure and Simple, which won a James Beard award), became a PBS regular on “Victory Garden”, and consulted on hospitality projects around the world. In 2004 he received a call from his friend Nell Newman, daughter of Paul and the founder of Newman’s Own franchise.

“She said that her dad was thinking about opening a restaurant,” Nischan recalls. “She was afraid that the operators that he was talking to might not follow the family’s values. She said ‘I have a favor to ask you. It’s actually two favors. My dad wants to open this restaurant, so the first favor is to talk him out of it if you can. The second one is, if you can’t talk him out of it, would you please consider becoming involved in it?’”

Although Nischan had enormous respect for the Newman family, he turned down this initial offer to become a chef and partner at the restaurant, which was physically connected to and closely associated with the Westport Country Playhouse. Nischan did agree, however, to help the famous actor with the search for an operator who would follow Newman’s organic principles and utilize local producers as much as possible.

At the first meeting between Nischan and Newman, it became apparent that Newman would not be changing his mind about the restaurant. He had originally wanted “Newman’s Own” to be a restaurant, and although he was talked out of the idea that time, this time he’d hear nothing of it. The first meeting Nischan attended - he was not officially a consultant on the project, just helping out as a friend - also included the restaurant operator the family was considering at the time. Nischan was there primarily to look out for the interests of Newman, and he also wanted the operator to know that he was not a threat to him as a potential competitor. “I said to them, ‘I’m a friend of Nell and my role is to just help you guys find what you need locally so that the family values can remain in place. I am here to serve everybody.’”

Michel Nischan - Activist, Farmer, Chef

During that first meeting, the operator alluded to the difficulty of having to use so many different producers if local farmers and other small providers were used. Nischan countered that objection with an idea to convert the theater’s parking lot and a portion of a nearby park into a community garden and farmers market - in essence bringing the producers to the restaurant’s doorstep while simultaneously creating something the entire community could benefit from. The result was general dismay from the operator, and unbridled joy from Paul Newman, who deemed the idea “brilliant” and wanted to hear more. Not long after that first meeting, the operator dropped out of contention. Nischan was again asked if he would become involved with the project, this time by the Westport Playhouse’s Board of Directors. Once again he politely refused, but offered his continued assistance.

At a meeting with the next potential operator, the menu was discussed in detail. Although the idea to include traditional comfort food items such as a hamburger and pot roast on the menu was dear to Newman’s heart, the operator stated in the meeting that there was “no f-ing way I will put a hamburger on my menu.” This uncompromising stance caused the falling out of that operator as well.

Meanwhile, Nischan continued to keep busy with his consulting. He was traveling regularly to India to help open a restaurant called “Pure” in the Taj Land End hotel in Mumbai, a “well-being” restaurant that he describes as “Heartbeat East.” One of his most important customers from his days at Heartbeat was the owner of the Taj Hotel Resorts in Mumbai, and after forging a relationship, Nischan was convinced to help open a successful restaurant there. Nothing had been happening on the Westport front for quite some time until a call came for Mr. Nischan from a member of the Playhouse Restaurant committee, saying that Mr. Newman had requested a personal meeting. Figuring that another new operator needed to be interviewed, Nischan arrived at the Playhouse the next day. He found two chairs set up across from each other in the center of the theatre’s empty lobby, facing each other. Newman walked in, and motioned for him to sit down. Nischan remembers how Newman made his pitch.

“He said, ‘After everybody that I have talked to, you and I agree on everything. The other guys and I agree on almost nothing. Would you please consider it?’” Nischan, moved by the inspiring request from someone he admired greatly, agreed to go home and discuss it with his wife, and to give the idea serious consideration. Yet he left the meeting still highly uncertain if he really wanted to become involved with running another restaurant. Later that evening, his wife set him straight.

Michel Nischan - Activist, Farmer, Chef

“Are you crazy? This would be the first person you’ve ever worked with where you didn’t have to convince him of anything,” he remembers her telling him.

A little light went on inside Nischan’s head, and he was suddenly struck by the realization that all this time, he had been turning down a gig that could not have been more perfect for him. “To be able to run a restaurant where I could really do it 100% my way, that was a remarkable opportunity. So I gave him a call, and I said ‘Yes, I’d do it.’”

The Dressing Room was thus born. But it was not just the charm of Newman’s personality or his movie-star status that finally convinced the chef to come on board; Nischan says that he grew up more a John Wayne fan than a Newman aficionado. Nischan’s many years of involvement with various food-related charities allowed him to better appreciate the magnitude of Newman’s lifetime contributions.

“He is just such an incredible human being of such deep spirit, yet at the same time he really is just an average Joe. He had this incredible intellect, and an intense love of humanity that very few people have. In 22 years, $250 million given away without a penny going to his family - nobody does that.”

Like many chefs who began working in American restaurants in the 70’s or early 80’s, Nischan began his cooking career as a job to pay his bills while he waited for a different career to take off. He was a serious musician in his youth, and after high school he played bass guitar in a rock band called “Scoundrel” that gigged in the Chicago area club circuit, making just enough to pay for a shared apartment, but little more. “It was rough; you would open the fridge and there would be one egg left in the carton, a little bit of milk, and a six pack of beer.” The struggling musician went home one summer day, and his mother noticed the toll his musician ways were taking on her son. “I was home visiting one time, and I had my shirt off helping outside with some yard work and she could see my ribs. I think I was about 145 pounds and 6 foot 3 inches tall.”

She responded as many mothers would - by clipping out advertisements for local cooking jobs, a job that she knew Michel could do well. She brought him to a truck stop on the Illinois Wisconsin border, where he was hired on the spot because they happened to be short a cook that day. “So, my first job was as a breakfast cook in a truck stop,” he says.

It took exactly one day for the emaciated musician to realize he could make the truck stop’s food better than his boss, a tough old navy cook named Jim who preferred things just the way they were. “Their biscuits and gravy were made from cans of Hormel beef, so I said, ‘Hey, I can make the biscuits and gravy better.’ He said ‘No, you’re going to make my job harder.’ I came in 45 minutes early the next day and cleaned the shit out of the grill because it had not been cleaned in God knows how long. I made the bacon and the sausages, and I made biscuits and gravy and didn’t tell Jim.”

The improved breakfast fare may have made Jim a little ornery, but it also caught the attention of another part-time chef there, who suggested that Nischan come with him to an Arlington Heights restaurant that was in the process of opening. The restaurant was owned by the well-known Chicago restaurateur Gene Sage, and the job paid two dollars more an hour than he was making at the truck stop. Nischan didn’t need much more arm twisting than that. It was also closer to where his band was gigging, an important asset when you finished playing at 4 a.m. “They have that 4:30 liquor license in Chicago at the time, so I’d come home and take a shower, go and cook breakfast, eat breakfast, cook lunch, eat lunch, go home and go to sleep, then wake up and go out and gig.”

Nischan’s dual careers both seemed heading in the right direction; his band did a multi-state mini-tour backing up the nationally known Atlanta Rhythm Section, and with the help of Jacques Pepin’s 1976 book La Technique, he was learning fast and moving up in the kitchen ranks as he moved from one restaurant to another. He recognized the symmetry between these two endeavors, and began to rethink his cooking job as more than just the means to allow him to continue playing music.

“I started to look at food and realized that the creative process and collaboration necessary in music is almost identical to the kitchen. You’ve got your drummer, your bass player, you’ve got a guitarist and keys and you’ve got a singer. Everyone has to be tight, and people really know when you are on, and they know when you are off. The restaurant is the same; everyone has got to work together to put the dishes out.”

Michel Nischan - Activist, Farmer, Chef

Nischan eventually brought his music performing career to a close, choosing the collaboration of the kitchen to that of the club stage. Even at that early state of his career he recognized that what he had learned growing up on a Midwestern farm provided him with a fresh perspective on how the best ingredients could be procured and utilized. But he also witnessed first-hand some of the changes in the country’s food distribution system due to consumer demand and low oil and transportation costs, and initially embraced them - as most chefs did at the time. “I remember in the late 70’s and the early 80’s how great it was to be able to get raspberries in the middle of February from Chile or Mexico,” says Nischan. “A lot of those systems were built around consumer desire; it wasn’t an evil plot to take over the vegetable world.” Evil or not, he immediately recognized the potential for improving the quality and healthfulness of his dishes by looking to local farms to procure the kinds of ingredients that his mother always seemed to have in her garden. This would become one of his primary objectives in every restaurant he became involved with, especially after moving to Connecticut and opening Miche Mache in Norwalk in 1990, which eventually led to a corporate chef job with Drew Nieporent’s Myriad Group in 1995, and then to Heartbeat in 1997.

Although Nischan hesitates to refer to himself as a food “activist,” leaving his well-paid position at Heartbeat was more than simply a reaction to his sourcing problems he encountered there. It was the maturation of a desire to help educate the public about the benefits which a fundamental change to our agricultural system would beget, and to help bring about that change little by little, by re-introducing small pockets of populations to farmers markets and healthier food.

“I don’t like to think of myself as an activist in the sense that you won’t find me standing in front of a combine with a pitch fork trying to stop somebody from plowing a field of GMO Corn. But I’m very active in trying to encourage people to support food systems that were once more indicative of real America.”

The “Real America” Nischan refers to is a vision that he recalls from his youth, a Midwestern version of Americana that at the time was not the norm for most of us growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. This vision contained the basic essentials of a brighter future, where the people producing the majority of food we take into our bodies are known to us because they live and work in close proximity. “There was this sense of community about that, there was a pride of ownership,” Nischan explains. “There was this sense of pride in our products because you knew that the people you were selling your products to were attending church with you, or attending the synagogue with you. These are the kind of things that I advocate. I would say advocate more than maybe - well, I don’t know, yes ‘activist’, what the hell.”

To many food activists - or advocates - nothing short of reinventing our country’s food distribution system will suffice. But Nischan is a realist who is smart enough and concerned enough to understand that it’s easier to modify the existing system and make it better than it is to throw that system out and start over.

“I really believe that if you look at companies like Cisco, Aramark, or US Food Service, there is a great opportunity for them to actually be heroes. They have a brief reprieve now; gas is back down under $2.00 a gallon, but once oil goes back over a $100 a barrel they are not sustainable and they know it. So how do you take their infrastructure and break it down into a more compartmentalized regional system? It is really a matter of somebody having the courage to work with stockholders and to work with constituents and understand that they need to take five to ten years of redevelopment to change the model. The way market economics works is you have to wait for the model to completely fail before you put in another one. But it’s almost like we can see this one coming.”

With a new Democratic administration now in place, there is hope among many healthful-food advocates that President Obama’s new Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack from Iowa, will help to enact policies that are friendlier to the cause of sustainable and healthful food. While the administration struggles with pressing issues of a failing economy and an exclusionary health care system, Nischan is optimistic that the new administration will finally recognize that these issues are all interwoven with the food policies of the past several decades. “One thing that I credit Vilsack with is that under his watch, he has really been a supporter of diversifying the food that is available in Iowa. He has made some pretty powerful statements regarding the fact that you can not separate hunger relief and nutrition. If you, as a government and as a society, are going to take responsibility for the people in your society that are disadvantaged, it is not good enough to feed them a couple of pieces of white bread and a slice of baloney. You need to feed them in a way that is going to be good for their health. He also thinks in broader terms, and I know that he has an understanding of the catastrophic impact that bad diet has on our healthcare system.”

Not content with merely speaking out or writing about these issues, Nischan created the enormously successful Wholesome Wave Foundation. In just two years, their initiatives have included farmers markets in Westport and Fairfield, and farm/school programs at Vassar College and Staples High School in Westport. But perhaps the most successful program, now being viewed as a model for many other communities across the country, is a catchy “two-for-one” idea that developed from the recognition that people outside of the upper-class towns such as Fairfield and Westport Connecticut were not benefiting from the healthful food that were being brought into these towns at farmers markets. The two-for-one idea allows people who received food stamps or WIC checks to bring them to these farmers markets, and receive double their value. The idea was to promote healthful food by providing a financial incentive for people to spend their valuable assistance dollars on healthier food for their families. “If you want to buy Twinkies with your food stamps, knock yourself out, go buy some Twinkies,” Nischan says. “But if you want this really great locally grown tomato, you get to double your money.”

Just a short drive from Nischan’s home in Fairfield is Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest and poorest city. While construction companies and local politicians have tried to “rejuvenate” the area – and likely enrich themselves - with ideas ranging from a casino to a billion-dollar condo development in Steel Point overlooking a crumbling Route 95, Nischan believes that the way to bring pride and economic freedom to this dying industrial area is to re-connect farmers, schools, and families, and bring healthful food to communities in low-income areas. Opening farm stands throughout the city would require local government and a patchwork of various other groups to become involved. In order to make the idea feasible, however, it would have to be run year-round, and Nischan understands that concessions would have to be made to make that happen. It would be impossible, for instance, to utilize 100% local producers 12 months a year.

Michel Nischan - Activist, Farmer, Chef

“We are going to open a farm stand in Bridgeport with two fairly large midsized farmers here in Connecticut, and most of the year we are going to get fruits and vegetables wholesale from them. We have turned this into an economic development opportunity for an entrepreneur in Bridgeport who already has a food and vegetable truck. He’ll go down to Hunts Point, buy stuff wholesale, take it up to Bridgeport and drive through the neighborhoods with his big truck and set up in different neighborhoods different days of the week to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Half the year it is going to be local, and the other half of the year it will be from Hunts Point.” Nischan hopes that this new market, combined with the two-for-one coupon system, will make the program a success in Bridgeport, effectively establishing a model for other cities. Jobs would be created and healthier living would result if all the moving parts of the operation came together and managed to work seamlessly. Another related program that Wholesome Wave would like to use as a model is the Culinary Arts program at Staples High. The students there are brought to the Westport Farmers market where they use their food budgets on farm produce for their catering class.

“The kids learn how to do catering and prepare 50 to 100 meals. They take them to the Gillespie Center, which is a soup kitchen on the Westport/Norwalk border, and they serve to people there. So the kids learn how to create relationships with farmers and how to buy locally, but they also experience the importance of being able to prepare the food and serve it to people who really need it.”

It’s rare for someone to become successful financially and yet still expend a significant amount of personal time in an effort to improve the lives of others. That was certainly the enduring legacy of Nischan’s mentor and friend Mr. Newman, whose legendary acting career has been in many ways overshadowed by the legend of his generosity. While Mr. Newman’s foundation has given away over a quarter of a billion dollars, the stated goal of Mr. Nischan’s foundation, to make life healthier for everyone through the re-connection of farmers to our communities, is perhaps loftier than even Mr. Newman strived for.

The untrained chef who was raised a farmer and became an agent of agricultural change retraces his love for organic food to the fact that each of us, no matter who we are, can trace our ancestry back to a farmer at some point in our history. “Before agriculture, we wandered as groups and clusters and froze and shivered and found what shelter we could. We’d chase our prey and kill an animal and eat, then starve for another week or two until we found another animal. When we figured out agriculture, we didn’t have to move anymore, we could have a stable society. You could have a cluster, then a village, then a town and then it enabled civilization. Just like there is this primal thing that draws us to fire, there is this primal thing that draws us to growing our own food.”

Everything seems to comes back to the garden that Nischan built for his mother, a garden that now serves not only as a source of food for his family, but also as an inspiration for anyone who visits him. “No matter who we’ve ever invited into our garden, no matter who I have ever taken out on a farm tour, there is no one that I have ever met who began looking at their watch. Or maybe they were looking at their watch in the beginning and then they decided that wherever they had to go to, they were just going to blow it off. When we invite people into our garden, they want to be there for hours. Something about being surrounded by food and plants and actually being able to feed yourself, there is no greater sense of pleasure and security and wholeness. It is something that has been innate within us for some time, because we have been an agrarian society now for a millennium.”

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