#Michel Nischan is a maverick #chef and an advocate for improving our food system. He is also the winner of a #James Beard Award, an author and, as a restaurateur, is becoming a catalyst for change in the sustainable food movement.
Michel is a supporter of “sustainable farming, local and regional food systems and heritage recipes.” He is founder and owner of Dressing Room, his home-grown restaurant in Westport, Conn., and the founder of Wholesome Wave, an organization dedicated to nourishing neighborhoods by supporting increased production and access to healthy, fresh and affordable locally grown food for the well-being of all.
I had an opportunity to do an email #interview with Michel; here are his responses.
CFAM: How did you learn to cook?
Michel: My mother, who was a farmer, taught me how to cook, can, pickle and butcher. She was quite the farm girl, capable of dispatching, plucking and butchering birds and other animals necessary to put protein on the farm table.
CFAM: Tell us about your overall food philosophy. What have you learned in the last 20 years that you would like to impart to us?
Michel: I believe that food, as a single subject, has more impact on human health, environmental health, ecological health, societal health and economic health than any other subject. This philosophy took shape when my son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, causing me to research all diabetes and its significant impact on families struggling with poverty.
CFAM: How would you define healthy cooking and healthy food in general?
Michel: Healthy food comes from healthy, living soils that are managed in ways that enhance the ecosphere and provide the food plants with maximum health, nutrients and, therefore, flavor. Seasonal harvesting and preparations that keep foods as close to their original whole as possible provide the best health and flavor outcomes for even the simplest of cooks and farmers/food producers. When a cook encounters an heirloom variety of fruit, vegetable or animal harvested at the proper time, there is very little needed for the food to be delicious. Basic cooking skills that focus on the proper heating methods, use of healthful oils and abundance of variety provide the widest range of natural essential nutrients. I also feel very strongly that reducing animal protein consumption while increasing plant-based protein consumption is critically important for both human and ecological health.
CFAM: Can you explain the concept of sustainable food?
Michel: The concept of sustainable food is completely based on the simple understanding that everyone must eat to survive and thrive; therefore, there must always be food. In order for the ecosphere to continue to produce good, healthful, nutritious food, we have to produce the food in a manner that benefits the ecosphere and maintains its ability to support our food needs. Compost is a low-hanging-fruit example of sustainability. We plant a seed, the plant grows and bears edible fruit, the plant then is placed in a compost pile with other important materials that are often thrown away, such as tree trimmings or leaves, sticks, farm animal waste (which is most often liquefied, hence turned into an environmental hazard), table scraps and weeds. The compost is managed in a manner that produces optimum microbial health, and is then added back to the land in a manner that allows the next generation of plants to achieve optimal health, natural pest resistance, maximum nutrient load and peak flavor.
There is also sustainable eating. Our society currently prizes the 12-ounce meat or fish portion. Depending on personal genetics, most humans can thrive on 4-ounce portions of animal protein, once per day or every other day. In the case of fish, over 70 percent of all fish species are suffering a net decline of almost 90 percent. Imagine what would happen if the global population simply cut their portions in half. The math applied over the declines of the past two decades would cut the decline in half. If we applied the same mathematical approach to beef, perhaps half of all animal factories might close, rendering the factory farm animal model less profitable – but not less profitable for smaller scale operations.
From the perspective of economic sustainability: If we cut our meat purchases in half and replaced the protein with much less expensive plant-based protein, wouldn’t we then save enough money to pay double for more sustainably raised and chemical/antibiotic-free meat proteins?
CFAM: What is Wholesome Wave, and what are some of the great things you’ve done there?
Michel: Wholesome Wave is a nonprofit organization that works with 60 partners in 28 states to increase the affordability of healthier food choices for urban and rural communities of poverty. Our programs include the Double-Up SNAP program, where privately raised funds are used to double the value of SNAP (food stamp) benefits when spent at farmers markets on locally grown fruits and vegetables. Our Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) deploys privately raised funds through doctors, nurse practitioners, nutritionists and community health workers in federally qualified community health centers and public hospital systems to provide at-risk families with prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Both programs increase the affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are far more expensive than the highly processed, carbohydrate-laden foods that families in poverty struggle to afford. Our data demonstrate that citizens of poverty want healthier foods to feed their families, and, when they can afford them, they overwhelmingly choose them. In the course of doing so, they provide a powerful economic stimulus for the often-struggling small and midsized farmers who represent classic American small businesses.
CFAM: How would you describe the current good food movement? Why is it becoming more and more prolific?
Michel: I think the information age has allowed millions of Americans, especially those in challenging economic conditions, to learn the many truths about the current food system. Before the advent of Internet access, social media, etc., most Americans struggling with poverty received most of their messaging about food through highly specialized food marketing. The quality of information available, as well as online forums, film media pieces like Food Forward, Food Inc., A Place at the Table, etc., have raised tremendous awareness, not only of how broken the current food system is, but also of how incredibly healing it could be to society and our ecosphere if we fix it.
CFAM: What is the quickest and most effective way for people to become more active in choosing the foods they eat?
Michel: Eat A LOT less processed food and more whole foods. Go to farmers markets for one in every four shopping trips. Visiting farmers markets, getting to know growers, participating in tastings and demos are all effective in helping people to become actively engaged with their food choices in a manner that helps them feel very good about themselves. The power of good food in supporting healthful self-esteem is underappreciated.
CFAM: If you could have a healthy meal cooked for you, what would you order, and who would you like to have cook it for you?
Michel: My dear friend Jacques Pépin makes the best soft-scrambled egg and vegetable dish I’ve ever had. He takes healthful comfort food to a whole new level! I do my own version with vegetables harvested from my quarter-acre garden – garlic, kale, Swiss chard, sweet shell beans and carrots are sautéed in the proper sequence for maximum veggie flavor and texture. I cook (thanks to Jacques) the eggs with extra virgin olive oil in a double boiler until they just begin to set, then stir in the cooked veggies with a handful of freshly shaved chives and picked thyme leaves. Amazing.
CFAM: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient?
Michel: Fresh vegetables. Then grape seed oil.
CFAM: Your favorite healthy cooking website?
Michel: Believe it or not, I spend very little time on the Internet. While I appreciate its positive impact on the good food movement, I’m pretty old school.
CFAM: What’s the one kitchen utensil or tool you can’t live without?
Michel: A sharp knife.
Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?
Michel: Perfectly cooked posole and anasazi beans.
CFAM: Breakfast this morning?
Michel: Scrambled eggs from my 10 hens with the ingredients mentioned in Jacques’ egg dish, plus some really ripe tomatoes and a little aged sheep cheese.
CFAM: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?
Michel: A bunch of garden vegetables, eggs, beef chili, vegan chili and chili ingredients (I’m working on a chili project). Black barley, faro and quinoa. Oils, vinegars. Our garden is a pretty big pantry on its own with a wide variety of vegetables and herbs.
CFAM: Your favorite “junk food”?
Michel: Pretzels, or kettle sea salt and black pepper potato chips.
CFAM: Your worst summer job?
Michel: Cleaning septic tanks.
CFAM: Last meal?
Michel: My mom’s chicken and dumplings.
CFAM: As a child you wanted to be?
Michel: A musician.
Quick thoughts on the following?
CFAM Organic foods?
Michel: Critically important.
CFAM: Locally grown foods?
Michel: Critically important to local economies.
CFAM: Artificial sweeteners?
Michel: Goodbye. Who needs sweet?
CFAM: Diet soda?
Michel: You get more from water.
CFAM Food additives and preservatives?
Michel: Necessary for space travel.
CFAM: Nutritional supplements?
Michel: Get them from whole foods.
CFAM: Genetically modified foods?
Michel: For experimental purposes only.
Your website: michelnischan.com; wholesomewave.org; dressingroomrestaurant.com
Location (Where you live)?:Fairfield, Conn.
Your current location….right now: Wholesome Wave office in Bridgeport, Conn
Your current job title: Owner, Dressing Room Restaurant, President and CEO, Wholesome Wave
Education: High school and the school of hard knocks
Résumé (brief): 31 years as a professional locally-focused chef, consultant, writer, cookbook writer, non-profit leader, kayaker, musician
Hometown: Evanston, Ill.