Digestion : Michel Nischan - Award-winning cookbook author

As the son of displaced farmers, Michel Nischan is a strong proponent of food justice. An award-winning cookbook author and celebrated restaurateur, Michel believes that our future lies in connecting the community to local, sustainably grown food, regardless of social or economic status. To that end, he has worked tirelessly with nonprofits, serving as a catalyst for change toward fresh, healthy, and affordable food for all.

Few people could turn down a request from the late Paul Newman. That’s especially true if you’re a passionate chef and the request was to open a restaurant. But that’s exactly what Chef Michel Nischan did. At the time the offer was made, Michel’s plate was already filled with helping nonprofits and socially responsible businesses make the world a better place.

Michel had already proven himself a highly successful chef, restaurant owner, and James Beard Foundation Award winner. The future seemed to be his for the taking. Yet, instead of exploiting his talents for material gain, Michel followed his heart—taking the road less traveled to help make the unparalleled flavor and health benefits of local, sustainably produced foods available and affordable to everyone.

The Early Years

Michel wouldn’t have had the ability to pursue his dream of food justice for all if it hadn’t been for his professional culinary success— success that he readily admits was nurtured by a myriad of mentors. But his true heroine and the inspiraton behind his love of food is his mother, whom he credits with making him who he is.

Growing up, Michel spent many days cooking in the kitchen with his mother—though this wasn’t the typical baking-cookies-on-a-Sundayafternoon kind of cooking. At the tender age of three, he was peeling bushel after bushel of ripe, juicy apples. By twelve, he was frying chicken, smothering pork chops, and canning tomatoes and bell peppers. “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, Michel’s mother gave priority to 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,” says Michel. “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 recalls. From this garden, Michel learned what ripe, just-picked fruits and vegetables tasted like—a taste that would guide his future culinary endeavors.

From Nightclub to Kitchen

When Michel first struck out on his own, other talents prevailed. Instead of heading to a kitchen, he found himself plying his skills as a musician in nightclubs around the country. However, despite the joy of making music, the money made it 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, the career of a world-renowned chef began. A string of restaurants followed, where Michel impressed those around him with his cooking skills. “There would be someone struggling to break down legs of veal, and I’d offer to help,” he says. “Then I’d surprise them because of all the venison and pig legs I’d done. They’d see that and put me in charge of butchering.”

The $2-an-hour raises kept coming and Michel officially quit music—although not because of the money. “It was a little heartbreaking,” he concedes, “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 make it 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 a chef at the Fleur de Lis restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But, whether he was working at the truck stop or an upscale restaurant, one thing Michel couldn’t get used to was the lessthan- optimal quality of the meat and produce delivered to restaurants. He figured that if he could get farm-fresh produce, he could beat every other chef on flavor while creating an 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. “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. Nevertheless, the seeds of advocacy were planted.

Making Connections

By 1991 Michel owned his own restaurant, Miche Mache in Connecticut, with his wife, Lori. At this time he 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,” he says. Although they were buying local, Michel was reducing cream, cooking with foie gras and butter, and using every weapon in his culinary 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,” Michel admits. “I was now beginning to make the connection 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? Michel 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,” he says. Heartbeat was based completely on local, sustainable, and organic. There were 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 the aid of flour or cornstarch.” Heartbeat became very popular, and so did Michel’s mission to create a cuisine of well-being. He began to speak publicly about the benefits of organic, sustainably produced local food.