Michel Nischan on Making Changes, Cruising the Mediterranean, Meals with Pepin and Andres, Favorite CT Restaurants + More

15 Sep

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We recently were able to interview one of our favorite chefs who is also a Nutmegger: Michel Nischan. We’ve loved his food, but even more than that we love what he stands for and how hard he works as CEO of Wholesome Wave to make change in the world. He’s the kind of person that inspires us to be better people and to help make change in our own worlds, too. So, here it is: a look into some of the changes that he’s most proud of making, what he’d still love to fix, sailing the Mediterranean, spontaneous dinners with Jose Andres, his favorite restaurants in CT, and what he first wanted to do with his life. After reading this insightful interview, make sure to set plans to see Michel at this year’s Greenwich Food + Wine Festival! 

We first got to know your work when we went to a Wholesome Wave fundraiser a few years back. Since then you and WW have made amazing strides in helping to rearrange and focus our current food system. For example, you have helped pass legislation to make farmers’ markets more accessible and affordable for the food insecure, help end healthy food wastelands, and have worked with Whole Foods to make major changes in the fishing industry. What do you think was the most important change that you were able to help make?
I believe that all change, of any kind, is important. It’s funny because I have been doing these boot camps with the James Beard Foundation for chefs that are interested in becoming advocates for change. So we lead these kinds of curated conversations and help these kids connect to what’s truly important to them. It teaches them how to use tried and true advocacy tools and techniques to assist them in making change if that’s what they want to do. And, so so many of them come to the conversation thinking that they’ve got to make really big change. But, the truth is any change of any kind is a really good idea. So it’s hard for me, and I generally don’t, view things that way. Look, we spend a lot of time trying to help individuals choose good food, when you’re on a limited budget, and I’m not talking about the food insecure, necessarily, but people that question should I be buying local, should I be being organic? It’s the same thing: what’s the thing that resonates with you the most? If it’s organic, and you can only afford to buy one thing, whether it’s apples or milk. And for those who don’t think that’s enough, I like to remind folks that if just 30% of American households tomorrow decided they were only going to buy organic apples, it would change the apple industry. So, again, any change is a really good idea. 
I think my favorite thing would, not really ranking on level of importance, but my favorite  thing is that the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program passed in the Farm Bill . . . and our work was largely responsible for that. That is a validation because we worked really hard on that. If you really put your shoulder into stuff, and you stay authentic and genuine, that it is possible. The one thing that folks told me was never going to happen happened, so don’t be discouraged if things aren’t working out how you planned. 
And I’m not trying to downplay it, either. There were a lot of people involved who really devoted themselves to successfully advocating for that and the people running the markets in seriously underserved communities . . . underresourced, just enough funding to barely get it done. So, that’s an important win because lots of people and organizations won when this happened. It not only affected the SNAP consumers who take advantage of the program, but the people who run the programs, the FNS, and the individual states who thought the program was a good idea. 
What is a change that you wish could be made right now? Or one that you’re currently working on?
I would really love for minds to change. There are plenty of policies and other things that I think would be awesome, but one of the things that saddens me is how many people out there who actually think that people on food stamps are intentionally taking advantage of the system . . . frankly, that think they’re stupid. Some of the most genuine parents and caregivers that I’ve ever met are people rubbing two pennies together trying to keep their kids alive. They’re taking advantage of these programs to try to give them a better life. It’s out of love, it’s out of genuine concern.
These are parents who know that it would be awesome to feed their children healthier food they simply can’t afford. The faces, souls, and hearts, of these folks that continuously get all kinds of stereotypes heaped on top of them, frankly by some pretty affluent people. So, I would like to see some minds change.
It’s that type of shooting from the hip assumption based judgment that I think is the foundation of a lot of the vitriol that is being exchanged in this political campaign. Why can’t humans by nature by like my grandparents were and say, “Listen, give people the benefit of the doubt. People are inherently good by nature.” Everybody falls on hard times; let’s give them a hand. That’s changed. That used to be more of a natural reaction by the everyday American. Today there’s just so much of this other garbage thinking. So, I wish that would change.
I’m hoping our work will do that. We’re just so busy trying to scale the program, get as many out there as possible, get the data, get the policy change. But, I think now what we really want to do is engage directly with some of the consumers that take advantage of our programs and really let them tell their stories and let them be heard. And, not in a negative way, like, “Look at me, I’m a single parent raising four kids,” but it’s more like, “Wow, look at me feed my family and feed it well. I’m not rich, I don’t make a lot of money, I’m kind of struggling here, but I’m putting good food on the table and I’m proud of that. I feel good about it. I’m watching my kids thrive and flourish as a result of it.”
We think if we can get more of that out there that it can help as these folks use their own voices to describe themselves.
You have an impressive list of awards on your roster, including the recent honor of being named Humanitarian of the Year in 2015 by The James Beard Foundation. While we’re sure they all meant a lot to you, was there one honor that you were particularly humbled by?
They all humble me . . .and kind of bother me in a way. You know how it is. It’s like when someone acknowledges you for something and the first thing you think, “Well, there are other people doing more.” It’s all humbling. We do what we do . . . and we do it because we believe it’s important. We do it because we have this genuine hospitality gene. I want to make sure that everybody’s included in a bright food future. When someone gives you a major acknowledgment, it’s often a nice surprise, but still a surprise.
It’s an awkward question to answer, but I’m proud and humbled by all of them. That somebody thought it through and chose to put my name on the thing that they’re giving me and to say nice things about me in public. It’s embarrassing, it’s heart warming, and humbling.  
You recently embarked on the inaugural Culinary & Wine Delights of Southern Spain & Morocco as chef, tour guide, and market-hunter. It really looked like an amazing experience to be a part of as you traveled all across the Mediterranean. What were some of the major highlights for you?
You make a lot of friends really fast because you’re on a boat. I’ve never been on a big cruise; I’ve always tried to avoid them because the whole thing of 3,500 people and lots of floating. But, the Windstar was really awesome. 200 people were on the boat . . . they were really awesome people. And lots of them booked because it was a culinary tour. So, there were wine lovers, food lovers, and Windstar has a history of doing these wine tasting events and market tours . . . so, it was really great because often you do an event for 200 people, you try to get to all the different tables and say hi to folks, but you can never give people more than just a few minutes and a kind hello because you want to meet as many people as possible. But, we had a week to get to know everybody . . . and we really got to know everybody. It was neat that I could take people on a market tour, do some demos, and then hang out and have long conversations about why do you believe in this and why is sustainability important?
I can’t even remember the name of the langoustine things that I saw at the market, but people were like, “How did you know how to cook that if you didn’t know what it was?” To actually be able to have conversations about that was pretty cool. You usually do a demo then there’s a short Q&A with 10 or so questions. But, by the end you just know there are a ton of unasked and unanswered questions. So the highlight was being able to actually talk with people.
And Lori [his wife] was actually with me. It was amazing because we got to be together and make all of these new friends together. A lot of folks got to have a sense of how important she is to me and how much of a part of who I am she is by the way that she conducts herself. It was just terrific. I wish I could carry her on my shoulder everywhere I go and show everybody the person who makes it possible for me to do all of this work because I have this incredible support at home . . . somebody who also informs a lot of my thinking.
Just looking through your Facebook posts, we can’t help but feel a little (okay, a lot) bit jealous when we see all the amazing chefs like local Jacques Pepin and people that you get to collaborate with at festivals and dinners. What was one of the most memorable experiences for you?
There are two memorable experiences. One was the first time Jacques and I ever cooked together, really preparing food for people together. I think it was maybe 6 or 7 years ago. We had already been friends for a while, often bumping into each other on the circuit and festivals. And we were in Aspen, it was the first year for Food & Wine Magazine’s Belly Up for Wholesome Wave. We were doing an auction that night and I bumped into Jacques, and he said, “Come to dinner with us.” But, I said I can’t, I’m doing the Belly Up fundraiser for Wholesome Wave, they’ve got this auction, and I’ve got to be there for it. So Jacques said [doing his best Jacques impression], “Well, why didn’t you ask me to be an auction item?”
So, the auction item was him and me cooking for six people at his home. We ended up auctioning it off and it was between two couples. They took the bid up to $14,000 and one couple was ready to drop out. So, Jacques said, “If you’re willing to both pay 14, we’ll give it to both couples and we’ll cook for each of you.” It was cool. We cooked at his home and cooked together 100% of the way and then sat down and ate with these folks. Then we played petanque afterwards until 2 in the morning in February when it was 17 degrees outside. That was really memorable and I’ll never forget that.
And, the other experience was visiting Jose Andres down in DC one night. He saw me on social media and asked: “Why aren’t you at my house?” I couldn’t meet because I was meeting with some folks at a Vietnamese restaurant . . . and then he sent me a picture of these truffles. He said, “If you don’t come to my house, you don’t get any of these.” 
I went to his house and I was there until 2:30 in the morning. He wouldn’t let me lift a finger. He just kept cooking things with the truffles . . . raining truffles on all these things. Spanish deep fried eggs, artichokes, mushrooms, polenta. It was just this remarkable experience. To me, though, it wasn’t just about the truffles. It was about Jose, so happy to just prepare food for a friend. It was really moving: the way he was doing it, the love, the conversation, and his genuine interest in what I was up to at the time.
You’re certainly well known for being an inspirational chef and having a huge impact on the food community, but you also have plenty of other interests . . . one being your love of music. How did you learn to play guitar and what are some other hobbies or talents that you have that others might not be aware of?

I do have others, but the guitar is a big one . . . I have a musical knack. I was actually required to learn to play the organ by my father. As I was tinkering on a piano at a neighbor’s house during a funeral, people freaked out that I could play the piano. I told them I can’t play the piano, I’m just messing around and had no idea what I was doing. The white keys and the black keys make different noises, they have different pitches . . . and I found that I was able to do some melodies. And, my mom and dad couldn’t be more stunned and they were looking at me while I was doing this. So, they went out and bought an organ. But, the organ wasn’t my thing. My Aunt Marie noticed it and noticed I wasn’t playing it and she thought it was a shame. So, she bought me a little folk guitar when I was 12 or 13. I started fiddling around with it and I’ve been in love every since.

I actually was trying to be a musician; that’s what I thought I was going to be. I was in this band and we were doing okay for a band. So, one day I came home to help my mom paint her house one summer after I moved out. This was around high school. I was 6’3″ and 145 pounds, she could count every rib in my body and she said, “Son, we’ve got to get you a job at a restaurant. If you cook, at least you’ll eat.” But, I did know how to cook, and butcher, and cure, and pickle . . . and all those things. I just thought it was a life skill, I didn’t think it was anything special. I certainly didn’t think it would lead to a career. But, I got a job at a breakfast truck stop and never looked back. 


Let’s take things back to Connecticut now. What are some of your favorite restaurants or places to eat in the area? Why?

I love The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, The Whelk, and Kawa Ni. I love Fleisher’s, I love Nom-eez . . . I think what Matt is doing with Nom-eez is awesome. Walrus + Carpenter is great . . . that’s Jon Vaast who was my chef at The Dressing Room. He’s doing a good job. Those choices pretty much sum up the places that I eat at when I’m in town and have some time. 
And, finally, we are very excited for the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival . . . especially for everything that you’re going to be a part of. We see that new this year you’ll be on the Meet the Masters panel hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford, you’ll be signing copies of your books, and you have a Sustainable Dinner. We can’t even imagine how amazing this meal will be with some of our favorite local chefs such as Bill Taibe, Forrest Pasternack, Matt Storch, and Rafael Palomino. What will this meal be like and why is this an experience that people need to be sure to take part in?
I think what’s cool about it is just the dinner itself. To have Bill and all the other kids doing the food: they’re the best of the best in this place we all kinda call home here. It’s so funny because I asked what course can I take and they’re like, no, you and Alex [Guarnaschelli] and Marc [Murphy] will host and we’re going to cook.
It’s great because I’m going to be able to go there, meet people, talk to people about all kinds of awesome things, why they’re cooking there, and all we do at Wholesome Wave. What I do culinarily and what Alex does is important and we get to eat this freaking wholesome awesome food cooked by some of my favorite chefs.
That’s going to be my experience . . . and it will be a whole lot of other people’s experiences so they should decide to attend. What’s amazing is the conversations that happen when you get chefs of that caliber together in the same room at the same time. There’s a space for conversation to happen that is just hard to make happen at a restaurant. Yup, there are a few lucky customers once in a while who come in on the right night at the right time . . . or they’re super regular customers and they can get some time with the chef. Maybe if it’s at the end of the night we can sit down at the table and join a family, but to be able to be there, talking with people, and have conversations is going to be awesome.
Also, some of the panels and discussions are going to be really lively. This festival has really grown to be a good, serious wine and food festival. It’s not just about eating great food and drinking great wine. It’s about conversations and meaningful experiences that really shows the rest of the tri-state area that Connecticut is a home to be contended with from a food, wine, and service perspective. We have really great restaurants here, we’ve got really great culinary minds, a lot of them who have come out of NY saying enough is enough, but now I get to do what I love. I’ve got smart, informed, articulate customers who appreciate good work and I can do the stuff that I believe in and get to live in a really beautiful place. Nothing against Manhattan, I worked down there and loved the energy and every minute of it. It’s just very fortunate to be a chef in Connecticut close enough to NYC and to have the kind of clientele that appreciate quality and what good service is. Many of them have already made the connection to farm-to-table and more sustainably raised foods. And they’re having more important conversations about all of this. So, it’s a great place to be in if you’re a chef.
Lastly, is there anything new you are working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
We’re known a lot for the doubling program that was instrumental in getting some legislation passed on the Farm Bill. For whose who struggle with poverty and are buying fruits and vegetables, our fruits and vegetable prescription program is what really jazzes me now. I really do believe we’ll be able to scale the program eventually to a point where we can attract the type of study where doctors prescribe the use of fruits and vegetables and nutritionists help underserved consumers. They’ll help put more good food on the table to avoid diabetes, heart disease, and all of those diet-related diseases that cost our country almost half a trillion dollars when you add them all up with the lost productivity cost. For us to be able to scale that, in effect helps policy in a way that Medicare and Medicaid could maybe help reimburse healthy food choices. Paying for good food at the front end before someone gets a disease because it’s way less expensive than paying for treatments like organ transplants and dialysis at the back end when it’s too late. It’s just good business for the country. That’s what I’m really excited about and in the coming months we’re really working hard to scale that program so we can see that kind of change happen. 

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