: Michel Nischan - Award-winning cookbook author
As the son of displaced
farmers, Michel Nischan
is a strong proponent of
food justice. An award-winning
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
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.
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
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.