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. He is founder and owner of Dressing Room, his homegrown 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.
Diet Detective: 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.
Diet Detective: Tell us about your overall food philosophy.
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.
Diet Detective: 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.
Diet Detective: 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.
Diet Detective: 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 fixed it.
Diet Detective: What's your favorite healthy ingredient?
Michel: Fresh vegetables. Then grapeseed oil.
Diet Detective: 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.
Diet Detective: What do you consider the world's most perfect food?
Michel: Perfectly cooked posole and anasazi beans.
Diet Detective: Breakfast this morning?
Michel: Scrambled eggs from my 10 hens with sauteed garlic, kale, Swiss chard, sweet shell beans and carrots, plus some really ripe tomatoes and a little aged sheep cheese.
Diet Detective: 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.
Diet Detective: Your favorite “junk food”?
Michel: Pretzels, or kettle sea salt and black pepper potato chips.
Can you please provide only one- to five-word responses:
Diet Detective: Organic foods?
Michel: Critically important.
Diet Detective: Locally grown foods?
Michel: Critically important to local economies.
Diet Detective: Artificial sweeteners?
Michel: Good bye. Who needs sweet?
Diet Detective: Food additives and preservatives?
Michel: Necessary for space travel.