Meet Michel Nischan

Why is Michel Nischan guest editing Food Republic's politics section this week? The chef, activist and humanitarian is one of the most inspiring leaders in the food movement, fighting to make better food available to more Americans. While buzzwords like locavore, organic and farm-to-table get passed around like salt and pepper, these are principles that Nischan has stood by his whole life, as you'll see in this profile to kick off Michel Nischan Week. Check back each day for stories and interviews curated by Nischan, as well as plenty about the man himself.

Michel Nischan is picking at some brussels sprouts and mac and cheese during lunch in his own restaurant when he's asked to reflect back on his evolution from chef to activist. Seated next to a fireplace, he recalls one of his first chef's gigs, back in Milwaukee, when he decided to set out into the Wisconsin countryside in search of fresh produce from the types of family farms his grandfather ran, only to discover a strange phenomenon. "I was getting doors slammed in my face," he says. "They were all corn farmers, soy farmers — no vegetable farmers anywhere."

Some of the corn and soy farmers said they remembered their grandparents growing vegetables, but most stated the obvious: corn and soy were where the money was. Then Nischan gets a glint in his eye. "One guy says to me, 'There's an asparagus patch that won't go away down by the road. Take all you want,'" he says. "My first farm-to-table score was free Wisconsin roadside asparagus!"

That score has led to a career in which finding fresh, farm-grown produce and sustainable meats isn't so much a mission as a necessity. On paper, Nischan, owner of Dressing Room in Westport, Connecticut, and co-founder, CEO and president of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, isn't the most likely candidate to become one of the food world's foremost thinkers and activists — which is how we got to that asparagus patch story.

I'd been prodding Nischan to explain how he went from a high school graduate playing in bands while living in suburban Chicago to a chef who spent years developing restaurant concepts for hotel chains to a small businessman and more recently, a political figure who can often be found in Washington DC stumping to turn the once-moribund food stamp program, SNAP, into a catalyst to (a) help the less fortunate eat better; (b) make farmers markets accessible to more people; and (c) create jobs.

In other words, Michel Nischan is a food politics juggernaut, and I wanted to know: How did he get here?

It started, as it turns out, in his mother's kitchen. Born in Evanston, Illinois, his parents raised Nischan and his siblings in a lower middle class suburb of Chicago, using their small backyard as a miniature farm to grow vegetables. Though poor, they often wound up feeding the neighbors' kids, who were drawn by the fresh food served chez Nischan, when most moms were turning to TV dinners and Shake 'N' Bake. His mom taught him to cook, and later, seeing how thin he'd become as a struggling musician, she helped land him a job in a truck stop diner — besides making some cash, he'd at least have some access to food, she'd reasoned.

There, at a truck stop along the Wisconsin-Illinois border, Nischan learned the grim realities of how most people eat and how some "chefs" cook. Biscuits and gravy meant a can of Hormel chipped beef poured over pop-up biscuits. It's a theme that re-emerged throughout his young career. "My mom got me a job in a restaurant. It's easiest to say one thing led to another and here I am," Nischan says, growing serious. "But the dark part of it is, when I started working at restaurants, I was blown away by how much food came in aluminum cans. And how little people were actually cooking. It bothered the hell out of me."

Nischan would go from that truck stop job to working in kitchens at top restaurants in Chicago and then for Hyatt hotels in Wisconsin. He eventually landed a job as chef-partner at Fleur de Lis in Milwaukee, where he met his wife Lori; then, as now, she ran front of house for him. An acquaintance from Hyatt had moved on to a bigger job with a small but growing chain of Marriott hotels, and lured Nischan to New England with the promise not only of work but the opportunity to get a secondary education through a Marriott Management Development Program developed by Cornell's hospitality program. After opening restaurants for Marriott in Connecticut and Florida, Nischan decided to put down roots in Connecticut, opening a restaurant himself called Miche Mache. He and Lori drove all over Connecticut trying to establish relationships with farmers so that he could use fresh, local ingredients, though he says it was a struggle to get to the point where 50% of the produce was bought directly from farms. "The more I worked on it, and it was hard, the more personal it became for me," he says.

Nischan managed to grow the popular restaurant, and even spun it off into another, but he says that disagreements with a business partner led to him leaving. Soon, however, he met the man that would bring him into the heart of New York City's dining scene. Nischan went to work for acclaimed restaurateur Drew Neiporent, first as a chef de cuisine at Tribeca Grill and then as corporate executive chef and food and beverage director for Neiporent's Myriad Restaurant Group. Eventually, Neiporent tapped Nischan to head up food and beverage for a new chain of hotels called the W, which opened with three locations in Manhattan. Nischan even headed the kitchen at one of the hotel's restaurants, Heartbeats, where he and Nieporent insisted on a menu devoid of anything cooked with butter or cream (his son Chris, one of his five children, had recently been diagnosed with Diabetes).

Talking to Nischan at Dressing Room, a restaurant project he was cajoled into taking on by Paul Newman, whom he befriended two years before the actor's death (more about this in our profile of Dressing Room this week), I get the sense that all these chef stints and restaurant development jobs were merely training grounds for him to develop his ideals as a food philosopher. "I was seeing the food industry from the belly of the beast," he says. "As a 20-year-old I had still not made the connection that farmers were gone. Farmers like my grandpa, like my aunts and my uncles, they were just gone. It really upset me."

I ask if he blames Madison Avenue for helping popularize processed foods, or corporate agriculture, or the government for very nearly killing off the family farm.

"A lot of it was good intent," he says diplomatically. "It was like, if we can put food in this form, then we can feed the world. There are friends of mine in the movement that I will argue tooth and nail with those who claim our current system was created by the 'evil empire' — it actually has become kind of an evil empire thing, but that's not how it started." His politically correct stance doesn't last long, however, as he continues: "When Einstein and scientists discovered nuclear energy, the farthest thing from their mind was the atomic bomb. But money and power and things like that distort even the best intentions. Any time you can manipulate the absolute control of a market, you consolidate into the hands of the few. So it's become something that hides under the guise of feeding the world, which is no longer true, because more people are starving today per capita than ever before."

This is the type of rant that you might expect from a guy who wears a ponytail into his 50s, as Nischan does, and it's the type of sentiment that conservative politicians might argue until, well, the cows come home — though it's worth noting that many conservatives back his concepts of change. But these are more than just mere words for Nischan. The injustice of food access fuels his convictions that we can all eat better if we change the system — and not just on a small scale. Through Wholesome Wave, and with an increasingly full schedule of public appearances and honors and recognition — in the United States and abroad — Nischan is poised to do something he could never accomplish behind the burners. He's getting people to eat better food.

And with this, I discovered how Nischan went from chef to where he is today.

"It was like a metamorphosis," he says. "I was very competitive as a young chef. I wanted the three or four stars, the career like David Burke or Mario Batali. I was heading that way, and I felt I would get my competitive edge by buying better raw ingredients than everyone else was buying, only to find out that [the ingredients] weren't there. I didn't understand the value of that until I was a chef trying to gain competitive market advantage only to find out that an entire way of life had been erased."

Most of the articles featured in Michel Nischan Week will feature links to organizations and ideas on how to play a part in improving food access, as well as other causes.

How to help: Donate to Wholesome Wave or shop at your local farmers market.