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Chef Michel Nischan's recipe for better eating calls for fresher, purer ingredients and a generous measure of political activism
By Laura Stanley
Being a chef isn't what it used to be. Caught in the glare of TV-studio lights, splashed across the pages of lifestyle magazines, these men and women who toil in hot restaurant kitchens 14 hours a day are discovering that underneath the sauce-stained aprons and the burn scars, they're glamorous to the rest of us. As a result, they're increasingly influential. When they voice their many concerns about the plight of American farms and the nation's food supply, their fans listen.
One chef who's had a lot to say on that score lately is Michel Nischan, top toque at Heartbeat restaurant in Manhattan's hip Lexington Ave. W Hotel. He's also the newest board member of Chef's Collaborative 2000, a national organization of some 1,500 food professionals that promotes sustainable practices in farming, food distribution and cooking. At 42, he's at a milestone in his career: After years of watching the New York restaurant scene from the outside, he's suddenly in the thick of it. Success couldn't have happened to a nicer guy -- the tall, golden-haired Nischan is so immensely warm and friendly that one admirer, a smitten young woman I won't identify, says without a trace of irony that "he's like a ray of sunshine."
Recently Nischan has been getting as much attention for his reformist thinking as he is for the innovative, heart-healthy menu he's created for Heartbeat. Like the other Collaborative board members (including Odessa Piper of L'Etoile, in Madison, Wis., Peter Hoffman of the Savoy, in New York, and Rick Bayless of Chicago's Frontera Grill, among others), he's a convincing proponent of small-scale, organic farming and a vocal opponent of so-called "conventional," industrial-style agriculture. Together with Gus Schumacher, who was an undersecretary of agriculture for the Clinton administration, and Michael Batterberry, founding editor of Food Arts magazine (published by M. Shanken Communications, the publisher of Wine Spectator), Nischan is a key organizer of a fledgling program called The New American Farmer Initiative, which aims to save family farms by getting them into the hands of skilled but cash-poor immigrant farmers. In return, participants will agree to farm sustainably -- which usually means organically, or as close to it as possible -- and sell locally, to chefs and consumers eager for premium, ultrafresh produce.
To talk to Nischan is to get one's finger on the pulse of every chef who's talking politics these days. Nischan, it turns out, loves to talk -- ask anything about farms or restaurants and he'll go on for an hour or more, unable to contain his enthusiasm. My first question -- something like, "Why are so many chefs throwing themselves into agricultural reform?"-- turned out to be my last. I turned on my tape recorder and let him answer and answer.
He began by describing his childhood summers, all of them spent on his grandparents' Missouri farm. Though he didn't know it at the time, that's where the foundation was laid for his future as an activist cook.
The family's methods there were strictly Old World, passed down to them from their European forebears. Hams were home-cured, and bread was made with flour ground at the local mill from the farm's own wheat. Pesticides and herbicides were never an option ("Too expensive," says Nischan. "And we were afraid of them."). Fertilizers were out, too; instead, crop rotation kept the soil healthy. To determine when it was time to move the corn, wheat, soybeans and lentils, Nischan's grandfathers and uncles literally tasted the dirt. "They did that to get a feel for the loam. You see, good loam is aromatic, herbal, alive. When I began working in this business, I began to see why that was so important to them."
When he was nine, Nischan begged his grandfather to let him slaughter a chicken -- something he'd seen his uncles do countless times by swiftly snapping the neck. "My parents asked me, ¿Are you sure?' I was. And then I did it, and it wouldn't die. I couldn't get it done. And the way the chicken was suffering, it just murdered me. I cried for hours afterwards. My brother Steve and I used to get busted for throwing rocks at the chickens to tease them, but after that I never threw another rock at a chicken. And I never again thought of chicken as something that comes from a Styrofoam container. I think killing that chicken was one of the most important things I've ever done."
Back home, in the Chicago suburbs, the Nischan yard was densely planted with food crops. "My mom hated grocery stores. All that iceberg lettuce really pissed her off. We had a small back patio, then vegetables. No swing set. When we finally sprang for an above-ground pool, it went in the middle of the driveway." But the despite the family's great skill and passion for growing, the Missouri farm eventually failed, a victim, Nischan feels, of the big conglomerates that moved in on the Midwest with sophisticated, modern equipment, newfangled chemicals and deep-enough pockets to sell produce below market value. "Farmers like us would have to drop their prices or they would end up holding on to their crops, which they couldn't afford to do. So they'd drop their prices, lose money, take out a second mortgage, take out a third and then go into foreclosure."
Today, most of Heartbeat's suppliers are as small and traditional as Nischan's grandparents were. But they aren't going bankrupt, not as long as there are enough restaurants and farmers' market customers around to snap up what they have to sell -- just-picked local produce, grass-ranged meats, eggs and dairy products from organically raised animals. Nischan acknowledges that many of these foods are still too costly for the average consumer. But, can-do Midwesterner that he is, he contends that prices will come down. "The more you support organic farmers, the better the pricing gets. As we start voting with our dollars and these artisan growers become more successful, the larger companies are going to see that the public is swinging in that direction.
"I'm purchasing $2.5 million worth of food every year. That's a lot of buying power. Even the smaller restaurants are doing $500,000 to $1 million a year. You get 20 or 30 restaurants together, you're talking 50 million bucks! Who gets the money? I want it to go to the guy who's out there doing everything he can to take care of the soil -- a guy with convictions who's not going to be tempted to lie about how many times he's sprayed his crop."
Of course, most chefs won't change direction out of a sense of nostalgia or even out of concern for the environment. Many turn to sustainably produced foods when they happen to taste better -- as they often do. At Heartbeat, where the cuisine relies heavily on thickened vegetable juices in lieu of fats, Nischan says he'd be out of business if it weren't for his farmers, who supply him with produce that's so loaded with flavor and rich in natural starches that many customers don't miss the more customary cream and butter. "If you juice corn kernels and heat the liquid, it thickens into a sauce that's creamy and unctuous and viscous and beautiful. And you can stir in tarragon or add a vanilla bean, some salt and pepper, and it's fabulous. But the corn's got to be amazing, because I can't hide behind fats anymore. Doing this kind of cooking, I really need my farmers to come through for me. I need them to pick it today and get it to me tomorrow.
"The more time I spend in this business," Nischan concluded, "the more ornery I get. I don't want imitations forced down my throat. Every resource I have is directly traceable to God and Mother Nature. That's who's making my perfect beets, those gorgeous rutabagas and ears of corn. I don't need a tomato that's been genetically engineered to last four weeks in my cooler, and neither do my customers.
"Chefs these days are so in touch with what's going on. Nobody is more aware of 'you are what you eat' than we are, and it's an awesome responsibility." Nischan's face darkened for a moment, uncharacteristically. He looked mad enough to run for President. "When you look at what's happened to our food supply, it's pretty sad. Conventional farming changed everything -- unfortunately, for the worse."
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