Interview: Chef Michel Nischan

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

After years of helming white-tablecloth restaurants that use locally grown ingredients, chef Michel Nischan has learned a few hard lessons.

For one thing, people like the idea of a seasonal menu more than they like the reality of an always-changing entree list. So at the Dressing Room, the Connecticut restaurant he opened with actor Paul Newman, comfort-food favorites like meatloaf and chopped salad remain on the menu year-round. But the fruits and vegetables served with them change by the season -- you'll get stone fruits in the summer, squash in the fall, rutabaga in the winter, sweet peas in the spring.

"It's a way to reconcile the chef's desire to change things and the customers' desire to have the same thing on the menu," said Nischan, in town for Franklin Park Conservatory's From Field to Table Festival. "People love to say, 'Oh, you have to come to such and such place and have this.'"

He's also learned that the high prices of fruits and vegetables grown by small farmers, and the scarcity of farmers markets in much of America, prohibits a lot of people from enjoying the wonders of, say, locally grown tomatoes.

His foundation, Wholesome Wave, works to make locally grown food available to everyone by establishing farm stands in underserved communities and using philanthropic funding to double the value of food stamps and WIC coupons when they're used at farmers markets.

And he's found that when locally grown produce is available to low-income families at low prices, they buy a lot of it.

"There's this notion that if you drop fruits and vegetables into the middle of an underserved community, nobody will come because they're hooked on Happy Meals," Nischan said. "It's not true."

Nischan applauded local restaurants like Black Creek Bistro in Olde Towne East that make an effort to support local, sustainable, artisinal producers by using locally grown ingredients whenever they can. And he hopes the From Field to Table Festival and the conservatory's new community garden campus will continue to galvanize the Columbus community in support of local agriculture.