Renowned chef greens one Connecticut town, starting with food.
By Jessica Tzerman
He’s cooked in some of the finest establishments in America, but at heart, Michel Nischan is a homegrown chef with a down-home approach to food. Now, he’s turning the town of Westport, Connecticut into a community-wide model for the farm-to-table movement.
In October 2006, he partnered with Paul Newman, Westport's most famous resident and one of the earliest names in the organic food business, to open Dressing Room. Nischan, a longtime advocate of sustainable food and communities, planned the eatery's menu around local offerings.
“Paul and I saw that this could be a really powerful agent of social change for the community,” says Nischan. “Dressing Room served as this non-threatening, fun way to bring people close to food—and, more importantly, close to good food.”
The restaurant is just on element of Nischan’s plan to green Westport. To achieve his vision, this summer he launched a non-profit called Wholesome Wave, which already has multiple initiatives underway. One of the organization’s main projects is running the farmer’s market Nischan established in June, 2006.
“Westporters were hungry for a market of their own,” says Katherine Dyer, the market's director. “People were tired of having to travel to other towns to buy local food.”
In addition to funding and managing the twice-weekly farmers’ markets, Wholesome Wave’s initiatives include developing a network of community gardens; piloting an edible mentorship program between the local schools; and brokering the Green Wave Farm-to-College program, a partnership between Vassar College, food services giant ARAMARK, and a handful of Hudson Valley farmers, to ratchet up the school’s farm-to-table offerings.
There’s also talk of developing a working suburban farm smack dab in the middle of town to function, as Nischan poetically puts it, “as a living showcase for animal husbandry and native botany, a place where the local historical society, the senior center, and citizens could all be involved.”
Nischan also plans to extend the community gardens throughout the community to have a network of edible green spaces, complete with onsite educational resources (think classes on local plants and better gardening practices, and troubleshooting specialists to advise frustrated spaders).
Perhaps Wholesome Wave's most lofty goal, however, is to take the programs that prove successful and use them as a model to replicate in underserved areas across the region—and later, the country.
Nischan’s critics argue that Westport is an affluent area that can afford to test drive such an idyllic vision. Nischan doesn’t disagree. Instead, he questions whether that's necessarily a bad thing. “To be honest, it does make it easier, but as we’ve all seen with specialty foods (think of the ubiquity of the heirloom tomato), awareness is often raised through a kind of white tablecloth trickle-down,” he says. “Why not let the people who can afford it do the work, and then use the resources and knowledge that have been cultivated in less fortunate communities?”
A native of the Chicago-area, Nischan worked in top restaurants there, including La Tour in the Park Hyatt and Le Perroquet, before seeking his culinary fortune on the east coast. He eventually settled in Westport because “it was a place that was close to New York that still felt mid-western enough for me.” Having spent most of his life on or around farms and gardens (both of his parents came from farming families), he grew up appreciating the precariousness of life for small growers.
“I decided early on that when I had a restaurant of my own, I would only buy from farmers’ markets and local growers, and I’ve never looked back.”
Clearly this mission—and instilling it in others—is the impetus behind Wholesome Wave. “In the end," he says, “all of these projects are meant to support each other and represent a simple, cradle-to-grave effort to reach people at every level of societal life by creating meaningful, lasting community interactions through food.”
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