Michel Nischan, of Milwaukee past, dishes about his food advocacy present.
Years before Michel Nischan, four-time James Beard Foundation Award winner, started a nonprofit to help under-served consumers get access to affordable produce, he led the kitchen of Milwaukee’s then-chichi, circa-1980s Fleur de Lis, where he met Lori, his wife of close to 34 years. In classic peripatetic chef style, Nischan and his growing family headed east, climbing the ladder, opening restaurants (one of them with the late actor Paul Newman) and writing cookbooks. These days food advocacy has replaced running restaurants. The Connecticut-based plant-food crusader talks to Milwaukee Magazine about his time here as well as some of our culture’s most pressing food issues.
Q: When did your passion for food advocacy start?
It kind of started at Fleur de Lis [where he worked from 1980-84]. The food coming through the kitchen door was terrible. Perfect-looking tomatoes with absolutely no flavor in the middle of winter. I started going west, [for example to] Brookfield, to see if I could buy vegetables straight from the farmers. Some people slammed doors on me. One farmer I offered to pay in advance if he grew the ingredients I wanted and he could bring them by the restaurant. He said they weren’t set up for delivery. Just to get good stuff was hard.
And then came the farm-to-table shift?
Chefs started picking their own vegetables. [But] diners were looking at these beautiful ingredients, going, “How do we know this is safe?” That actually led to the first form of advocacy and talking about the importance of making healthful food choices easier as a form of preventing diet-related diseases. We were thinking, “Have people become this disconnected to their food?” … [But] even through the early 2000s, chefs were “MacGyver-ing” it to get fresh local produce in their restaurants.
Cooking really changed for you when your son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. How has Wholesome Wave led the charge?
Heartbeat [the NYC restaurant Nischan opened in 1998] didn’t serve any processed foods of any kind. I started attending think tanks and looking at how do we prevent Type 2 diabetes with food. Two-thirds of the people who have it can’t afford to get fresh veggies. That was the tension that started Wholesome Wave. How do we connect low-income consumers to affordable healthy food? We’re in 49 states and helping 500,000 low-income Americans eat healthier. [But] there are so many more [to reach]. We’re trying to figure out innovative ways to do that.
Many restaurants in Milwaukee don’t exactly err on the side of healthiness.
I’ve gone to Sobelman’s and ordered that bloody mary with the whole fried chicken on it! There were like 10 of us. That thing was obscene! The mindset of “you gotta get a lot for your money” is a values-based way of thinking. But how do we bargain on other things in our lives, except food, so we can afford to buy high-quality food?