“50 Years of Food” Celebrated at Food Lab in Southampton

Michel Nischan. Tom Hopkins photo
Michel Nischan. Tom Hopkins photo

By Michelle Trauring

Food has changed Michel Nischan’s world. It made his world. It is his world.

And it’s why his family is healthy today.

“It’s a story, that’s for sure,” said the three-time James Beard Foundation Award winner, a Midwest accent tugging on each word. “I’ll start with a little context so you can understand why I feel as strongly as I do.”

Nischan — who will participate in the Food Lab Conference alongside fellow keynote speakers Bobby Flay and David Barber on Friday and Saturday at Stony Brook Southampton — is the product of the children of farmers. One set of grandparents worked the land of western Kentucky since the late 1700s, and the other set since the early 1800s in southeastern Missouri.

After World War II, both sides sold off pieces over time, but not entirely by the time Nischan could carry a 50-pound bag of sweet corn during his summer vacations.

“In the beginning of the summer, I always went down kicking and screaming. All my friends were doing fun things, and me, my older brother and all my cousins were working because my grandfather could no longer afford to hire people,” he said. “But what always happened was, it was tough for us to head down, but it was always tougher for us to come back because we’d adjust. It’s beautiful down there. We were like, ‘We don’t have to go home, do we?’ It was definitely hard work, no question about it. But the food was good.”

Bobby Flay

Between the hard labor, harvesting, canning and pickling, there was hunting, cat-fishing, baseball and family dinners — meals that are unforgettable even now. It was those days, and those memories, that set Nischan up to become the man he is today, he said.

But it wasn’t by choice, he said.

“I wanted to be a musician. That’s what I was in love with,” he admitted. “But my parents had to downsize because my dad was moved to a desk job with a pay cut, so after high school I had to move out. I was in a one-bedroom apartment with three other guys, no food in the fridge, not making any money with the band I was in. I was having trouble.”

Out of sheer desperation — and after some tough love from his mother, who suggested he work in a restaurant in order to get a free daily meal—he started as a breakfast cook at a truck stop on the Illinois-Wisconsin border.

Within three years, he was a respected sous chef in downtown Chicago.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool, I guess I’m good at this,’ but the other thing was, I was freaked out by the quality of the food that was coming in the back door,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why aren’t these guys just buying from farmers?’”

When, in 1981, he became head chef of Fleur de Lis — and, with it, transformed the dining scene in Milwaukee — he found out why.

“I started driving out to the countryside looking for farmers to buy from, only to find out that there weren’t any,” he said. “The way that my grandfather farmed and the way I was raised — that I fell in love with — was not as available as I thought it should be, which really perturbed me. So that’s when I started my first form of advocacy: How do we restore really good food? How do we make it possible for farmers to give us ripe tomatoes and juicy cucumbers and really awesome asparagus?”

David Barber

The answer was to return to his roots. Together, with his cooks, sous chefs and even dishwashers, they would head out to the fields, harvest the crops Nischan asked the farmers to grow, and bring them back to the restaurant.

It was a whole new way of doing business, he said, and it set them apart.

“This was the 1980s in the Midwest. There was no such thing as farm stands or fresh produce. There was nothing, it didn’t exist,” he said. “So you had to make it. You had to create it.”

He laughed. “Those were the days.”

Then, everything changed. His son, Chris, was diagnosed with type I diabetes.

“I made the connection between food and health, and we started changing our food strategy at home,” he said. “The more we got into the rhythm of eating as a family, the way we needed to eat so Chris would thrive, the more I realized it wasn’t jiving with what I was serving in my restaurant.”

Nischan opened Heartbeat in 1997 at the first-ever W Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. It was controversial and groundbreaking, relying solely on local, organic and sustainable ingredients — nothing processed. No butter, no cream, no foie gras.

The New York Times loved it. The New York Post hated it. Some food writers refused to even walk through the door — and his target audience couldn’t afford to.

“I was like, ‘Wow, we can change the world through food,’ only to find out that the majority of people struggling with the disease are at an income level that disallows them from buying even the basic ingredients they need to put that type of a diet on their table for dinner tonight,” Nischan said. “Heartbeat relied on affluent customers who could spend $30 or $40 on an entrée. So Heartbeat wasn’t going to change the world through food. And who needs to change the world for the affluent? They can change the world their frickin’ selves.”

He sighed. “It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel my life was complete, responding to Chris’s illness by doing a concept like Heartbeat when so many more million Americans were struggling with a preventable disease that I could do nothing about. It was a really weird tension, and the only release was to do something like Wholesome Wave.”

The nonprofit organization — which, starting in 2007, has helped make fresh and healthy produce available to low-income communities by partnering with health care providers — aught international attention and that of Geoffrey Drummond. The East Hampton resident founded the Food Lab Conference three years ago after a successful producing career with the likes of Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse and Eric Ripert, helping to put celebrity chefs on the map while raising awareness of sustainability and eating good, local food.

“The conference is about a deeper understanding of the whole food scene: where changes are happening, where it’s going and giving it a little perspective,” Drummond said. “Initially, I think the celebrity chef movement was an opportunity for people to elevate themselves in the game, but once they were in there, they realized they were given a gift of power and influence, and they — more than anybody — has been caught up in what food means.

“Most chefs I know, most of the people who have come up through the ranks, don’t just have a love for food, but a real sense of hospitality and taking care of people,” he continued. “And I think this has blossomed out to encompass all of these issues that are on the socially responsible side of sustainability and food security and health. They get a real sense of, ‘Hey, I can really help change this picture in a way that I never imagined.’”

Looking back on his career thus far, that is exactly how Nischan says he feels.

“It’s like I’ve come full circle,” he said. “When you actually look at what it takes to put a really great meal on the table that can correct your metabolism, that can help you avoid diabetes, or reverse it, or reduce your obesity or significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, the simpler the better—just like the food we used to prepare when I was a kid growing up on the farm.”

The second annual Food Lab Conference, “Fifty Years of Food in America: 1970-2020,” with keynote speakers David Barber, Bobby Flay and Michel Nischan, will be held from Friday, June 9, and Saturday, June 10, at Stony Brook Southampton. Tickets to the conference are $150 and $75 for students and farmers, as well as those interested in the dinner only. For more information, visit thefoodlab.org/third-annual-food-lab-conference.