At the Table with Michel Nischan
As a natural outgrowth of his abiding interest in eating seasonally and locally, Michel is the chef and owner of the Dressing Room, a restaurant in Westport, Connecticut, devoted to serving local, sustainably grown food. The restaurant's mission statement is: "We believe that the food we grow and cook—in the place that we call home—defines who we are." He is also the author of the award-winning cookbooks Taste: Pure and Simple and Homegrown: Pure and Simple.
Certainly the food he cooks now and the food he ate as a boy define Michel. When he was growing up, he says, his mother planted a garden that covered the entire backyard all the way to the sliding glass doors of the house. She had grown up on a farm in Missouri and brought her culinary roots with her when the family settled in an Illinois town. The lessons learned in that garden stayed with Michel even as he made his way in the world cooking at high-end restaurants in the Midwest and then the East.
"Ours was the house where other kids came to eat supper," he recalls. "Because of my mother's natural generosity, she welcomed our friends, and I think that's important." Today, the Nischans welcome others to their table, too, and Michel believes that this is a way to get people cooking again.
"I encourage you to keep it easy," he says with a big grin. "Go to the farmer's market and buy two dozen tomatoes, slice them up, and serve them with good olive oil and good salt. Suddenly you're a genius! Or grill some asparagus and serve it with cheese and great bread."
His plan is to wean us off processed food, and, he reasons, when you serve fresh food with a story (where you bought it; where it's from, for instance), it kicks off the conversation. And yet, he is not against buying a take-out entrée and augmenting it with sides featuring fruits and vegetables bought at the farmer's market. "It's a way to make the meal easier by not having to prepare everything from scratch, and that primes the pump for cooking at home more often."
"It's time to get people back into the kitchen," he says.