© Tom Hopkins
F&W Star Chef
Chef: Michel Nischan
Experience: Dressing Room (Westport, CT); Restaurant Miche Mache (North Stamford, CT); Myriad Restaurant Group (NYC); Heartbeat (NYC); Pure (Mumbai, India); Wholesome Wave Foundation (Bridgeport, CT)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My mom taught me how to cook. The most important thing she taught me was to really love food, and to put that emotion into the food you’re cooking. That’s always the most important ingredient. She taught me everything from how to butcher a pig to how to can tomatoes, and every lesson was equally valuable. No matter your technique, if you’re not emotionally connected to the food, it won’t resonate as deeply.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
More than anything, it’s how I respect and connect with individual ingredients. I have quite a range. I do prefer simple dishes cooked with tremendous respect for the ingredients, so for instance, it’s the heirloom American recipes, chicken and dumplings, well-prepared braises and roasts, chicken potpie.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I ever learned myself was fried chicken, a favorite of my family and my mother’s recipe. I forced myself to take the risk of dealing with hot fat and sticky hands and everything that comes with it.
For a neophyte cook, rather than focusing and engaging on the easiest dish to cook, take a bit of a risk and identify a dish that you really love, even if it’s harder than a soft boiled egg. Keep at it until you get it right and you conquer it. That will build your confidence to begin cooking in earnest. You learn by trial and error the nuances of the dish. If it’s overly simple, you’ll feel safe but not build your confidence.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
My mom was my food mentor because she was the only one who truly taught me, and it came in handy when I was a young man. I was a starving musician, 6’3” and 140 pounds, and my mom urged me to work in a restaurant so at least I could eat. I had this unique ability to butcher better than chefs, because my mom had taught me. Initially a lot of my colleagues thought I was kind of dumb because I didn’t know the lingo, but there’d be a leg of veal laying around and I could break it down in 25 minutes. Once they saw me work, they’d realize I knew things.
Professionally, I’ve had a lot of great mentors: the first is Jacques Pépin. I started reading his stuff in the late 1970s when I was working in restaurants and I was at a linguistic disadvantage. Reading his work gave me the language to use in the kitchen.
Rick Bayless, because of his commitment to sustainability. Peter Hoffman, because of his respect for simple ingredients and precise approach. Annie Quatrano blows my mind because she’s so approachable but is a remarkable culinarian. Rather than being uber competitive, we really do share knowledge and practices. It’s very motivational and very mentoring for me, because I’ve been on my own for a long time.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Jacques Pépin’s La Technique. It saved me. I knew how to do stuff but not what to call it.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience and not being risk-averse, they’re equally important.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Baking. I do a really good cheesecake and an angel food cake with almond flour, and I can do some pies, but I really wish I could do more with pastry. I’m not much of a measurer and I made my way in the savory world, and I regret not having been able to go to school and study pastry.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Salt, for god’s sake. I use it sparingly or with wild abandon, depending on the context—curing, for instance. It’s one of the most important culinary innovations and ingredients. It’s one of the foundations that allows us to be chefs today.
What is your current food obsession?
All ethnic food. If you want to learn about a culture deeply without having to study the language, just go to a place where someone is serving the food of their heritage, that they’re in love with, and you’ll understand more about them than if you learn their language. I so love them all but I’m really fascinated by Vietnamese food. South Asian and Southeast Asian are so fascinating to me. The methodologies are simple but also complex—with fermentation, salting—honoring basic vegetables. It’s like simplicity on steroids. Asian cuisine includes very refined peasant food, which is a sign of evolution over millennia—as opposed to over centuries—within the same culture.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I love going to food trucks and food stands with ethnic presentations I have yet to encounter. One I loved in Astoria, Queens is El Rey Del Taco Truck. It’s not there anymore but I’d love to go back. I would go to with John Mooney [the owner of Bell, Book and Candle]. They had a disco ball in the back and played salsa music. It was the best for the meats, the vegetables, the seasonings, and the way they ground their own tortillas. They have great trucks in New Haven, but they can’t touch this guy.
Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. I’ve never been, and I genuinely appreciate his spirit. Here’s a guy who is a culinary genius but has remained directly connected to producers and original ingredients. I’ve never directly experienced his wizardry in the place that he calls home, and I’d love to.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Atlanta. My whole life has been spent as a farm-to-table chef and Atlanta has more excellent farm to table restaurants than any comparable sized American city. The quality is exceptional. It’s just so easy to find really awesome food and each of those chefs is different in their approach, but they’re honoring their heritage. You can get grits six different ways, but they still taste like grits, they’re made with integrity. That’s masterwork and it respects the fact that these guys are a chef community. They’re not trying to out-grit each other. Character, cultural integrity, heritage—all are evident.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
A bodhran [Irish war drum] that my wife bought for me in Ireland. I’ve had it for five years and it beats the hell out of anything. I’m a musician, and I recently learned I have more Irish heritage than my wife has. I love it and I’m pretty good at it. I have gatherings at my house, with chefs, and I’ll play it. It’s a treasure.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
Making music and gathering people together. It’s natural and comes along with being a pure culinarian, getting people together around a table with food. It changes everything. With my nonprofit Wholesome Wave, soon we’ll be in over 30 states, and we do it by partnering with over 60 other nonprofits and letting them turn it into their own thing on the ground. Multiple times a year we get everyone together. We’ve had success getting language in the farm bill and changing agricultural policy in some states because we’ve all gotten together.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be based 100 percent on natural sources, all wood and the only technology I might deploy would be Clean Cookstoves, where you can take solar power. My kitchen would be a wood-burning oven, real hearths, real grills and real smoking implements, but no gas and no electricity other than the lights so you don’t cut or burn yourselves. We’d use only knives, no machines. Imagine if we took all the creative zeal of molecular gastronomy and went prehistoric with it, and used current creativity with the most basic tools and ingredients. Astonishing things could happen in that environment. I’d like it to be close enough to an urban center, but in a rural area so there could be a gardening and farming component.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I think Mario’s fabulous, Thomas I’ve given props, but it would be Tony Bourdain. I’d use him as a tool to fulfill my deeper dive into Asian food culture; he’s not afraid to do that, and he’s not afraid to drink.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d bring salt, pepper, really good olive oil and good vinegar. I’m a hunter and grew up hunting, fishing, camping, and if I had those ingredients, whatever the land presents, I can prepare. I can forage and make anything taste good if I have those things in my backpack. What does nature present us and what can I do with it then and there? It removes the need for storage and commercialization of our food system to a processed state.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think people will be talking more about food concepts, and having a growing awareness that people in poverty want to cook fresh food but just can’t afford it.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
My favorite snack is a hardboiled egg. I have ten chickens and our eggs are amazing. Right out of the fridge, any fruit or vegetable in season is what I’ll eat.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
My microplane, from grating cheese to nuts to shredding apples and zesting citrus, it’s a great way to get the maximum flavor quickly.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
Pre-shift ritual: From time to time, we get together and remind ourselves we can only be farm to table if we take the life of something that breathed, and had life and a personality. Anyone who works in my kitchen will have to kill an animal or be there when it happens to really connect to the depth of why farm to table is important. Taking the life of an animal is still violent, no matter how humanely you do it. It’s one thing to get a clean carcass from a local farmer, but when you actually do it and look at the things inside an animal that people waste but shouldn’t, you start to understand that this is a gift and that the animal’s life allows you to continue to live your life. Until you understand that, you don’t understand farm to table and how you must not waste anything.