The chef and activist is taking his social mission to the commercial food sector with Wholesome Crave.

By Stacey Ballis
July 02, 2019
© Tom Hopkins

Michel Nischan did not set out to be a warrior in the arena of food insecurity. The chef had long been at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement, working with local farmers on better growing practices and protection of heirloom varieties, to serve in his Milwaukee restaurant Fleur de Lis between 1981 and 1995. But it was, by his own admission, a self-serving proposition. Having grown up spending summers working on his grandfather’s farm he knew what real food tasted like he and wanted to bring those flavors to his customers.

When his son was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic, the approach to food in his home life needed to change dramatically. For any T1 diabetic, their prognosis for long-range healthy life is enormously impacted by their diet. Becoming an expert in managing his son’s disease at home made Nischan acutely aware of the direct connection between food and health.

“We changed our food strategy at home, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was feeding my customers food at the restaurant that I wouldn’t feed my family. I couldn’t live with that,” says Nischan.

This epiphany led him to partner with Drew Nieporent to create Heartbeat at the W New York Hotel, a restaurant of “well-being,” focused on using local, organic, sustainably-sourced ingredients, and committed to cooking without butter, cream, flour, sugar, cornstarch or other products that were, at the time, thought to negatively affect diners' health. When it opened in 1997, the restaurant was as buzzed-about for the controversy it stirred up as it was for its healthy food. The battle of the reviews—great ones in the New York Times and zero stars from the New York Post—as well as the discussion of who gets to be the “food police” brought the restaurant plenty of attention.

It was this fiery dialogue that led to Nischan finding himself invited to public health think tanks, advisory councils, and health conferences. There he learned about the very public health crises of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related diseases, as well as the limited access to healthy foods for many lower-income Americans. Again, the chef was at a crossroads. He finally felt great about the food he was serving in his restaurant, but he recognized that his customers at Heartbeat and later at The Dressing Room in Westport, Connecticut, were by nature financially privileged.

“My customers could afford to pay $30 an entrée to eat well," says Nischan. "When I learned that there is no business model that can solve healthful eating for the family of four that has $2 to spend on dinner tonight all-in, I was heartbroken.”

It was this that led to the creation of his company Wholesome Wave. Partnering with former Clinton Undersecretary of Agriculture Gus Schumacher, with funding from actor and activist Paul Newman’s Newman’s Own Foundation, the company was launched in 2007, working to create programs to assist families struggling with food insecurity, and programs that allow those families to double their assistance dollars when spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. The team also began working towards government change, and in 2014 were successful in getting the Food Insecurity Incentive Program into the Federal Farm bill, shifting 100 million tax dollars into supporting food equity programs.

Still focused on the 60 million Americans who currently struggle with food insecurity, Nischan took a page from the Newmans’s Own playbook, and in 2018, launched Wholesome Crave. This offshoot endeavor is selling responsibly sourced, plant-based soups into the marketplace, in order to steer the significant unrestricted income back into Wholesome Wave to support innovations that he hopes might solve the problems at a larger scale.

“We chose the scaled food service because of the size of the marketplace, as well as the difficulty large-scale food service providers face to credibly source organic, sustainably-sourced, plant-based foods to meet the values of the younger generations, who are now demanding the types of foods I was offering at Heartbeat back in 1997,” Nischan says.

The Google complex in Mountain View California is their first customer, and they are now beginning to test with hospital systems and looking to move into other large-employer facilities. It will be this scale that will allow them to continue to do the work they do at Wholesome Wave without being reliant on the philanthropic community and the ever-changing availability of grants and government assistance to the nonprofit sector. By following in the footsteps of his mentor, Paul Newman, who launched his commercial food company in service of his philanthropic goals, Nischan hopes to have a direct impact on both sides of the sector. Large companies with deep pockets can provide healthful dining options to their employees, and those profit dollars can support work with those who have limited financial resources. That symbiotic relationship only works because Nischan is still, at heart, a chef who wants to serve people delicious food.

“We taste extensively, we take the soups to our customers and solicit their feedback. We address the global, regional and ethnic flavors that are most in demand," says Nischan. His favorite soup of all time is called Native Three Sisters, made featuring corn, beans and hard squash—three plants have been planted for millennia by First Nations tribes. "It is the longest standing form of sustainable blessing agriculture. So, I was incredibly nervous about the results, but the commercial version is spectacular.”

Nischan had no need to be nervous. At a recent tasting with Food & Wine, the care taken in the production of the Wholesome Crave Soups was obvious.

“We were really impressed with the layered, nuanced flavors of the soups, the balanced seasoning, the integrity of the vegetables. It floored us that he literally opened a bag, and reheated, and that was it,” said associate food editor Josh Miller. “You could taste the intention and mindfulness behind the soups; each flavor was identifiable, present, but not overpowering.”

For Nischan, the mission is clear. “I believe that the combination of Wholesome Crave and Wholesome Wave will together achieve our goal of good food for all, regardless of income," he said. And beyond that, he hopes his fellow entrepreneurs will come along for the ride. "If we are wildly successful, other companies will follow suit in actually starring a portion of their direct revenues to address social causes. If the entire corporate sector would steer just 1% of their global revenues towards society’s most vexing problems, our world would be very different, and a much better place for everyone.”

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