The three-day Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, starting on Sept. 29, will feature chefs from around the world, including Michel Nischan of the Dressing Room in Connecticut. In addition, he will be moderating a panel on the future of Hawaii’s food industry.
The festival’s co-founder Roy Yamaguchi has known him for years and asked if he’d like to participate. Nischan says, “(Roy) left a message saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a Food & Wine festival, you gotta come.’ I said, ‘You only have to ask once, man. You’re Roy Yamaguchi. What do you want me to do? Wash dishes? No problem! He’s a good man.”
He’s been to a lot of Food & Wine festivals, and found this one to be very organized. “It hasn’t happened yet but I know exactly what I’m doing. I had a product list two months ago of all the local stuff. The farms it comes from. I mean, I’ve never seen this before anywhere that I’ve gone. It’s so, so organized. It’s really awesome. … That’s the hand of Roy, man!”
Nischan will serving some of his restaurant’s signature dishes with a local twist on Oct. 1. “We’re going to be doing local pork over chopped salad using all Hawaii fruits and vegetables, so we’re really stoked about it,” Nischan says. “My partner in Dressing Room restaurant, where I’m the owner, was the late actor Paul Newman. And one of his favorite things in the world was a chopped salad, provided that it was really chopped fine enough that you could eat it with a spoon. So it’s going to be, ‘Use a spoon chopped salad,’ with these pork ribs that were his favorite ribs in the whole world.”
Born into a farming family in Missouri, Michel Nischan has been living the farm-to-table ethos throughout his culinary career. He learned to cook from his mother and knew how to butcher and dress a pig by the time he turned 12. Nischan originally pursued a music career, but when money was hard to come by, his mother suggested he work at a restaurant so he could at least eat. He excelled at it, but what he saw disheartened him.
“I was shocked at the quality of the food coming through the back door that everybody thought was good,” Nischan says. “Tomatoes that were perfectly round and pink, or tomatoes in February. And I’m like, why do we have to have tomatoes? Shouldn’t we wait until the tomatoes are good? Then I find out that when June, July and August came around the tomatoes were exactly the same, they weren’t any better. … I figured when I became a chef, I could just buy from farmers and my food would be better than everyone else’s. When I became chef of the Fleur de Lis restaurant in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1981 and I immediately went out to the countryside to look for farmers, only to find out there weren’t any. In the summers, I spent working five weeks on what was left of my grandfather’s farm up until I was 16, thinking that that was normal. It was a real shock to me, and a wake up call. So, from the very beginning when I became a chef, I endeavored to try and buy from local producers. At first it was all about just supporting farmers and trying to bring back that way of life so people could have good food. I just found it terrible that so many Americans had become disconnected from what really good food was and I wanted to try and do something about it.”
He’s also the CEO and president of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that brings healthy food to residents in urban food deserts. Its biggest program is the Double Value Coupon Program, which matches federal SNAP benefits, or food stamps, when they are used on local produce at the farmers’ market.
At the festival, he will be moderating a luncheon panel on Sept. 30, “Setting the 21st Century Table in Hawaii,” focusing on “the cultural value of bringing people back to the table,” he says.
“At Wholesome Wave, we’re all about being able to make that happen for everybody,” Nischan says. “We believe that being able to have access to healthful, delicious, locally grown, culturally appropriate food so that people of diverse ethnicities and cultural backgrounds can celebrate their traditions and honor their cultural DNA. We believe that’s something that everybody should be able to participate in. Because then, when there’s a place at the table for everybody, it really is a food system.”
Photo: Courtesy Hawaii Food and Wine Festival