The Restaurant Behind a Chef's Fresh-Foods Philanthropy

Michel Nischan's foundation has made fresh produce a priority—and his restaurant has quietly done the same for years


Michel Nischan's a well-known guy in food circles, having launched a program through Wholesome Wave Foundation that cuts the price of farmers' markets by 50 percent for people in need.

The organization found—surprise!—that low-income people really want fresh fruits and veggies from local farms but the problem has been affordability and access. The foundation tackles this issue by doubling the value of federal food vouchers, or what used to be known as food stamps. On the back of the success at one farmers' market in Connecticut, they've now expanded the program to more than 30 states and gotten the attention of the White House.  

I had heard Nischan talk about this achievement a couple of times, then met up again at the Kneading Conference in Maine. Why was he there? Nischan says he got a wake-up call about whole grains after his son was diagnosed with diabetes and he began researching and changing the family's diet to include more vegetables, fruit, and grains. Then he brought that knowledge into restaurants he ran.

Now, in these talks, Nischan always mentions The Dressing Room, the restaurant that he co-founded with the actor Paul Newman in Westport, Connecticut. He usually refers to it in passing, since it's not the subject of his talks. But I was always curious about it and since we were driving right through the area on a summer vacation I figured, hey, gotta try it. 

The place is casual, friendly, and inviting—I was in shorts, we took our young daughter—but don't let that handicap any preconceptions of the food. The menu is driven by what's seasonally available, from local farms and the sea. Nischan used to cook here, but now that he's devoting himself to the foundation executive chef Jon Vaast has stepped up. What I loved was his ability to serve something simple, such as plate of crunchy sauteed green beans at the peak of summer, alongside an earthy buckwheat pasta with lamb ragout. Nischan mentioned that the restaurant grinds the flour itself (yes, the freshness makes a difference, as I've found in grinding grains for my breadmaking). Vaast's special of the night was a braised pork shoulder which happily married rich, tender, slow-cooked pork with creamy fennel. This is a go-to dish, if they have it on the menu. I stuck with a spicy lobster and mussel stew that was a riff on Mediterranean soups. Think of the sea with a spicy kick.

Nischan sent out a few plates for us to taste and nothing fell flat. In fact, when the kitchen went deep into its repertoire, as with the pork shoulder, it shined, but the cooks also knew when to hold their punches and keep it simple, as with a tomato salad from Nischan's garden.

Maybe it's that kind of approach which led him to Wholesome Wave. Nischan knew that linking a restaurant with homegrown food would be a success—just as Wholesome Wave understands that farm-fresh produce would be enticing to anyone regardless of income. The only difference? I'd make a reservation for The Dressing Room.

Image: Courtesy of The Dressing Room

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Samuel Fromartz is a Washington-based writer focusing on food, the environment, and business. He is the author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew and is currently working on a book about bakers and bread.

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