Michel Nischan isn't French. He's a child of the Chicago suburbs whose first name made him something of a target on the playground but, eventually, a natural in haute cuisine kitchens. And it wasn't just his name that made his early life the chronicle of a chef foretold. Nischan's parents had fled their respective family farms in the South when industrialization made them obsolete, but the couple preserved a slice of rural life in the middle of suburbia. "In Des Plaines, Illinois, we had less than a quarter acre," Nischan says, "and my mother rented two rototillers from Ace Hardware, dug up the backyard and side yard, and planted what our neighbors called 'the farm.' We had a small brick patio with a couple of lawn chairs and a table and rows and rows of vegetables. My mom taught me how to cook, but the fact that I knew what good ingredients were did more to rapid-fire my career than anything."
Nischan never forgot the magnificence of his mother's fresh vegetables, but for a few years he kept her lessons in simple, pure flavors simmering on the back burner. As a chef at various French restaurants and at his own place, Miche Mache, in Connecticut, he often masked the food's true taste with complex, multilayered sauces. "The French 'mount' sauces with fat, usually butter," he writes in the introduction to his new cookbook, Taste Pure and Simple. "This means they thicken and smooth their sauces by adding small amounts of fat during cooking, letting the fat emulsify rather than melt, and then add more until the sauce achieves the velvety texture and superrich flavor that have made French sauces famous the world over. I embraced this technique wholeheartedly."
But eight years ago, the Nischans' 5-year-old son, Chris, was diagnosed with diabetes. The outpouring of empathy made Nischan realize how many people around him had diet-restricting health problems. All those diners who time after time would request the same chicken and fish dishes, sauce on the side the "narrow-minded" ones who Nischan wished would "live a little" - were, he says, "ordering food that way because there was nothing else on the menu for them. They were trying to live a little."
He decided to cook for them. He got his big chance in 1998, when he was hired as chef for a new restaurant in New York called Heartbeat. As he tried to create a menu with no butter, cream, or saturated fat, he realized that fat was overrated as an imparter of flavor. He saw that if you didn't "mount" a sauce, you wouldn't have to dismount it, so to speak - that is, if you didn't thicken a corn sauce with butter, cream, and flour, then you wouldn't later have to add vanilla, nutmeg, and brown sugar to reawaken the flavor of the corn. Instead you could, from the start, bring out the corn's true flavor by squeezing the kernels in a vegetable juicer (Nischan is really big on juicers) and adding just a dash of lemon and seasonings. Drizzle some of this creamy but creamless sauce on scallops, and you'll be showered with gratitude. Pureed pistachios allow you to avoid processed starch in a simple, rich sauce for roasted chicken. Asian flavors like ginger and lemongrass make a robust yet light sauce for grilled snapper.
Nischan found that piling fewer ingredients atop one another saved time as well as calories, and allowed the main ingredient to sing out full-throatedly. But, he points out, "the less fat you use, the more exceptional the quality of your ingredients has to be." To that end, he left the restaurant and committed himself to bringing organic, healthy food to everybody. With a couple of cohorts, he started the New American Farmer Initiative, which introduces immigrant farmers (Cambodian, Chinese, Latin American), with their own growing techniques, to successful small farmers. The organization then links the farmers to chefs, who order their produce. It's a clearinghouse for farmers, and, he says, "the field is the warehouse."
Nischan dreams of the day
This is a classic culinary redemption narrative that's sure to find its way into a home kitchen: a French-trained chef endures a family health crisis, then rethinks cooking. Nischan, whose young son has type 1 diabetes, revamped his cooking style from top to bottom. Except in his very short, fruit-oriented dessert section, Nischan uses nary a speck of butter, relying instead on canola and grapeseed oil for cooking fats. For flavor, he calls on a battery of rich stocks and reductions: golden beet syrup, rutabaga syrup, roasted garlic stock, rich mushroom stock, chicken "glaze." In addition to coaxing the most intense possible flavor out of generally mild ingredients, Nischan goes for the culinary jugular with the pantry's flavor giants, as in Pan-roasted Quail with Peach and Porcini Mushroom Hash and Rack of Lamb with Pomegranate-Date Chutney. Though the vegetarian entrees seem less than inspired, sides and soups are twisted and tweaked into intriguing forms: Green Tomato Soup with Heirloom Tomatoes and Vidalia Onion Garnish, Tamari Pecans, even "Marshmallow" Corn, pre-soaked in vanilla and milk. This volume is beautifully photographed and elegantly designed, and Nischan's narrative is hard to resist, especially as he caramelizes, roasts and glazes his way to low-fat nirvana. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.