Laura Lehrman: What and who were the influencing factors that
led you to become a chef?
Michel Nischan: My mother has had the most profound influence
over my cooking. She's a fantastic cook, but more than that,
she's a true purist when it comes to product quality. I also
credit my Grandfather for imparting sage advice. Once I was
hooked on cooking, I pursued my career goals by heeding my Grandfather's
advice, "The best school is the school of eyes open, ears open,
mouth closed and hands-on." The latter two being the most important.
LL: Once you made the decision to
pursue cooking as a career, how did you go about achieving
your goal? What has been your greatest challenge in this arena?
MN: When I started working in fine restaurants early in my
career, I was shocked at the amount of non-fresh products
that some restaurants relied on. Herbs were dry, tomato paste
was used in two-thirds of the sauces and leftovers went into
the stockpot. Everything that arrived fresh was blanched and
"shocked" in advance. In the beginning, this was discouraging,
but then it eventually became an encouragement. It was then
that I realized that I didn't have to rely on traditional
European cooking background or culinary school education to
have an edge. My standards and the respect for the products
I worked with surprised the chefs with whom I was working.
Once they became aware of my enthusiasm and seriousness about
food, they rewarded me by sharing their knowledge.
It wasn't easy to break into the industry, though. The challenge
was working with people who had tons of background or schooling
who sometimes worked against me because they felt that I didn't
deserve to be as good or better than them. I actually pretended
that I was from Europe at one time in order to make the environment
more hassle-free. It was hugely funny. When people thought
I came from Europe, they actually took me more seriously.
For example, when I would say, "these berries are not good,"
they would run out to get better berries and I wasn't even
their boss in the kitchen! This situation actually angered
me for a while — the idea that people wouldn't work cooperatively
with someone based solely on their natural ability or talent.
I'm glad that it's different these days.
LL: It is obvious that you enjoy
what you do. What are the aspects of the job that are so satisfying
to you? What are the drawbacks?
MN: There are so many satisfying aspects of my career, it
is difficult to choose what to mention. One is guest satisfaction.
When someone honestly enjoys the dining experience, I feel
as though I've accomplished something great. Another is when
I see one of my cooks conquer something that's been a struggle.
Also, when I run into someone completely anonymous to me who
says, "So, you're the chef at Heartbeat. (So and So) cooks
for you and says that he loves it there!"
This leads to some of the drawbacks because there are times
when I feel a dish in my mind and it won't come true, even
if I beat it with a large stick. Another drawback is hiring
someone you really believe will be great and then the person
turns out to be the opposite of what you had expected. There
are few things worse than working with someone who cares more
about speed or position or the demands of the waitstaff rather
than about the food and the guests. Thankfully, the longer
I work in this field, the less I make these kinds of hiring
LL: Your menu at Heartbeat has been
pronounced, "Thoughtful, earnest and original." Can you explain
to our readers what the reviewer was referring to and how
you accomplish this feat?
MN: Thoughtful, earnest and original. That made me feel good
mostly because I pray that it's true. I believe Heartbeat
is thoughtful because I really try to think about what we
are cooking and how it is going to affect the people eating
it. When Drew Nieporent chose me for the concept, he said,
"You cook for all the right reasons. Stick with this and you'll
do very well."
Michael Bonadies, Drew Nieporent's senior partner in the
Myriad Restaurant Group, told me to go back to my roots and
search for all those good things my mother instilled in me.
This really affected me as the pressure of creating a no-butter/no-cream
menu was freaking me out a little. When I looked back to my
roots, I found my anchor. My roots (Mom) taught me that when
you cook, you are cooking for those who are eating, not for
those who are cooking. This is where the thoughtful and earnest
part comes in. I am also very aware that we truly are what
we eat. When I design a dish, I think of the result on the
persons eating the dish. I have a rare chance to help someone
be better from what they eat. It's almost eerie in a powerful
I think originality comes from the fact that no one's really
had the guts yet to put their career on the line by fully
shunning butter and foie gras. I've jumped through fiery hoops
to see that diners can experience a decent spectrum of flavor
profiles at Heartbeat. I know that we're doing stuff no one
else has tried. It hasn't been easy, but it has been very
fun. And, we're not done yet, not by any means.
LL: Would you please divulge some
of your cooking secrets, tips and advice to home cooks who
would like to serve "Heartbeat-style" food to their families
- food that is boldly flavored without the addition of butter
MN: My cooking secrets begin with small, simple truths. If
the product is great raw, don't cook it. If you do cook it,
don't do much to it. If the product is not good, don't waste
your time trying to make it taste good. I also try to limit
my use of total ingredients for each dish. So many cooks search
for balance by adding more and more and more ingredients.
I like to use as few as possible. It's easier to paint using
twenty colors than using five, but achieving balance with
five is cleaner and clearer. You also have to be more thoughtful
when using less.
I also use low temperature sautéing. If you heat
a pan over a low flame for a long period of time, it gets
quite hot. Hot enough to sear. You oil the item you are cooking,
rather than oiling the pan. When you add the item, the pan
is hot enough to sear. The magic is that surface area of the
pan under the item cools quickly because the fire is low.
This protects the integrity of the oil and keeps it from scorching.
When you scorch extra virgin olive oil, or any other oil,
it loses its flavor. It also produces free radicals, which
are very, very bad for you.
Take the time and the risks to make special things like
fresh, pristine stocks. Get a juicer. If you've invested in
a food processor, you can afford a juicer. Not only can you
drink fresh, healthful vegetable juices, you can use juices
to make your sauces. Imagine a sauce made from the juice of
a fresh vegetable. What could be better? You really don't
have to use butter to make things taste good. Use oils that
heat well for cooking (canola and grapeseed) and flavored
oils to finish or dress (extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil).
Vinegar or citrus juice, salt, fresh pepper or peppers, honey
or raw cane sugar are cornerstone ingredients with which you
can achieve balance. Once you've achieved the balance, start
adding the flavorings which you favor— one at a time. Don't
get carried away. The more stuff you add, the more you need
fat to mellow the flavorings.
LL: We have discussed the fact that
you'd like to "get back to your roots" in your cooking. What
are you referring to and how do you best think that you can
MN: I always try to stay close to my roots when I cook. But,
it is difficult to incorporate the smells, flavors, and methodology
of country cooking into heartbeat food. There is no such thing
as safe fried chicken or smothered pork chops. I am not saying
country cooking is necessarily unhealthful. The way today's
diner eats country cooking is unhealthful. When I was a kid,
my Mom would do fried chicken with noodle dumplings. It was
an awesome dinner that was served with another five bowls
and platters of raw, cooked, roasted, and pickled vegetables.
There were always greens, both cooked and raw. By the time
you finished your meal, sixty to seventy percent of everything
you consumed was a vegetable. Diners today will choose the
smothered pork chop with mashed potatoes and gravy, maybe
a salad. When you eat that much of the heavy stuff without
dietary fiber, you're hosed!
Country cooking and heartbeat food is similar in that they
both rely on using the perfectly ripe tomato or peach. They
also thrive on the use of limited ingredients. Collard greens
consist of five ingredients: salt, hot pepper, pork stock,
collard greens, and malt vinegar. Same with smothered pork
chops. The challenge is that you can't remove saturated fat
from a shoulder pork chop. The chop is also best cooked in
the pork fat skimmed from the top of the pork stock. Heartbeat
food focuses on changing the components of cooking, rather
than the eating habit of the diner. In true country cooking,
you have to change the diner's eating habits if you don't
want to kill them. That, some day, will be another project
for me to undertake because I will never let go of my roots.
LL: You are known for your use of
fresh, best quality ingredients. What are your recommendations
to people all over the world who would also like to cook with
only the freshest foods? Do you have some special tips about
how they should go about selecting the ingredients with which
they will be cooking?
MN: I was recently a guest at a live cooking demo and a strong,
healthy home cook asked why I didn't include microwave tips
for vegetables during my cooking demos since microwaves have
been proven safe. I explained that it's not about radiation
or the fear of turning food flourescent blue. It's about smelling,
touching, watching, and listening as the flavors, aromas,
and colors of what you are cooking develop. It's about slowing
down to smell the roses. You really don't realize just how
beautiful a rose is until you get close enough to smell one.
Then you're tempted to touch and then you suddenly hear the
bees gathering their nectar. Now you are taking a journey!
I have strong feelings about the need to get home and restaurant
cooks to progress to the next level. Over the last 50 years,
cooks have gone from kneading their own bread, to absolute
reliance on overly preserved convenience foods, back to a
genuine yearning for fresh product. We still have a long way
to go. Many cooks are cooking and eating only with their mouths
and noses. What about the crackle of a gentle sauté
rather than the harsh spattering and popping sound that comes
from cooking too hot? We cook with our ears. What about gently
lifting the under side of a nice piece of snapper to check
the sear and rejoicing in the development of the perfect golden
brown? It sure beats blindly following the recommended time
before turning it over. We cook with our eyes too!
LL: Please tell us a little about
your philosophy of how to keep all the people who report to
you in the kitchen happy, healthy and productive.
MN: These are the things I try to instill in all my cooks
— When you look at a dish with all your senses, you take a
journey every time you cook. Sometimes, slowing the process
down generates excitement. It also cultivates respect for
the product. If you're moving too fast, you don't notice a
ripe tomato. If you slow down, you take notice and appreciate.
You also take notice and experience disappointment when you
encounter an under-ripe or poorly-handled tomato. It's all
about taking time to smell the tomato, then sharing the experience
and the tomatoes with the customer.
Interview was conducted by Laura Lehrman