Interview with Chef Michel Nischan of Rubicon - San Francisco

October 2011

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 mistakes.

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 way.

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 or cream?

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 accomplish this?

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.