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December 2007


FEATURES

Homegrown Holiday
By Dina Cheney
Photographs by Francis Janisch

WESTPORT'S DRESSING ROOM RESTAURANT SERVES UP A HEALTHY, LOCALLY GROWN FEAST

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For a celebrity chef, Michel Nischan, the chef/co-owner (with Paul Newman) of Westport's Dressing Room restaurant, is a down-to-earth guy. His earliest memory is standing on a step stool in the kitchen of his family's farm and helping his mother can tomatoes still warm from the vine.

When creating the menu for what he calls his "homegrown restaurant," Nischan continues to be inspired by his farm roots, serving sophisticated renditions of the foods he grew up growing, cooking and eating: smothered pork chops, fried chicken, dumplings, collard greens and black-eyed peas.

Now, as then, his meals almost always begin with local or regional agricultural products, preferably from farms using environmentally sound practices. Sidebars on the menu are veritable primers on organic food production, touting the merits of pasture-raised versus corn-fed cattle and fish that are individually line caught—rather than scooped up in large nets—by Tobago fisherman "in the style of their great-grandfathers."

As Nischan explains, cooking with just-picked produce from a nearby farm translates to fresher, healthier fare. "You pick a tomato, spray it over and over and ship it across the country, and, by the time it's eaten, it will have a lot fewer vitamins and minerals than a tomato picked yesterday and sold at the farmer's market today," he says. "And it tastes better, too. When more care goes into the growing and raising of a product, it's easier to work with," he continues. "You get a great pasture-raised, organic lamb and all you have to do is salt and pepper and roast it. You don't have to stud it with garlic and marinate it for two days. I treat high-quality ingredients very simply."

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