The Westport Farmers’ Market did not exactly have humble beginnings.
Fourteen years ago Paul Newman and his sidekick, Michel Nischan — the chef and co-ownwer of Newman’s Dressing Room restaurant — opened the market in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot.
Newman’s name, Nischan’s passion — and the growing popularity of farmers’ markets — ensured a variety of vendors, and good crowds, from the start.
But now the Westport Farmers’ Market is really cooking.
It quickly outgrew its Playhouse home. The market moved to the Imperial Avenue commuter parking lot, just below the Westport Woman’s Club. There’s plenty of room, plenty of parking — and plenty to see, do and buy.
The Westport Farmers’ Market appeals to all ages. (Photo/Margaret Kraus)
When the new season opens this Thursday (May 23, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), longtime market goers and eager newcomers will enjoy nearly 50 vendors, food trucks, chef demonstrations, children’s activities, music and more.
Offerings range far beyond fresh fruits and vegetables, to organic meat, seafood, bread, baked goods, coffee and tea (and kombucha), ice cream, honey and empanadas.
The most popular lunch trucks — pizza and Mexican food — are back too.
This year’s highlights include the Chef at the Market competition; Get Growing, the kids’ activity program, and more lunch seating than ever.
The Westport Farmers’ Market is not just a place to stock up on great, healthy food.
It’s a destination.
Somewhere, Paul Newman is smiling.
(For more information on the Westport Farmers’ Market, click here.)
Sure, one of our most famous and beloved neighbors died 10 years ago this past Wednesday.
But we’ll never forget him.
And to make sure, Newman’s Own Foundation — the Westport-based charity that in over 35 years has given away more than $530 million — sent a video crew to the Thursday market to record our memories of him.
In typical fun Newman fashion, they provided a cardboard cutout of the movie star/race car driver/philanthropist (and Farmers’ Market co-founder) — famous blue eyes and all.
Westporters described seeing him around town, including at Hay Day and descending in a helicopter onto the Coleytown Junior High School soccer field. (Hey, that’s me talking!).
Michel Nischan — Newman’s co-founder of both the Dressing Room restaurant and Westport Farmers’ Market — said of the now thriving market, “Like everything he touched, it turned to gold. And this is the leading example of Paul Newman being alive and well, through the spirit of his great work.”
The video will be shared by Newman’s Own Foundation on social media.
Westporters of a certain age remember Paul Newman as one of the most famous movie idols of the 20th century — and our neighbor.
The man. The legend. The US postage stamp.
Younger Westporters — and their counterparts all around the country — know him as a salad dressing, popcorn and lemonade guy.
Lost in all that is the fact in 2006 that Paul Newman — who, don’t forget, was also a race car driver, and the founder of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp — teamed up with Michel Nischan to start The Dressing Room.
That superbly named restaurant next to the Westport Country Playhouse was Fairfield County’s first farm-to-table restaurant. And — thanks to the star power of its 2 owners — it helped kick-start a whole new way for local residents to look at food.
Here’s something else many folks don’t know (or forgot): The Playhouse parking lot was the original site of the Westport Farmers’ Market. The location was convenient and open. Both Newman and Nischan helped plant the seed, and watched it grow.
This September marks the 10th anniversary of Paul Newman’s death. To honor this remarkable man — one who during his 50 years gave tons of time, energy and money back to the town — the Farmers’ Market has created a special project with Newman’s Own. (The charitable foundation is one more of his legacies.)
Paul Newman often shopped at the Westport Farmer’s Market. He was a particular fan of the locally produced honey.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at this Thursday’s Farmers’ Market — and also on Thursday, August 16 — everyone is invited to share their memories of Paul Newman.
Newman’s Own will bring a life-sized cutout of their founder to the Market (now bigger than ever, at the Imperial Avenue parking lot). Video equipment will be on hand to record stories and tributes.
Clips may be shared by Newman’s Own Foundation, in a video and on social media.
Can’t make it to the market? Submissions can be emailed: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There must be a million Paul Newman stories in Westport. Let’s start those cameras rolling.
The long-running food hub — operating through March on Saturdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Gilbertie’s on Sylvan Lane South — has just received a $10,000 grant from Newman’s Own Foundation.
It’s a great connection for the 2 Westport-based organizations. The foundation — formed in 2005 by our own Paul Newman — focuses on 4 areas with the potential for transformational change. They include philanthropy, children, employment — and nutrition.
The Farmers’ Market, meanwhile, provides fresh, local, healthy and seasonal food to the community, while promoting education about local food and farms, and sustainable growing practices.
A typical scene at the Westport Farmers’ Market.
Lori Cochran-Dougall, WFM executive director, calls the grant “especially poignant.” After all, Newman helped found the market in 2006.
“Paul Newman and Michael Nischan” — Newman’s friend and partner in, among other things, the Dressing Room restaurant adjacent to the WFM’s 1st location in the Westport Country Playhouse’ parking lot — “brought life to the market we know and love today,” Cochran-Dougall says.
“Over the years we have proudly referred to Mr. Newman’s contributions and relished stories from Westporters who crossed his path at Town Hall on the days he was on a mission to get the market up and running.”
Paul Newman, flanked by Lori Cochran-Dougall and Michel Nischan.
Over a decade later, the market is thriving. It boasts some of the strictest standards for participation in the state, over 40 vendors, and that active indoor winter market.
The Newman’s Own funds will help the Farmer’s Market increase the breadth and depth of its programming.
“We’re not sure how to express our gratitude for this grant,” Cochran-Dougall says. “But we will work even harder to honor the founders who planted this seed.”
That national non-profit — based at the time in Westport, now in Bridgeport –helps underserved urban and rural communities gain more affordable access to healthy, locally grown foods, while supporting the small and mid-sized American farmers.
“Wholesome Wave is ready to explode,” Nischan told “06880” then. “It’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
In just 15 months, Wholesome Wave has certainly made its mark. And the world is noticing.
The foundation called Nischan — also co-founder of the Chef Action Network — “a trailblazer of the sustainable food movement and celebrity chef with over 30 years of experience advocating for a more local, (healthful, equitable) and regenerative food system.”
Citing initiatives like the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Healthy Food Commerce Investments — and its efforts with key decision makers in states, Congress and at federal agencies — the foundation said that Nischan’s organization has become “a model for forward-thinking, imaginative solutions that go beyond charity to focus on economic viability.”
Nischan thanked the Beard Foundation for the honor, adding, “I wholeheartedly agree with James when he said, ‘Food is our common ground.’”
In other food news, Opinionated About Dining may not carry the same cachet as the James Beard Foundation. But the self-styled “leading source of global restaurant rankings for devout diners” has just unveiled its 4th annual “Top 100 European Restaurants.”
Sitting at #1 — up 18 spots from last year — is that “champion of sustainability and pioneer of modern Basque cuisine, Azurmendi.”
What makes that spectacularly beautiful and very cool restaurant 15 kilometers east of Bilbao “06880”-worthy is that the chef de cuisine is Alex Burger. He’s a 2004 Staples grad who took every culinary class he could there. He honed his skills at Daniel in New York, then Asia and Malta.
After starting at Planet Pizza, right here in Westport.
“06880” is indeed where Westport meets — and eats — the world.
As the Imperial Avenue institution prepares for its 10th season, it’s not just a success. It’s flourishing wildly — reaping rewards not just for farmers and food-lovers but entire families, and even Fairfield County non-profits.
Sustaining a farmers’ market for a decade is just like farming: It takes patience, persistence and plenty of hard work.
When Lori Cochran took over as executive director 5 years ago, the market was limping along. It had begun in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot with great backing from Dressing Room owners Paul Newman and Michel Nischan, plus tremendous town support from selectmen Gordon Joseloff and Shelly Kassen.
After half a decade it was popular with a core group of shoppers and a small number of farmers. But there was no marketing, community outreach or special programming.
Working with Rebecca Howe, Lori dedicated herself to making the farmers’ market an integral part of the town. “Not to be cheesy, but all of us here live, eat and breathe this,” she says.
On the food side, Westport’s market has the strictest requirements of any in the state. All vegetables are organic. The fruit is grown without pesticides or herbicides. Anyone selling prepared food must use at least one locally produced ingredient, for every item — ideally, from another market farmer.
That develops a strong community of vendors who support each other.
Lori created a partnership with Staples High School and the Gillespie Center. The Westport Farmers’ Market buys local food; students in Staples’ culinary program prepare it, and market volunteers serve it at the homeless shelter just across Jesup Road.
Every week, the market hosts a different non-profit. The organization showcases its work. Many create special programs for market-goers.
The Farmers’ Market works closely with the Bridgeport Rescue Mission too. Members come to the market every Thursday. They collect food, donated by vendors. Back at the mission, a chef helps them use the ingredients to prepare great meals.
On the 3rd Thursday of every month, a local chef offers demonstrations. Only those who use farm-to-table ingredients participate. The waiting list is long, Lori notes.
Each spring, several Staples seniors work at the market as interns. One has gone on to head up the organic market at his college; another founded a community supported agriculture organization at hers. They’ve grown up knowing the importance of a local farmers’ market.
So do younger kids. Thanks to partnerships with the Westport Library and Westport Arts Center, youngsters hear stories involving food, and make arts projects with vegetables. Lori is thrilled to help nurture a new generation of Westporters who understand the importance of farmers’ markets.
This year, the Westport market will introduce an “Ambassadors” program. “A lot of times people buy great stuff, but they get home and don’t know what to do with it all,” Lori explains. “So every month we’ll feature 1 lunch and 1 dinner recipe, featuring ingredients from the market. We’ll have ‘ambassadors’ right there, suggesting the best ways to use certain products.”
Lori is proud that the Westport Farmers’ Market has become such an integral part of the community. (Along with its novel addition, the 4-year-old Winter Market held at Gilberties’ Herb Garden.)
“Westport is an incredibly dynamic, supportive place,” Lori says. “Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner (1st and 2nd selectmen) do everything they can for us.”
Her mission this year — beginning on opening day May 21, and continuing through the fall — is for every Westporter to enjoy the farmers’ market bounty.
“We bring quality, healthy food from local farmers right to people’s back yards,” she says. “Everyone supports everyone else.”
They eat very well while doing it, too.
(The Westport Farmers’ Market kicks off its 10th season on Thursday, May 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Imperial Avenue parking lot. The “official celebration” on Thursday, June 11 features music, activities, and a tribute to the 8 founding farmers who are still there.)
As the herb becomes legal — recreationally in 4 states, for medical use in 23 (including Connecticut) — “cooking with cannabis is emerging as a legitimate and very lucrative culinary pursuit,” the Times says.
Noted food writer Kim Severson reported on a discussion in a 5-star Boulder hotel earlier this year. Chefs in town for a conference examined “a collection of marijuana-infused sweets.”
Michel Nischan — identified as “a chef from Connecticut,” but best known in Westport as the former owner of The Dressing Room — described a snickerdoodle, which Severson said was “baked with just enough cannabis-infused butter to give a novice a tender high.”
“The weed is pretty faint, but it’s not an un-delicious weed type flavor,” Nischan pronounced. “It’s almost like when you do a savory cookie and you might find sage or rosemary or verbena in it.”
This message was posted today by founder-owner Michel Nischan on the website of The Dressing Room — his very popular (and quite cleverly named) restaurant next to the Westport Country Playhouse.
After 8 great years and hundreds of thousands of delicious, local and sustainable farm-direct meals, Dressing Room Restaurant has closed. Founded by internationally renowned chef Michel Nischan and the late actor Paul Newman in 2006, the restaurant was Fairfield County’s first farm-to-table restaurant.
Michel Nischan at the Dressing Room, with a portrait of co-founder Paul Newman.
We thank our customers who shared our passion and genuine interest in supporting regional growers and responsible farming methods. As a result of their loyal support, and the resulting successful 8-year run of the restaurant, there are now nearly a dozen farm-to-table restaurants gracing discerning Fairfield County palates while supporting Connecticut agriculture.
Dressing Room Restaurant received numerous awards and accolades in the local and national food press, including one of Condé Nast Traveler’s “Top 95 New Restaurants in the World” (2006) and recognition for “The Best Burger in America” by Steve Raichlen, USA Today (2010). This is a testimony to meals made with the best locally grown, artisanal and organic foods.
The Dressing Room.
Lori and I want to thank our talented staff and their families, whose selfless dedication to our cause made the vision a reality. Nearly every team member was with us from the very beginning, and each nurtured their guests with a sense of genuine hospitality not seen in many restaurants today.
When Paul and I founded the restaurant, we wanted to change in the way people thought about food. We believed that all people should be able to put the same ripe tomato on their family’s table, regardless of their income
Lori and I will always hold Dressing Room Restaurant dear in our hearts. Our talented culinary and service team made it one of the most amazing restaurants ever to grace Connecticut. We operated as a family unit, bonded together by a strong set of core values and love of good food.
With a more deeply dedicated focus on Wholesome Wave [the national non-profit founded by Nischan to help underserved urban and rural communities gain more affordable access to healthy, locally grown foods while supporting the small and mid-sized American farmers], I am proud that more people will have access to amazing meals. We encourage you to support farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, and healthier food choices. After all, it’s all about food. Good, pure, affordable, wholesome, delicious, local food. For everyone!
Reached tonight, Michel told “06880”: “Lori and I have been thinking this over for a while. Wholesome Wave is ready to explode. The Dressing Room was awesome and wonderful, but I reached a point where I need to devote all my time to one thing. Wholesome Wave is what I want to do when I grow up.”
Westporters know Michel Nischan as the founder and owner of The Dressing Room, the restaurant next to the Westport Country Playhouse that was local, sustainable and organic before those 3 words were trending.
But he’s also the president and CEO of Wholesome Wave Foundation, a nonprofit that helps low-income people obtain healthy, fresh and affordable locally grown food.
Plus, he’s the father of a son who, more than a decade ago, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.
That was around the time that Nischan was commuting to a fancy New York restaurant. The subway was filled with people who could not afford the expensive meals he was creating for elite, affluent diners.
That realization, he said last week on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” nearly made him quit the restaurant business entirely.
Instead, he teamed up with doctors — his son’s, and others. Nischan thought that if they could prescribe healthy food and exercise — and not simply medicine — diseases like diabetes could be controlled. And perhaps, even reversed.
Today, Wholesome Wave has piloted a program in 7 states. It offers free produce, plus tips on cooking and economizing.
At a pilot program in the Bronx, NPR said, participants receive a prescription that can be swapped for Health Bucks — $1 per day, for each person in the family — accepted at 140 farm markets in the city. That means a family of 4 gets $28 of free produce a week.
“It’s a little unusual,” admits a Lincoln Hospital pediatrician, because doctors are accustomed to writing prescriptions for drugs.
But it works. A 14-year-old girl used to gorge on chips, candy, soda and ice cream. She told NPR that she’d never eaten a pear or cantaloupe.
Over the past year, she tried peppery radishes and greens. She lost more than 20 pounds, and she thinks her taste buds are changing. “I don’t know how to explain it, but [the fresh food] tastes better.”
From his own son’s diabetes, Michel Nischan has planted the seeds of a national, wholesome wave of nutritional, wholesome eating.
To listen to the NPR “All Things Considered” interview, click here or below:
According to yesterday’s NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Michel Nischan is “usually found cooking in his restaurant in one of Connecticut’s toniest towns.”
That would be The Dressing Room, here in Westport.
But according to reporter Allison Aubrey, this week the world renowned chef was in Washington, DC. Nearly 1,000 “corporate movers and shakers” attended a summit aimed at shaping private sector solutions to America’s obesity epidemic.
Actually, Paul Newman’s erstwhile partner was not just sitting listening to lectures. He cooked up a storm.
A creative, healthful, and very, very flavorful storm.
Introducing Nischan, Aubrey said, “you don’t need fancy foraged mushrooms or Connecticut oysters to make a great first course.”
Nischan whipped up something that cost “pennies,” and included “anti-oxidants, fiber and all kind of wonderful things like that.”
He added an entree of heirloom grain risotto with autumn vegetables — a “seasonal feast on a reality-check budget.”
Nischan is “passionate” about seeing a sea change in the way Americans eat, the radio report said.
Aubrey went on to examine the small ways in which restaurant chains like Olive Garden, and retailers like Walmart, are leveraging size and scale to change eating habits (at no cost to their bottom lines).
The piece ended as it began: with a focus on Nischan.
Chicken thighs call for creativity.
He roasted chicken thighs for the 800 summit attendees, adding cloves and cumin to “drive down fat, and amp up flavor.”
The guests loved the seasonal ingredients, and exciting food combinations. They cleaned their plates.
At least one corporation was converted. Hyatt Hotels announced a plan to remake some menus — starting with its kids’ meals.
That’s one small step for Michel Nischan. And one giant step for the nation’s waistline.
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