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Fresh Start

What does it take to go organic, vegan, or raw? Fairfielders lead the “new food” movement and make it look irresistibly good

photographs by bruce Plotkin

With a stellar lineup of more than a dozen health-oriented shops, markets, cafés, local CSAs and private programs, Fairfield seems to be positioning itself as one of the country’s healthiest small towns. Officially recognized as such or not, Fairfielders unarguably have the awareness and the means to make fresh, organic food part of their lifestyle. With a median age of under forty, Fairfield is a community of the young and fit. Also, credit must go to some of the pioneers of this farm-to-fork movement: sustainable-food advocate Michel Nischan, founder of The Dressing Room in Westport and Wholesome Wave; Health in a Hurry proprietor and vegetarian champion Sue Cadwell; and Glen Colello and Lisa Storch, founders of Fairfield’s radically hip raw food-and-juice destination Catch a Healthy Habit.

“I grew up knowing not only what a ripe tomato was but also what kind it was, when it was ripe, and if it was best for canning or pickling,” says Chef Nischan, who was raised on a farm in Illinois and now lives with his own family in Fairfield. His parents grew their food and taught their kids to appreciate it. “My mother tore up the lawn and planted gardens,” he says. “I could fry a chicken when I was twelve. But I didn’t realize until I grew older and became a chef just how lucky we were to grow up knowing real food.” These days, more and more Fairfielders are equally lucky, learning how healthy and delicious real food can be. 

Back to The Roots

Sue Cadwell, who has lived in Fairfield for most of her five decades, was reared on meals from the other side of the spectrum. “Plain-Jane food” she calls it, but adds that, ironically, it’s what first inspired her to eat well—because she wanted to eat something different. In sixth grade she bought her first little plants at Gilbertie’s Herb Garden and planted a window box. “I was a farmer-wannabe at age ten,” she says.

She wound up working at a nursery in Westport and also as an environmental activist. But she craved something else. “I wanted to feed my soul by feeding others,” she says. So she devoured books like Diet for a Small Planet, and those early veg-friendly classics The Moosewood Bible, Kripalu and cookbooks. “I kept coming back to the same question,” she recalls. “Why doesn’t someone do fast-food health food?”

She eventually hatched a plan for a healthy food delivery service, wrote a menu featuring simple vegetarian choices—such as chili, soup, salads—and started cooking and delivering prepared dishes around twice a week. She called her business Health in a Hurry, and the name and menu stuck.

She went on to study at the premier vegetarian institution, the Natural Gourmet Cookery School in Manhattan, and was an extern at the city’s famous vegan restaurant Angelica’s Kitchen. In 2004 she opened a veggie restaurant, the first of its kind, in its current location on the Post Road and has since struggled to keep up with the demand. Part of her success is simply the exquisite taste of creative dishes like the favorite lemon curry rice salad (with house-made curry powder), and her signature veggie burgers, made with lentils, brown rice, veggies (including portobellos), and a honey-mustard sauce. She also thinks people just know a good thing when they eat it.

“When you eat nutritionally dense organic whole foods, you feel better, you get sated faster, feel fuller, and eat less,” Cadwell says. “You get more nutrients from food grown in good soil, including hard-to-get but essential trace minerals. It’s almost a natural law: ‘Industrial food’ made in a football field–size factory by workers in astronaut suits wearing goggles can never compare to, say, four women working with fresh wholesome ingredients making small batches of burgers. That’s real soul food. We’re a conscientious kitchen, and we’re picky about our ingredients. They’re mostly all organic, we use minimal salt and oil, and with every step we try to raise the bar.”

Cadwell insists that you don’t have to give up anything to eat healthfully. “I call it ‘palate expansion,’” she says. “We tend to eat the same foods over and over again. But as we introduce new choices, we begin to experience food in a different way and start to feel stronger and more in touch with our bodies. And as we get used to feeling better, cravings of lower-quality food—with high sugar and fat and snack foods—lessen and the body actually starts to crave what is better for it.” Garden Fresh

Today all but the most stalwart skeptics accept that we are what we eat, and if we eat high amounts of artery-clogging animal protein and cell-damaging and inflammatory fats, we’re putting our health in jeopardy.

In his now famous research project conducted in partnership with Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., spent twenty years studying the relationship between food, lifestyle factors and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in rural China and Taiwan. Dr. Campbell summed up his findings (published in 2004 as “The China Study”) by saying, “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic diseases….People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic diseases. These results could not be ignored.”

Medical doctors, including Mehmet Oz, Dean Ornish, John MacDougal, Doug Graham, Neal Barnard, and Barry Sears, and prominent journalists like Michael Pollan, adamantly concur. Dr. Ornish published a “meta-study” (a review of many clinical trials) in 2009 in which he cited one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (“Meat Intake and Mortality,” Sinha, Cross, Graubard, Leitzmann, Schatzkin), whose authors noted, “The National Institutes of Health and AARP study of 500,000 subjects reported that the consumption of red meat was significantly associated with increases in total mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cancer mortality.”

Glen Colello didn’t want to wind up on the wrong side of those statistics. “Ten years ago, a chiropractor told me that even though I was in good shape, as I got older, my little ailments and kinks would get worse,” he says. “I was eating the standard American diet and drinking alcohol. He told me—he actually guaranteed me—that I’d improve my long-range prospects if over six months I would cut down on sugar, meat and dairy.”

Not one for halfway measures, Colello gave up all meat and dairy that day (sugar required some weaning). Almost immediately he started to feel “awesome,” and had a career, and life, turnaround. He enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in Manhattan and got certified as a health counselor. Of all the different dietary approaches he studied, the raw lifestyle appealed most to him, and in characteristic fashion, he went close to one hundred percent raw.

Colello and his partner, Lisa Storch, run the raw, organic vegetarian restaurant Catch a Healthy Habit together—and they’re well aware that not everyone can change lifestyle habits overnight the way Colello did in 2002. In their cozy shop, they serve foods that cover all points along the healthy-eating spectrum, from nutrient-dense raw juices to creamy smoothies to such familiar-sounding dishes as burgers, tacos, pad thai, sushi, and spaghetti and meatballs.

Parse the menu and you’ll see the burgers are made from nuts, veggies, and shiitakes; the pad thai has zucchini and kelp noodles; the nori features cashew cheese, sprouts, and avocados; and the “meatballs” are a delightful blend of nothing resembling meat.

“Most people need to transition more slowly,” Colello notes, explaining why they offer something for all palates. “I find everyone’s journey toward health, no matter where they start, rewarding. I really want to help people transform their lives in a meaningful way.

“We’re not a trendy new restaurant. We started in West Haven in 2008 and moved to Fairfield in 2009. When people come in here, there’s usually a reason—their doctor told them to eat more vegetables or a nutritionist suggested it or they want to lose weight. But we are firm believers that there is no one-size-fits-all diet. What works for you doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.”

But he does believe that juicing is good for everyone. “When you juice fruits and veggies and lose the fiber, the vitamins and minerals get absorbed quicker and are more easily converted into what the body needs,” Colello explains. “While fiber is good and keeps you ‘regular,’ adding fresh green juice to your lifestyle allows more veggies and fruits to be consumed, and that is a good thing.”

Lisa, a graduate of IIN as well as the Culinary Institute of America, offers: “We don’t like to talk about the negatives of ‘garbage’ food. We know that fruits and vegetables have a high concentration of diverse nutrients—vitamins, minerals, and enzymes—which aid overall health and well-being. I don’t tell people what to eat or not eat. Everyone will do what they want. I don’t want to scare people away with food dogma.”

Real People, Real Changes

Fairfield resident Linda Soper-Kolton, founder of Green Gourmet To Go, is a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, like Cadwell, and like Colello and Storch did, she’s furthering her nutritional education at the IIN. She’s heartened about the “ground-swell of awareness here of the connection between food and being well,” yet feels we still have a ways to go. “People don’t connect the pink slime they hear about on the news with the burgers they’re eating,” she says. “Real food doesn’t come from a box, a drive-through window, or your microwave. We don’t take time to cook real food—and if our kids don’t see their parents cook, how will they learn healthy habits?”

That’s part of the reason that after a year and a half of selling prepared meals, she’s hanging up her toque and focusing on her real love: education. Soper-Kolton oversees the school lunch program at her son’s school, teaches, and wants to evolve into more of a counselor. “I’m motivated to help people see the connection between food and healing and how eating can help you lower your risk of disease.”

She calls her husband, Zan, “the poster guy for healthy eating.” Five years ago, he says, he “had a couple of minor heart conditions, so I went to a cardiologist, who said, ‘Let’s put you on statins and blood pressure meds.’ I didn’t want to do that, but I agreed.”

He did some reading, and with his wife’s cooking, cut out the little red meat he was still eating and started exercising. Within six months, his cholesterol dropped from 225 to 111, and he lost thirty-five pounds. He went back to the doctor, who agreed to take him off the medication. Now fifty-one, he says, “I’m in the best shape of my life. My cholesterol holds steady around 172, and without drugs my blood pressure is in the normal range. It’s amazing what we think is good food that isn’t. What really shocked me is how apathetic doctors are about nutrition. My cardiologist actually said he wishes Lipitor could be in the water supply so everyone could just eat at McDonald’s.”

Glen Colello shares an even more dramatic turnaround story. Philip McCluskey was overweight his whole life. By his twenties, he weighed 400 pounds. At his heaviest, about eight years ago, he was contemplating gastric bypass when a friend mentioned raw food. “It seemed the least likely diet for me because I liked about five vegetables,” McCluskey says.

With his extreme personality type, he became a raw vegan literally overnight. Initially he ate large salads with lots of avocados and nuts, but slowly his body wanted less. “I went from five meals a day to two. In the first three months, I lost fifty-five pounds,” he says. “I was having so much fun. It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”

One year later, he’d lost 100 pounds. He started exercising and met Colello through a raw food group (one of millions created through the social network Meetup.com). McCluskey went from having chronic acid reflux as well as sore feet and knees and not being able to climb a flight of stairs without becoming winded to having a life where, he says, everything is different, from his confidence to his relationships to his spirituality. “Now I tour the world lecturing, giving motivational speeches, and writing books. Health is more than my career, it’s my passion,” he says.

Equal Access

“In 1976 there were sixty farmers’ markets in the U.S.,” Michel Nischan says. “Today there are around 77,000, but it’s hard to keep track because more pop up every week.”

Nischan is Fairfield’s sustainable food rock star. He founded The Dressing Room in Westport with his late buddy Paul Newman (the philanthropist who founded Newman’s Own) and is the CEO and president of Wholesome Wave, a charitable organization dedicated to providing access to fresh and affordable locally grown food to folks in needy neighborhoods. He explains that his first food role models were his farmer parents, but professionally his inspiration came from chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley (and the “mother” of the locavore—or eating local foods—movement) and Nora Pouillon, proprietor of Nora’s in Washington, D.C., the first certified-organic restaurant in the country. Their work increased awareness about the importance of farmers.

“Most important to me is sustainability,” Nischan says, “and that starts by buying direct from your local farmer. When you do that, you can influence his growing choices, plus it keeps the money in your community and keeps your local economy strong. And it doesn’t support overseas farmers with questionable methods.”

Nischan walks his talk, and part of that talk has to do with the deeper cultural impact of food awareness. “It gives pride, a sense of place,” he says. “We can get America back to where it was 100 years ago. We always looked to Europe for great regional food and cooking styles. Yet Americans spend less than any modern industrialized country on food because we value price more than anything.

“The locavore movement is a big part of sustainability,” he continues. “Typical farm-to-table transit time in this country is three weeks. All vegetables are air- and temperature-volatile. Three weeks on a truck, in storage facilities and who knows how long on grocery shelves can deplete most of the nutrition they started with. You can taste the difference. I believe nutrients equal flavor.”

Nischan envisions a revolution in our approach to food. Knowledge leads to action, which leads to change. “If ten percent of Americans would support farmers’ markets, we could support another 2,000. And if forty percent of us bought only apples that were grown locally and organically, it would change the industry forever,” he says. “We need to educate ourselves, our neighbors and our children, and we have to educate the shareholders of food companies. They’re not connected to the food sources. They’re only interested in reducing the cost of food, not its nutritional profile. We have to take the shareholders out of the food chain and give everyone a seat at the table.”

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