What You Missed at Andrew Zimmern’s Babson Roundtable

The Bizarre Foods star hosted a panel on culinary innovation last night at Babson College. Here’s the takeaway.

From left: Andrew Zimmern, Jamie Bissonnette, Skip Bennett, Michel Nichan. Photos by Leah Mennies.

In celebration of Food Day, Babson entrepreneur-in-residence (and Bizarre Foods star) Andrew Zimmern hosted a panel discussion yesterday evening called “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the World of Food,” which featured local food luminaries Todd Heberlein of nearby Volante Farms, Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa), Tim and Nancy Cushman (O ya), Skip Bennett (Island Creek Oysters), and Michel Nichan (of organization Wholesome Wave and Dressing Room restaurant in Connecticut).

The evening was hosted in conjunction with Food Sol, a food innovation program that’s part of Babson’s Lewis Institute, and covered everything from sustainability to the type of toilet paper used at O Ya (we’ll get to that soon, don’t worry). Ahead, the takeaway from the lively chat.

The motto “do it right, or don’t do it at all” won’t lead you astray.
Prompted by Zimmern to discuss the genesis of o ya,  co-owner (and sake sommelier) Nancy Cushman said that as a couple, she and chef Tim Cushman operated under the motto “do it right, or don’t do it at all.” The couple opened the restaurant without any outside investors, and really “swung for the fences,” said Nancy. Sticking to this motto wasn’t always easy: the couple lost $35,000 in rent waiting for a liquor license before opening. But clearly, the gambit paid off. Another result of that motto? Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper in the bathroom, obviously. “If it wasn’t there, you’d notice,” Tim pointed out. Or, in the words of Zimmern: “So you’re an obsessive compulsive control freak?”

Sustainability can’t work if it’s not inclusive of all.
Panelist Michel Nichan was the only non-local on the panel, but his presence was crucial, as the chef  (Dressing Room, CT) is the founder of Wholesome Wave, an organization that’s devoted to providing affordable, fresh produce to under-served communities. Nichan first decided to offer health-conscious food in the mid-1990′s, when he started the health-minded fine dining restaurant Heartbeat in New York (a restaurant which has since closed). But he realized that serving $40 healthy entrees to wealthy diners wasn’t really helping anyone in a larger scheme, which eventually led him to start Wholesome Wave. “People living in poverty, when introduced to farmers, can become the heroes of the food system,” Nichan said. “If we want to talk about sustainability, it’s got to be available to everyone or it will never be sustainable.”

When life hands you clams, turn them into oysters.
That’s how the saying goes, right? Skip Bennett, founder of Duxbury-based Island Creek Oysters (and a co-owner of Kenmore’s Island Creek Oyster Bar) decided to grow clams when he first set out to be part of the shellfish industry. But, alas, “I killed a lot of clams,” Bennett said, and his supply died in five years. Then, Bennett turned to oysters, which have the side effect of improving the quality of unproductive portions of Duxbury bay due to their natural filtration. Like Nichan, though, Bennett realized that while selling $4 bivalves to Le Bernardin in New York was a sign of his success, it wasn’t helping people on a larger scale, which is why Island Creek now has a foundation that operates a hatchery in Namibia and helps teach people to farm tilapia in Haiti.

Pigs aren’t just tasty, they’re really cuddly.
The panel’s resident pig guru, Jamie Bissonnette, talked about the importance of learning about the different breeds and personalities of the pigs that he works with on a regular basis. He’s a Red Wattle pig fan, he said, because “Red Wattles want to cuddle with you and snuggle with you.” Before they’re turned into pig ear terrines, we suppose. On a more serious note, Bissonnette noted that since working with quality whole animals is expensive, it’s paramount to utilize every single part of the animal. “People like to say ‘snout-to-tail,’” he said. “I call it, ‘being frugal and cheap.’”

The full crew, from left: Zimmern, Bissonnette, Bennett, Nichan, Nancy Cushman, Tim Cushman, Todd Heberlein.

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