Home Food & Wine New England Cuisine An Interview with Chef Jamie Bissonnette

An Interview with Chef Jamie Bissonnette

jaimiebissonnetteJamie Bissonnette burst into the mainstream this year, gaining celebrity status after winning the $10,000 grand prize on Food Network’s Chopped, a popular series that brings together four chefs who have 30 minutes to compete for “best dish” using four very non-compatible ingredients such as squash, kiwi, M&M’s and chicken livers. In addition, he received Food & Wine’s People’s Choice Award for Best New Chef. However, Jamie is no stranger to Boston’s culinary scene—in fact; he co-owns two successful restaurants, Coppa and Toro, with fellow chef and entrepreneur Ken Oringer. A former vegan and punk rocker, Jamie’s journey has been an interesting one. He is unafraid to try new things and encourages others to do the same through his trade. A pioneer in head-to-toe cooking, Jamie is breaking new ground, drawing crowds and tempting taste buds. Recently, Jamie took some time out of his busy schedule to let us get to know him a little better.

An Interview with Jamie Bissonnette

ATNE: Where did you grow up?
JB: I grew up in and around Hartford, Conn.

ATNE: Describe yourself as a child growing up. What kind of kid were you?
JB: Growing up I was a quiet kid.  Got really into hardcore and punk rock music. Always different from the rest of the kids. Tattooed at age 15, had a Mohawk at age 13, always wearing different kinds of clothes. Typical punk.

ATNE: What was your favorite meal as a kid?
JB: Favorite sandwich was always liverwurst and sour pickles.  I loved it.  Chicken wings, tacos, and artichokes were also favorites.  I started eating vegetarian when I was 14 and did so until I was 21.  During that time, I loved Indian foods, specifically curried lentils.

ATNE: Tell us a little about your earlier days as a traveling musician.
JB: I moved around A LOT from 17-21.  Sometimes traveling with bands, or having bands stay with me, and then leaving with them when they went out of town.  I looked forward to the meals more than anything else, and when I was living in Ft Lauderdale, when bands would stay, I'd make huge banquets of food and shit.  It was so fun.

ATNE: Who are you listening to now? Do you still play— ever think of getting a band together?
JB: I listen to a lot of old punk and hardcore.  I love Rafael Saadik, and Booker T., The Evens, and I've been dusting off my old Oscar Peterson LPs.  I never play, but when I'm walking around listening to Reign Supreme or Bad Brains, all I want to do is start a cover band, and jump around and yell.  It'll never happen.

ATNE: How has your life changed since those days?
JB: Much of my life has.  But the ethics of being true to oneself, friends, and others is still here for me.  I've got that PMA (Positive Mental Attitude).

ATNE: How does a former vegan turn meat lover?
JB: I started cooking and was serious about my craft.  As I evolved, so did my tastes and desire to learn.  I was pushed by a chef to start tasting meat and meat sauces, and I wanted to start my career as a chef, not just vegetarian and vegan, but everything.  From that, I knew that I wanted to use all of the animal if I was going to use any of it.  Nose to tail was a natural evolution to me.

ATNE: Let's talk more about head-to-toe cooking which has become a growing trend among butchers, restaurateur and chefs. It is also at the center of a lot of controversy  around environmental issues and sustainability. What are your thoughts on this?
JB: As a young cook, I wanted to learn all I could.  I learned how to butcher individual muscles, chickens, rabbits, but I wanted to learn about where this stuff was coming from.  Why did all the restaurants use chicken breasts, legs, thighs, sometimes wings, but only at Dim sum did I see hearts and feet?  When did all the places I worked use NY strips, filets, ribeyes?  What was happening to the necks, legs, and cheeks of the animals? As I started eating meat, and cooking more with it, I saw that to have an edge as a cook I needed to know more than the cooks next to me.  I asked a lot of questions, and when someone didn’t know the answers, I knew that was what I needed to master.  I fell in love with the textures, and the challenges of cooking offal and such.  If I made a delicious braised rabbit and gnocchi, my peers would say "good, really tasty” When I made rabbit liver mousse and rabbit kidney ragout, they would say "this is really good, how did you do it?"  That's what I wanted.  I wanted to be good, but have my peers want to know HOW I did things.  

ATNE: After all your travels and experiences in Europe, NY, Phoenix and San Francisco, what made you decide to settle in Boston?
JB: I have always LOVED Boston.  We used to come up for hardcore shows, and to see the Sox.  I had a lot of friends come here for college, and I went pretty far away.  When I'd visit Boston I just loved the feel--smaller city, public transit, and great restaurants. I moved here because I wanted to work for Ken Oringer in 2000.  I ended up not working for him, but we got to know each other, found a lot of similarities and started working together in 2007.

ATNE: Tell us a little bit about, Ken. How do your individual talents and skills complement one another?
JB: Ken is a super taster.  He can taste 1 gram of an ingredient like calamynth in a three-gallon batch of ceviche.  Sometimes I  think he can taste my intent to use an ingredient.   He is a visionary and has taught me not to put limitations on space.  If you want to do something, make it happen.  There is always a way. Also, never take the easy way out, and make it taste good--taste it—make it taste better.  

ATNE: What is it like working with your wife—who does the cooking and clean-up at home?
JB: Working with Coco is great.  If we didn't work together, we'd never see each other.  She challenges me, tests me, but reassures me and puts up with my shit.  I owe a lot to her.  At home I had been doing a lot of the cooking, lately she has.  I still do most of the dishes though.  But I like cleaning.

ATNE: How would you describe the dining experience at Toro and Coppa? What makes them unique...what is the atmosphere like?
JB: Dining at Coppa and Toro is fun.  We have a lot of smaller plates, so one can eat many different flavors and bites of cool shit.  We have a lot of approachable menu items, and some challenging.  It's familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, we change things a lot.  The atmosphere is pretty lively.  Loud music, big crowds at Toro, and funky music in a small place at Coppa.

ATNE: Are there any specialty dishes you suggest we try?
JB: At Toro, vegetables and fish on the plancha.  Roasted pork with peaches this summer. So good.  Ceviche, and the beef heart.  At Coppa, pigs’ tails with mostarda, and calves’  brain ravioli.  Can't go wrong.

ATNE: What are three essential ingredients you couldn't live without and why?
JB: I do not like cooking without Single Olive Extra Virgin Olive Oil of high quality, Garum or Fish Sauce. Fresh herbs and quality ingredients.

ATNE: Favorite kitchen gadget and why?
JB: I love my wood burning pizza oven at Coppa and the Jade plancha at Toro.

ATNE: If you could cook with any chef in the world, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
JB: I always love hanging with Jacques Pepin.  I learn from him every time I cook.  Or with Kenny O.  He is so much fun for cook with.

ATNE: Favorite cookbook?
JB: Jacques Pepin’s La Technique.

ATNE: What do you love most about what you do?
JB: I love being around great food and people, I love the learning and teaching aspects of being a cook.

ATNE: What do you find to be the most challenging?
JB: Day-to-day guest relations and the rise of online reviewing are frustrating.

ATNE: Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen?
JB: The most embarrassing moment was at Eastern Standard, and all the eggs had been frozen, but I didn't know it.  I couldn't crack an egg to save my life without it breaking the yolk.

ATNE: Who has been the greatest influence in your life?
JB: Biggest influences have been Ken Oringer and Garret Harker.

ATNE: How have you grown as a chef?
JB: Every day learn something from someone. Keep your eyes and mind open.  Never dismiss anything anyone says.  Always learn more.

ATNE: Any plans for your own cookbook, TV show, or new restaurant?                                              JB: Maybe ;-)


Written By : Jessica Layne


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