Jamie Bissonnette: From straight-edge vegan to nose-to-tail cook

I dig Chef Jamie Bissonnette.

The guy amazes me. For no reason I can think of, he has been unbelievably accommodating in the past couple of months. The only conclusion I can come to is that he’s just a good guy.

Jamie is also a brilliant chef. One of Boston’s best! But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Jamie won Food and Wine’s The People’s Best New Chef Award for 2011. He’s chef/co-owner of two of the best restaurants in Boston, Coppa Enoteca and Toro. He competed (and won) on Food Network’s Chopped. He was nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Northeast. Need I say more?

Having had the chance to interview Jamie regarding his James Beard Award nom back in May, it dawned on me that I didn’t get to know much about him. He graciously hooked me up with a follow-up interview. Here’s what went down!

Jamie Bissonette - Photo by Heath Robbins
Jamie Bissonette – Photo by Heath Robbins

Foodie Journalist: When did you first realize that you liked to cook and wanted to do it for a living?
Jamie Bissonnette: I think the first time I was aware of cooking I was 10 or 11 and made scrambled eggs with cheese on toast.  It was runny and I used salt and a pepper grinder like the chefs I saw on Great Chefs on the Discovery Channel.  The kids painting the house asked if I could make it for them, pretty sure just to bust my balls.  So I did, and they were wicked suprised, and raved about it.  I didn’t say “[SALT] it, I’m gonna be a chef”, but looking back now, I did know something good was happening.

FJ: I recall having heard or read somewhere that you were actually a vegan at one point. How does someone go from vegan to nose-to-tail cuisine?
JB: I was straight edge hardcore punk rock. I was totally into all of it. I’m not straight edge any more, but I still love the scene and music. So, I started eating vegetarian, and would bounce back and forth from vegetarian to vegan for years. But when I was in culinary school, I stopped being a vegan and started eating meat during one of my first long term stages. A chef told me I could never master a flavor I never tasted.  I started eating steak tartare two days later.

Having not been a meat eater for so long and as a cook and new omnivore, I was getting pissed at the waste I saw in kitchens. It evolved from butchering pork tenderloins and being curious about how it was harvested from the whole pig to asking if we could buy a whole animal to cut up.  Some waste, and a lot of mis-cuts later, I was in love with the processes.

FJ: It seems like there is more interest in nose-to-tail. More restaurants are doing it. It’s getting more play on TV, like on Iron Chef or on Chopped. Do you see it really being embraced by diners? Is it something that people are really excited for and enjoying?
JB: I think it’s more understood in the restauratn and food community, but I’d say that 40 percent of my diners at Coppa are still scared shitless.  The other 60 percent are STOKED for it.

FJ: So, I’ve asked this of a couple of people now and I’d like your take.There is so much information available these days about food, so it would seem that diners are a lot more savvy about food than they used to be. They know better what good food is and what to expect at a good restaurant. Does that impact chefs? Do you have to change anything on your end to compensate?
JB: Kind of.  They may read more about food and see [SALT] on TV, but at the end of the day they haven’t tasted it for themselves. It can be kind of hard to deal with. Even when they go out to restaurants, they can sometimes think “Well, I know what this is supposed to be. I saw Bourdain eat it, and it didn’t look like this.” But, who’s to say that the two places he went to are the only ones that make a particular dish? Or, that they make it the right way.  Who knows if they were even good?  Some chef may have been living in Thailand for years, seen some rad old recipe from an old chef there for a soup and tried to make it that way. Just because a blog, cookbook, or someone on TV has a different version, does that make the one you’re trying wrong?  That’s an issue I see.

Conversely, now we have more educated patrons who are excited that we have elvers or kokotxas because they saw them on TV.  So, it takes balance.  I think that if we start rethinking our craft too much and change for the winds, it’s gonna bite us all in the ass.  It the end, good is subjective.  I like good food. Love it. And I know what’s good to me because of what I’ve learned from my experiences, and not just information that I received from someone else.

FB: In the experience category, then, is there an experience or a food related memory that you think back on? Like, maybe a moment when you realized that food wasn’t “just food”?
JB: My dad says he knew I’d probably end up as a cook. Back in the earl 80’s most people around Hartford, CT didn’t think of chefs in the same way one does now. When I was 2 or 3 years old, I taught myself how to pull the drawers out and climb up to the counter.  I would sit and use my fingers to eat the soft butter that was sitting out.  After the first time I had a pickle I wanted one everyday.  Then I was addicted to liverwurst.  Soon after that I always wanted grilled meat.  I was watching and asking questions.  It’s too bad that NO ONE could cook anything in my house.  I grew up loving [SALTY] food.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my “Learning about the industry” series, covering the service and front-of-house staff of Toro Restaurant.

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