Little Donkey, Jamie Bissonnette, and musings on food writing…

Its always fascinating to me to watch the organized chaos of a restaurant kitchen, the constant flow of runners bringing out plate after plate to a sea of hungry diners, and the hustle of servers trying to ensure that each one of those diners leaves happy and full. In these moments, I always feel a draw to start writing about the restaurant industry again.

So, why now? Its been almost 2 years since the last time I published something on Behind the Pass. There have been plenty of night’s out in that span. What made August 25th, a Thursday night dinner with friends at Little Donkey in Cambridge, matter more than others? The answer is simple… memories.

On this particular night, some of the stronger memories that I have when it comes to writing about food were jarred loose. So, if you’ll indulge me a remembrance, I’ll take you back to the beginning of Behind the Pass, formerly known as The Foodie Journal.

“Starting a blog is easy, keeping it going is harder…”

Everyone and their uncle seemed to have a blog at the time, and even more so now. I believe it possible that, if her fluency with the written word in English were better, my 73 year-old Portuguese mother might just have a blog herself (She has 3,500+ followers on Pinterest. Seriously.) So, starting a blog wasn’t an issue. Figuring out how to keep it going was the hard part.

When I started The Foodie Journal, I knew I wanted to write about two things: food and restaurants. While my love of food is sincere, my know-how pales in comparison to the myriad other food bloggers that exist. In that aspect, I felt there was  minimal way to set myself apart. Similarly, with respect to restaurant reviews, I felt I didn’t have the authority (I must be missing the ‘Yelp’ gene that so many others have).

After a few fits and starts, my attention shifted to restaurant kitchens and those in the thick of it. The chef. Individuals who have made the conscious decision to stand on their feet hour after hour in blazing hot kitchens, working their hardest while everyone on the other side of the pass is feasting and wining (or whining, depending on the individual). But, where do you start? How do you get a foot in the door?

On April 12th, 2012 I read an article about a rising star Boston chef by the name of Jamie Bissonnette. It was the first time that Jamie had been nominated for a James Beard Award (he would go on to win Best Chef – Northeast in 2014). I thought, ‘It would be wicked cool to maybe interview him and talk a little about the whole ‘getting nominated for a Beard award‘ thing.’ So, given that I had absolutely ZERO connections in the food industry, I went the only route I could think of to reach out to him.

I sent him a tweet asking for an interview. About an hour later, I received a direct message response back on Twitter:


… I had zero writing cred. I wasn’t affiliated with any of the relevant food sites at the time – just a knucklehead wanna-be blogger. My expectation wasn’t for a negative response, but simply NO response. Instead, I got a ‘Love to. Email me’.

Jamie was the first chef I ever interviewed in any way. To this day, I still view that interview exclusively as a kindness on his part. Obviously, any type of interview leads to some level of exposure. Even if only 5 people read it, its good attention for the person being interviewed. But, that interview was a boon for my writing if for no other reason than having given me the courage to reach out to more and more chefs. Months later, Jamie went on to give me more of his time for a second interview, and the opportunity to spend a day kicking around the kitchen at Toro in Boston. I owe him quite a lot, even if he doesn’t realize it. Thanks, Jamie.

Little Donkey

The night of our dinner at Little Donkey, Jamie was working the pass. Shortly after being seated, we were greeted by the incomparable Katy Chirichiello, general manager extraordinaire (Katy was the assistant GM at Toro when I hung out there forever ago). Halfway through dinner, I ran in to food & lifestyle photographer Huge Galdones (if you frequent food sites or read Food & Wine, you’ve seen some of Huge’s photographs, I guarantee you). Dinner was rapidly becoming an unexpected game of ‘This is your (blogging) life’! As if all that wasn’t reason enough to get me in front of my computer to do more than my typical 9-to-5 shenannigans, the food (my God the food) clinched it.

Little Donkey has only been open a few months. In my experience, most restaurants don’t really hit stride until they’ve been open for several. I state this opinion for no reason other than to marvel at the meal we had. If my count is correct, I believe we had 13 dishes (or roughly half of the available menu that night). Thinking over each of those dishes, I have yet to pick out a single thing I disliked. The only complaint I could express is that by the final plate, a dessert of mango curd on Ritz crackers (obviously), I was too full to steal everyone else’s.

My favorites on the night included the BLT lettuce wraps, the burger, and the Texas smoked short rib. Even as I typed that, my brain was basically yelling, ‘OH, AND THE SILVER QUEEN CORN. THE CHOW FUN AND THE KIMCHI FRIED RICE TOO. THAT WAS AWESOME! OH, AND THE OCTOPUSOKLETSGOTHERERIGHTNOWI’MSTARVING!!!’

It was a good night.

On Food Writing

By most accounts, writing is a very lonely act. Granted, the act of sitting at a keyboard or with pen and paper in hand is singular. When writing about food, however, I personally have never felt that way. My version of food writing always involves memories. Remembering who I was with on a given night, what we ate, what we talked about. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that food is never really ‘just food’. More often than not, its an experience. Experiences that stay with you long after you’ve paid the bill, or moved to the couch and unbuttoned your pants. Its in those experiences that I feel it. The draw to start writing about the restaurant industry again.

To Jamie Bissonnette and the whole team at Little Donkey: Thanks for the reminder.

Making people happy with food: An interview with Mike Smith of Toro Boston

It has been over a year since I first met Mike Smith, chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston. I had been given the green light to head in and hang out for a day to observe prep and dinner service, and to get to know the team that makes Toro one of the hottest places to eat in the city of Boston. 

It has been over a year since I first met Mike Smith, chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston. I had been given the green light to head in and hang out for a day to observe prep and dinner service, and to get to know the team that makes Toro one of the hottest places to eat in the city of Boston. 

My time speaking with Mike was a lesson in culinary multi-tasking. Not only did the guy answer every question I tossed his way, but he did so kindly while butchering meats, cleaning clams, prepping marinades, and directing others on the team. It’s a day I don’t think I’m ever going to forget.

I had a chance to catch up with Mike. We talked about where his love for cooking came from, why attending the CIA worked so well for him, and a few of his favorite food memories. 

 Foodie Journal: Was there a specific moment for
you when you realized, “You know what? I’m going to be a cook for the rest of
my life. That’s what I want to do.”
 
Mike Smith: I don’t think I really figured it out
until I was maybe a sophomore in high school, but I had always been cooking
with my family. I think I started making guacamole when I was three with my
dad. He always used to give me weird stuff like smoked salmon, or artichokes.
Things you don’t think to give a little kid. I just loved the experience of
eating with family and the different flavors and all that stuff.

I really figured it out when I started working in restaurants as a
dishwasher when I was 14. Just being around that environment. I was like, “Holy
[SALT]. This is awesome.” I didn’t know anything. I barely knew how to mop.
But, just being in that environment and there’s all this commotion, but things
just seemed to come together. I think that’s when I realized its what I wanted
to do.

FJ: Did you have people in your life pushing you
towards cooking once they realized how much you enjoyed it?
MS:
Well, I used to get pretty good grades in
school, and I think my dad always wanted to push me to go to college and do
something else. For me, though I was always, like, “I want to really do this.”
Even people I worked with were like, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You can just
cook at home. Do something else with your life.” But, I just really wanted to
do this. I’ve always loved being involved with food, and bringing people
together. Honestly I think that’s just what makes you happy as a chef or a
cook. Making people happy with food.
 FJ: Right, because obviously it isn’t the easiest
profession. You don’t have a lot of free time, and it’s pretty hard work.
MS:
 Definitely. You sacrifice your life
quite a bit, you know? You basically build a life in the restaurant. I think a
lot of people don’t get that. Most people have their regular jobs, and then
their family life at home. For us we have our jobs, but we basically have a
family in the restaurant, you know what I mean? You have your real family, and
then somewhere along the line the two get melded together. People I know in the
industry will be like, “Hey, how’s your mom?” It’s kind of different, but it’s
cool. It’s like one big family.

FJ: Now, you mentioned that you used to get good
grades in school. So being a good student, and liking school, did that lend
itself to you looking for that structured environment to learn in as far as
going to culinary school?
MS:
Yeah, I would say definitely. I think a lot
of people need some kind of structured environment to help them along the way,
because I think a lot of chefs don’t necessarily learn the traditional way.
They don’t learn via reading a book or being lectured in class. I think it
helps to get that exposure, though. Visually seeing it, feeling it. So much
about this industry is about feel, touch, and taste. I definitely needed that.
I think a lot of people can benefit from that basic introduction to what a
restaurant is like, or even what the industry is really about or what food is
about. Plus, I met some really awesome people in the process. It was at CIA
(Culinary Institute of America) that I met Sammy (Samuel Monsour). He was one
of the first people I ever met at culinary school. That’s where I met my buddy,
John Kay who used to work with me at Toro. So some of the connections you make
are really cool.
 FJ: I’ve been pretty fascinated to see the
divide, like how some people just think that culinary school is a must, while
others feel you’re just better off hopping on the line at a good restaurant.
MS:
Well… I think it really is different for each
person. When I was signing up, my parents had saved up some money to help me go
to college. So financially it wasn’t too bad for me, and the opportunities you
get from it are great. You get to meet other people. It helps you figure out
who you are in this awesome environment where everybody that is there wants to
learn about food. That said, not everybody has to go to culinary school. It
really is a complex question you know what I mean? I mean, It has to do with
what you want your life to be. How far you want to go in the industry. Plus,
you need to make sure you can afford it. If you work hard, though, you can get
where you want to be. Making those connections in school definitely can help, though.

FJ: Kind of in-line with that, you’re the chef de
cuisine at Toro right now.
MS:
Yeah.
 FJ: So obviously that means working with other
chefs like Ken [Oringer] and Jamie [Bissonnette] who have established
themselves well in Boston. Can you talk a little about what its like to have
people like that to work with and learn from?
MS:
Well, I think, first and foremost, I’m
fortunate to know them as regular dudes. Like, when you first meet them, you
might be like, “Oh [SALT], that’s Ken,” or the same with Jamie.  Like, I think Jamie can be a little
intimidating cause he can get really intense. But, knowing
them now as regular dudes it’s gotten to the point where I can really just
speak candidly to either of them. I’ve always found that if you’re honest and
you show your good at what you do, and you work at it, then they’ll trust you
to do what needs to be done. The best thing is that they’re just normal guys.
Like, they don’t try to be something else. They are who they are, and will be
that way no matter what.

FJ: So, my final question. For people who are in the
industry and are around food all the time, you end up with a lot of experiences
with food. Do you have a favorite food memory?
MS:
[SALT], my favorite? Wow, there are a lot of
them!
 FJ: I can imagine! I’ve started to realize this
is a pretty unfair question to ask, but… there you have it. [Laughing]
MS:
Honestly, the thing … I’ve been around food a
lot. It’s like I said, I remember making guacamole or like having fajita night at my dad’s house.
My parents are divorced so I’d go to my dad’s house or my mom’s house, but the
thing that still made me think that the world was going to be OK was food and
get people together because of food.

Another thing for me that was big was that I grew
up in a beach town. Going to the beach all day and then walking home from the
beach in the sunshine and smelling people starting grills up and stuff like
that. Barbequing with friends, that’s definitely one thing that’s just like
primal caveman, and that I love so much. That would be my ultimate day. Just go
to the beach, hang out, go surfing, then just grill.

Man… and then there’s my grandmother who used to make a mean
meatloaf.  My grandfather and my
grandmother loved food. We would always have certain things on certain nights.
We would roast a whole pork shoulder with the skin on it. I remember my
grandfather would just crack the skin off and eat it. Or, I even think about my
mom. She was a single mom who worked like 50-60 hours a week, but she would
come home and cook me food; awesome food every night. I didn’t really appreciate
that until a couple of years ago. She busted her ass you know what I mean?

Yeah,
I don’t know if I have a single memory… there’s just too many.

Mike Smith is the chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston’s South End, located at 1704 Washington Street .

Flashback: 2012 James Beard Foundation Award nominee – Jaime Bissonnette

I’ve decided to republish this piece for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it reminded me that there is just one month left for nomination submissions for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards. This is an opportunity for any one with a sincere love for the food industry to make sure their favorite restaurants and chefs get the attention they deserve. The James Beard Foundation is accepting nominations through the end of the year. So, if you haven’t yet, get your nominations in for the restaurant and chef related awards!

The second reason I wanted to republish is a pretty simple one. Thinking back on this past year, it has been a whirlwind (for many reasons beyond just The Foodie Journal!). This interview with Chef Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa and Toro (and, very soon, Toro NYC), was where it all started. I’ll be forever grateful for his willingness to help out a fledgling writer who just happened to send him a tweet out of nowhere.

I suppose there’s a third reason. Since this was written, the number of people that take a look at The Foodie Journal has grown considerably. So, for any newbie followers… this is where it really all began. Enjoy!


Fans of any of the competitive cooking shows (Top Chef, Iron Chef America, etc.) are undoubtedly aware of the James Beard Foundation. For those of you that aren’t, the James Beard Foundation is a non-profit organization that is at the center of America’s culinary community. They’ve dedicated themselves to supporting cooking hopefuls by providing 100’s of thousands of dollars annually in scholarship opportunities and professional grants. They help to make the culinary community in America better! As a part of that, they further promote the culinary scene by honoring those involved: chefs, sommeliers and other wine professionals, restauranteurs, cookbook authors, and journalists. These honors are known as the James Beard Foundation Awards. To us foodies, they are our Academy Awards! :)

A few weeks back, the James Beard Foundation released the nominations for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards. This year, in the category of Best Chef: Northeast, Boston got an excellent tip of the hat by having two chefs nominated. One of them was Jaime Bissonnette, owner and chef of Coppa and Toro in Boston. Jaime is all about nose-to-tail cooking (offal anyone?), and is dedicated to supporting local purveyors. I had the opportunity to have a few words with Jaime about the honor.

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

Foodie Journalist: What impact do you feel the James Beard Foundation has had in recent years on gastronomy in America?
Jaime Bissonnette: James Beard was one of the most heart filled chefs. What his legacy has done for our community has been epic. The James Beard House is the mecca for chefs. His books are relevant now, and will continue to influence chefs for a long time.

FJ: The James Beard Foundation Awards are considered the “Oscars of the food world”. How does it feel to be nominated?
JB: Being nominated was something I never considered. Having my name listed with a group of people I respect is mind blowing. Knowing that my peers would consider me is overwhelming.

FJ: My understanding is that once you’ve won a James Beard Award, you’re no longer eligible to be nominated. So is this one of those circumstances where it might be better to lose, but be nominated year after year? Having your name mentioned year after year can’t be a bad thing, obviously. Or, does the competitive drive kick-in and you decide “Screw that, I want to win”?
JB: I had always stated that I never thought I would be deserving of winning a James Beard Award. Being nominated is epic. If I win, that’s fantastic. If Matt Jennings wins, that’s rad. Maybe I’ll never get a nom again, maybe I’ll win. I think that winning would be great for my teams. They are just as deserving of a nom as I am. They can hold the places down.

FJ: It’s been just under a month since the announcement of the nominees. Has being nominated for the award changed anything for you? How you’re perceived in your restaurants, or by others in the industry? More diners at Coppa or Toro?
JB: Mostly I have seen it through the community. Friends and other chefs calling, e-mailing and sending notes of congratulations. No too much at Coppa or Toro.

FJ: So, win or lose, what do you have planned for the near future?
JB: Either way, I’ll be in NYC for the awards with tons of friends from all over the country. We’ll have great meals together, celebrate and just enjoy each others company. And we will all probably drink too much.

The James Beard Foundation Awards Gala will be held on Monday, May 7th @ Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. While we wait on the results, make sure to stop in at Coppa for one of the best meals you can have in Boston (my wife is a sucker for the arancini)! You might just get the chance to see Jaime and wish him luck.

From the Boston area? How excited are you to hear that a local boy was nominated for such a prestigious award? Let us know by leaving feedback in the comments. Be sure to follow me on Twitter and on Facebook!

The Coppa “Yes, Chef” dinner with Marcus Samuelsson

“Swedeiopian”. Obviously a fusion of two words, two nationalities, Swedish and Ethiopian. It’s a word I had never heard before, but it perfectly described the evening I had at Coppa in Boston’s South End last Monday. The “Yes, Chef” dinner with Chef Marcus Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, was an event that highlighted just how good combining things can be! A little Ethiopian. Some Swedish. And, why not toss in some Italian as well!

That’s exactly what Coppa’s Chef Jamie Bissonnette did for this event. It was an interpretation of Ethiopian and Swedish dishes and flavors, with an occasional flash of Italian (Ethiopian & Swedish Pizza, anyone?). Addressing the assembled guests, Coppa co-owner and Chef Ken Oringer pointed out the fact that Jamie and his team had put considerable time in to planning the menu for the event. Apparently the first time Jamie even had the opportunity to experience traditional Ethiopian fare was the day prior, at Addis Red Sea on Tremont Street! (On a side note, I had the pleasure of sitting at a communal table with one of the chefs from Red Sea. If you haven’t, I highly recommend checking them out.)

Chefs Jamie Bissonnette, Ken Oringer, and Marcus Samuelsson

The food

The menu for the event was most definitely unusual, but was also quite brilliant. It was an eclectic mix of flavors and ingredients that I personally had never experienced, and doubt many in attendance had either. Of all things on the menu, I was excited to try the berbere roasted rabbit. I first learned of berbere while reading Chef Samuelsson’s memoir “Yes, Chef”. Berbere is a mix of spices: chilies, paprika, ground ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon. I’m not certain of the exact quantities Jamie used for his berbere, but I was impressed that it didn’t overpower the delicate flavor of the rabbit (Which for the record… tastes like rabbit. Not chicken.).

There were plenty of other highlights on the menu. My wife was just short of chasing down hors d’ouevres trays carrying chicken fried zucchini flowers with a Buna coffe aioli, the aioli in particular adding a nice kick to the zucchini flower. A not so typical smörgåsbord was also off-the-wall great. I made multiple visits to the pickled vegetables, in particular the carrots, as well as the sweet & savory candied peanuts.

An amazing end to the night came in the form of a blåbärssoppa. A blueberry “soup” panna cotta. It was extremely light, with a perfect texture, which has to be expect of an Italian enoteca, regardless of what the inspiration for the overall meal was! It was a great finish to a great meal.

At the end of this article you’ll find a full transcription of the entire menu from the evening. It’s drool-worthy… and I didn’t even include the wines!

Man of the hour (or four)

Chef Marcus Samuelsson

While the Ethiopian and Swedish cultures are inspirational all their own, this event was ultimately inspired by an individual who embodies both: Chef Marcus Samuelsson. From the moment we walked in to Coppa, Chef Samuelsson was making the rounds. He spoke with everyone. He shook hands. He even served the berbere roasted rabbit to the Red Sea chef sitting at our table (she’d never tried rabbit before and was unsure that she wanted to). Chef Marcus made it happen.

That’s the charm of Chef Marcus. He has a quality that is very disarming. An easy, genuine smile that is contagious. An event of this kind obviously requires that attention be paid to those in attendance, but at not point did it feel like Chef Marcus was “on the clock”. He enjoyed wine and food with the rest of us, answered some questions, cracked a bunch of jokes. And of course chalked us up as one of the better book dinners thus far (“Nobody rocks like … Boston!” [“He said Boston!!!”]).

Prior to the dinner, I had already managed to read about half of “Yes, Chef” on my Nook. Now, with a freshly signed hard copy, I look forward to finishing off the fascinating memoir of this amazing individual.

In the end…

The entire experience from start to finish was, in a word, inspiring. Amazing food. A boat load of culinary firepower. The opportunity to be around that much food knowledge is downright humbling for a foodie, and it is most definitely a night I won’t soon forget. I look forward to a “family reunion” with our table-mates one day at Red Rooster. To the entire team at Coppa, a heartfelt well done. To Chef Marcus Samuelsson, thank you  for sharing your story and your passion. And, do I look forward to crossing paths again?

Yes, Chef.


Hors D’ouevres

Kitfo – Ethiopian beef tartare on injera
Raggmunk – Swedish potato pancake with crab and corn
Chicken fried zucchini flowers – Buna coffee aioli
Inlagd Oysters – Pickled oysters with korarima and coconut

Smörgåsbord

Shiro – Yellow eye pea puree with baharat
Inlagd Anjovis – White anchovies with lovage & black olive
Inlagd Grönsaker – Pickled vegetables
Swede Rotmos – Green rutabaga and carrot salad
Sweet & Savory Candied Peanuts

Ethiopian & Swedish Pizza

Gomen Wot – Braised greens with favas and tomatoes
Falukorv – Smoked pork offal and beef sausage with ricotta

Sunday Supper

Berbere Roasted Rabbit
Mac n’ Greens – House made cavatelli with Swiss chard & cloth bound cheddar
Kolo and Kale Salad – Puffed barley and kale salad

Dessert

Blåbärssoppa – Blueberry “soup” panna cotta

Blueberry “soup” panna cotta

Learning about the industry: Service at Toro Restaurant

“It’s organized chaos. But, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and when it works like this it’s amazing to watch. I’ve been in other places where it was just chaos. Here? It’s pretty special.” – Katy Chirichiello, Assistant General Manager, Toro Restaurant

Line cook Eric Frier and Assistant GM Katy Chirichiello

So let me tell you a story about Jon Kay. Jon is a waiter at Toro Restaurant in Boston. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America along with chef du cuisine Mike Smith. “Along with” works on two levels here considering that they attended at the same time, but they also followed the same educational path through the CIA: cooking and management.

One is a chef, and a damn good one. The other is, as I mentioned before, a waiter… and a damn good one.

“I like the front of the house,” Jon answered when I asked him if he ever thought about getting back in the kitchen. “I might go back to the kitchen one day, but I like serving people. I love talking to them about the food and wine.”

So, why does this story matter? It’s simple, really. A meal at Toro is better because Jon Kay is a waiter there. So is Kelly Walsh. So is John Stoddard, and others who I didn’t have the chance to speak with during my day at Toro. When the service staff loves what they do, life is better for everyone. Especially the diner!

El Toro

A strange relationship

The relationship between diner and waiter can be a strange one. Anthony Bourdain has commented multiple times on how, when he goes to a nice restaurant, he “wants his waiter to like him” and is afraid that the waiter will somehow sense that maybe he doesn’t belong. It can be contentious depending on the personalities involved.

Really, the relationship itself is bizarre and unlike any other. John Stoddard and I talked about it briefly and he summed it up perfectly when he said, “If you work in an office, you don’t have someone just walk in off the street and start telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing something wrong. So its kind of a strange relationship. For us, its our job. We’re there to help and we want to help. Once people realize that, it works out for the best.”

With the team assembled at Toro, it usually works out for the best.

Knowledge is power

Part of what makes the team at Toro exceptional is their food knowledge. Taking in to consideration the typical clientele of the restaurant – Toro is a regular haven for industry folk – you need to know what you’re talking about. To that end, the service staff gets regular support from chefs Jamie Bissonnette, Mike Smith, and General Manager Jen Fields. Speaking with Assistant General Manager, Katy Chirichiello, she outlined some of what goes on at Toro to help the service staff get geeked up on food knowledge:

“Every day there is some form of education. This can include anything. A menu or wine pop quiz. Tasting new food or wine, and learning where it comes from and what it consists of. Jamie or Mike might bring out new vegetables or herbs and talk about how they grow, what they taste like, what the ideal climate and growing season is for them. We also offer something called “wine words” which is every Thursday from September through May. On those days Jen might run a class on a new wine, might revisit old wines, or sometimes we’ll do a month of education just on sherry. Occasionally we’ll have wine and liquor reps coming in to teach a bit about their offerings. We also may even do a month where Dave Robinson from South End Formaggio will come in on a Thursday and teach about cheeses, or Jamie will go through the whole process of making our house made chorizo.”

Growing up, my restaurant experiences were mostly limited to those of the chain variety, and most weren’t of the more “classy” variety that exist today. Asking for a recommendation in one of these joints was at your own risk. The response almost universally included a sigh and occasionally an eye-roll (followed by a short prayer on my part). There was minimal knowledge (and barely any interest) in the food being served at those restaurants.

At Toro? No such concerns. The service staff knows food. They love food. They love talking about food. Just ask them!

Well oiled machine

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I found a spot by the fireplace where I could quietly observe dinner service, and hopefully not get in the way. I was actually quite excited about this! Whenever I’ve dined out, I’ve always taken note of the work put in by those serving my table. But, rarely have I had the opportunity to pay close attention to an entire service staff. When dinner service began that day, I was mesmerized.

Hamburguesas

A few things to keep in mind. First, Toro is not a big place. They have seating for around 90 people, and that includes the patio. Second, they don’t take reservations. That means there will be folks milling around the bar, drinks in hand, waiting for a table. Third, Toro is one of the hottest spots in Boston. So those folks milling around the bar, drinks in hand? There are going to be a LOT of them.

I concluded the first part of this series by referring to dinner service as “poetry in motion”. Melodramatic it may have been, but it was amazing to watch. Servers quickly moving to and fro. Talking to diners. Getting orders. Putting orders in to the computer. A bell sounds, and a cook shouts, “Server!” Picking up plates. Grabbing drinks. Printing checks. And all the while, the staff is smiling. They’re actually smiling.

Conclusion… for now

The final moment that cemented in my mind the type of person that makes a good waiter was courtesy of Jon Kay. There had just been the now familiar shout of “Server!” Jon grabbed the plate, and paused as he was about to pass me, showing me what he was about to serve. It was the Asado de Huesos. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jon asked me. “Roasted bone marrow with a citrus salad and oxtail marmalade. One of my favorites.”

The service team at Toro is great at what they do because they love what they do. Period.

My day at Toro was almost beyond words. Even now, I look at what I’ve written and feel that it pales in comparison to the actual experience. I came in to that day with a desire to understand a little more about the food industry. What I left with, besides the understanding I desired, was a greater appreciation for the people that do it day in and day out. They are amazing, unbelievably dedicated people. It was an honor to have had the chance to sit in with the whole team. If they’re willing, I hope to see them again sooner than later, and have them put me to work. I want to learn more.

Toro is located at 1704 Washington Street in Boston, MA. They don’t take reservations, but trust me… they are worth the wait.

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.

Learning about the industry: The cooks of Toro Restaurant

Author’s note: Trying to run a PG site here, but also want to be true to the folks I speak with. So to that end, any salty language will be replaced with just that… [SALTY]


Some people think that its asking too much for a college-aged student to make the call on what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Now imagine asking that of a 14-year old entering his first year at a vocational high school (Yes. I go voke.). To this day, I still wonder if I took the easy road, choosing as my vocation the same as my brothers before me rather than the one I was most interested in: culinary arts.

Thanks to the decision made by that particularly lazy and unambitious 14-yeard old, I’ve never been in a professional kitchen. What I know about the industry comes from what I’ve seen on television and read in books and magazines –  that is to say, I know squat about the industry. So, what’s a guy with an itch for the culinary world supposed to do to learn? I’m the primary bread winner for my family, with a mortgage and a 5-month old daughter. School isn’t an option right now. One thing I could try would be to spend time in a restaurant, learning more about the industry and the people that do it every day. The bigger question: What restaurant would be willing to have me?

To my amazement, I found one. A great one. In fact, one of Boston’s best restaurants: Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Toro Restaurant.

Toro Restaurant – Boston

The setup

Having interviewed Chef Jamie prior to the James Beard Awards, I wanted to do a follow up interview. Somewhere in the shuffle, I managed to slip in the idea of wanting to observe and write about a professional kitchen. The question was asked with hopeful pessimism and zero expectations. But, at least the question was asked.

The reply I got back surprised me. There was no run-around. No maybes. Just simply, “You’re totally welcome. Just let me know. Only thing is: not on a Sunday. [SALT] is too real.” (That comment was made in relation to Sunday brunch service, but we can leave that for another day.) We went ahead and set a date. Jamie would be away that weekend for The Great GoogaMooga Festival in Brooklyn, so I’d be meeting with Toro’s chef du cuisine, Mike Smith.

Not having any idea what to expect, I realized I was feeling quite nervous as the day got near. Walking through the door of a high-test, heavily trafficked restaurant, one revered not only by foodies and local regulars, but by industry folk in general. And to do what? To squat for several hours. Take photos. Ask questions, and try not to let myself sound like a complete ass. So you get a sense of my initial nerves: I arrived about 30 minutes early on the scheduled day. To get my head straight, I took a quick walk around the neighborhood, going over (out loud, mind you…) what I hoped to learn while I was there. I only realized after how insane I must have appeared. It would only have been worse had I pulled a Stuart Smalley.

Despite the nerves, I felt at ease within minutes of walking through the door thanks to Katy Chirichiello, the assistant general manager, and Chef Mike. The message they conveyed: “We love what we do, we’re proud of what we do, and we’d be glad to talk about it.” So we did.

A cook’s headspace

The majority of my time was spent speaking with Chef Mike and line cook Eric Frier, though I want to give proper attention to all the cooks. On a typical day Toro utilizes a handful of cooks. On this day there was Chef Mike, Eric, Tomás Rubio-Keifer, Mark Bestman, Eddie Moon and Kathryn Fantozzi.

Chef du cuisine Mike Smith and line cook Eric Frier

In my time with the chef and cooks at Toro, I got the sense of how important it was to be passionate about what you’re doing as a cook. “You have to have that internal drive,” Chef Mike told me. “You either have it or you don’t. I mean, you can learn the techniques and stuff, but if you don’t have the passion or drive to do it,  you won’t be able to swing it.”

A passion for cooking is something engrained in these individuals. The feeling that they were meant to be cooks. Tomás probably managed to put it in the easiest terms to understand. When I asked him what he would be doing if he wasn’t a cook, he looked at me with a grin and said, “I can’t do anything else. This is what I do.”

Mixed in with that passion is focus, something chefs need to have in abundance. To the credit of all those I had an opportunity to speak with, I was denied nothing. Everyone was very attentive, and answered any question I asked regardless of how lame it may have been. But, at no point did anyone stop working. Cooking clams (with thyme, bay leaf, garlic, shallots and white wine) for the chowder. Butchering steak. Deveining foie. Chopping chives. All of it done while still playing nice with “that writer guy” hanging about.

Preping foie gras

“It can be hard some times when things get really busy,” Eric told me. “But, we have a great team and it isn’t often that we get in the weeds.” That led me to wonder a bit about how chefs and cooks manage to do it plate after plate, night after night. Asking Eric about it, he answered, “You know you can always do better at something. Even after a great night you go home and think about the stuff you can improve on, ya know? Tomorrow I’ll be a bit quicker on this. I’ll be cleaner doing that.” It’s a constant review and revision of the days work all with the aim of taking another step towards perfection.

A different breed

It is hard work. The reality is that it takes a different type of person to work in a kitchen. The hours alone would scare off most. Chef Mike touched on it a bit during our conversation as the team neared the end of prep:

“Ultimately we’re a very masochistic people. We put ourselves through this. But, that’s just it. I want to work harder than anyone else, ya’ know? At the end of the day… If I was to switch to a regular job where I get paid to just sit around for eight hours? I’d feel like a piece of [SALT]. I’d be bored out of my mind. There is a lot involved in doing what we do. This is part construction work, part managerial work, and part craft. Ultimately that’s what we’re doing. We’re performing a craft for others. In terms of all the things involved, being in the restaurant business has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.”

Cooks can be prideful, and rightfully so, of their skills and what they do. But, they, or at least the cooks I’ve spoken with, make it a point of fact that there is always something to learn. And, never too far away is the humbling circumstance to bring you back down to earth if you ever get too high on yourself.

Both Chef Mike and Eric bring up a favorite food quarterly called Lucky Peach. In the Spring 2012 issue, the guys at Joe Beef in Montreal talk about being clean and sometimes having to do awful things to maintain that cleanliness. Chef Dave McMillian describes his experience with a grease trap. It is an EPIC read (buy it on Amazon) that involves going head first in to a vat of grease in an attempt to unclog the trap.  Echoing the sentiment, Mike looks at me and says: “No matter how glamorous you are, if the [SALTING] grease trap breaks or something like that, someone’s got to fix it. So those things keep you grounded.”

Business time

As we neared dinner service, I found a quiet spot near the fireplace where I could continue to observe but not get in anyone’s way. I took advantage of the time to collect my thoughts on everything I’d seen and heard up until that point. Looking back I’ve come to realize that I never really appreciated how hard cooks work. Seeing it on television, reading about it, just doesn’t do it justice. Cooks know one speed: Go. Nothing less. In what could easily become a chaotic situation, chefs bring order. The end result: Something they can be proud of, and that diners can sink their teeth in to.

It’s just a brief glimpse in to the world I was so curious about at age 14, but it is one I won’t forget. It’s also one I’m not done with.

Doors at Toro open at 5:30. At 5:15, a line had already formed. What came next was poetry in motion.

Check out part two of the series Learning about the industry: Service at Toro Restaurant. Includes my conversations with Toro’s service staff, as well as some of the action that took place during dinner service.