James Beard Award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette, 40, was raised in Connecticut and earned his culinary arts degree from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. He then spent several years cooking in Paris, San Francisco, New York and Phoenix, before settling in Boston. He opened Eastern Standard as executive chef in 2005, and three years later teamed up with business partner Ken Oringer to open Toro in the South End. The pair now own Toro in New York, Bangkok and Dubai, as well as the popular local spots Coppa and Little Donkey. A former vegan, Bissonnette’s a champion of nose-to-tail cuisine and authored a cookbook on charcuterie. He also appeared on the Food Network’s Chopped.
Jonathan Soroff: What do you think is the single most pronounced characteristic of all great chefs?
Jamie Bissonnette: Passion for flavor and food, man. Just wanting to cook.
Do you personally butcher the pigs you cook? I butcher a pig once a week. I don’t do all of it, but I do a lot. I love doing it. Butchering an animal might seem primal or like you’re doing something really rustic or primitive, but when you know what you’re doing, it’s actually quite delicate, and it takes a deft touch. I like the duality of that.
Favorite organ meat? It might be skin. Who doesn’t love crispy chicken skin, crispy turkey skin, crispy pork skin?
Favorite national cuisine for charcuterie? It’s a toss-up. Spain for jamón Ibérico, France for pate, and Italy for mortadella.
Favorite food city in the U.S.? It’s hard not to say New York, because you’ve got something from everywhere in the world. You can go to one borough and be in Little Uzbekistan, and then another and be in a Little Korea, or a Little Pakistan, so I guess I’d say New York for its vastness. As far as a concentrated place for creativity, I really like San Francisco and Chicago.
How about in the world? San Sebastián [Spain].
Three things all great restaurants have? A passionate staff, hard-working dishwashers and a great staff meal.
Biggest kitchen disaster you’ve ever had? Working brunch at Eastern Standard, and somebody had taken all the eggs when they came in and put them in the freezer, not realizing it, but then pulled them out. So I didn’t realize that they’d been kinda frozen and kinda thawed, and they weren’t frozen enough that the shells cracked, but they were thawed enough that the yolks wouldn’t stay together. I couldn’t crack an egg to save my life. The yolks just kept breaking. It was the longest three hours of my life.
Thoughts on review sites like Yelp? Hey, man, they all serve a purpose. You’ve gotta know when to listen and when to ignore it. Like if I’m walking down the street and somebody says, “Nice haircut,” and I can tell they’re being sarcastic, I’m not gonna think twice about it. But if some guy stops me and says, “Dude, what’s up with your hair?” or some chick is like, “Hey, your hair looks terrible,” I might stop and look in the mirror. I might not know who they are. I might not know what gives them the right to tell me that, but if multiple people tell me my hair looks terrible, it doesn’t matter what their credentials are. It’s time to look at my hair. And I think that’s what Yelp can be if you’re responsible with it.
Thoughts on restaurant critics? They’ve been around as long as restaurants have, and I think it’s great. I like it when there’s the consistency of someone reviewing things, and you get to know their personal taste. A responsible person reading their review is going to know—if they read their review every week—what Pete Wells likes, or what Devra First doesn’t like, and you can understand it. You can say, “Well, I know MC Slim never gets excited about this kind of restaurant, but this is more his thing.” Knowing that there’s consistency in it, you can learn a lot from their opinions. I think it’s good.
How much time do you spend in Bangkok and Dubai? Bangkok, a couple of times a year. Dubai, we’ve only been open since September, so I was there for two weeks when we opened, and I was there for a week in October. I’ll probably go back to both in late February or early March, but it’s not like Boston or New York. I’m in New York constantly.
Were there things you had to tweak for those cities? Yeah, but there were things we had to tweak when we opened in Cambridge. There’s always something you don’t expect. You do something one way in one place, and you go somewhere else and you have to change it. We don’t have any pork on the menu in Dubai. In Bangkok, we realized that the Thai palette is very particular, and some of the things you and I might perceive as a really good classic flavor, they don’t. Take a tortilla espanola. The combination of onions, potatoes, olive oil, salt and egg, they thought was really boring and salty, because they use either fish sauce or dried seafood for their salt component, so we realized we had to add more texture and spice to balance out some of the Western flavors.
What compelled you and Ken to open restaurants in such far-flung locales? Ken and I both love Bangkok and Thailand, and Ken had looked at the possibility of doing something there years and years ago. The person who’s our partner there was coming to Toro in Boston a lot when he went to B.U., and he came to New York when we opened. He kept saying, “My dad and I have this property. We’re doing restaurants there. We want to do a Toro.” We thought it could be really fun and interesting and a great experience, and it just worked out. Similar thing with Dubai. A guy approached us and said, “We’d really love to do a Toro in Dubai.” It’s a really fun space.
Tell me a secret about Ken Oringer. He hates eggs.
What do you do to relax? I collect records, so I go home and I like to sit and listen to them. Right now, I’m focusing on jazz. And I build Star Wars Lego sets. I turn off my phone, my computer, and I listen to records and build Legos.
What’s the location you want to conquer next? I love Boston and the expansion of it. I love how it’s starting to not just be one little area. It used to be like Cambridge was hard to get people to go to. Now, people go to Somerville or South Boston or East Boston. I love that. So I think it would be great to maybe do a restaurant in one of the newer neighborhoods.
In head-to-tail cooking, how much of the animal isn’t used? Well, everything gets cooked, for the most part. With a 300-pound pig, there’s probably like less than two ounces that go into the trash. Everything gets cooked. The bones, after they’re cooked, might get thrown away, but I wouldn’t call that waste.
What does a James Beard award look like? It’s like a silver medallion, like an Olympic medal, on a ribbon.
Where do you keep yours? It’s in a drawer somewhere.
Favorite restaurant in Boston, besides your own? I’m so torn on how to answer that. I guess I’m gonna say Uni. It’s Ken’s, and I love that restaurant. I have nothing to do with it, although technically it’s part of the family, but it’s excellent.
Do you do a lot of cooking at home? Yeah. I love cooking at home.
If I showed up on your doorstep unannounced, what would you serve me? Well, I have a pretty sick collection of canned Spanish seafood, so I would probably open up some crackers or a bag of potato chips and some seafood to start. I always have some cheese, so you’d get some of that. And then I’d probably throw some rice into the rice cooker and make some sort of quick Indian dal.
Is there one thing you hate to cook? I don’t particularly like making croutons. I never did, and at one of my very first jobs, the chef never printed them on the prep list, so I kept fucking forgetting them. Every day, we’d set up for lunch, and he’d be like, “Where are the croutons?” And I’d be like, “Oh, fuck!” I was 19 or 20 years old, and I consistently forgot to make them, so I was always making them on the fly, and I felt like I never really gave them the attention they deserved. So now that I’m older, if I’m making a salad for friends coming over for dinner, I’m probably not gonna make croutons.
Grossest thing you ever ate? I’ve had some pretty despicable things in other countries, where I didn’t realize what animals they were, but I don’t know that that’s the grossest. I think the grossest was a long time ago, at a restaurant in Boston that didn’t last long. I went with Louis DiBiccari, and every dish we got tasted like it was from a convalescent home but cooked by a second-grader. It was just horrible. They did like a pig’s head tureen, and it wasn’t rotten, but it wasn’t good. It was overly mushy and had no salt. Taking something that inherently kinda smells weird and doesn’t taste great and not seasoning it to make it delicious makes it worse in my opinion. It was just fucking gross.
Person you’d most like to cook for? Hmm. Well, I would have loved to cook for my great-grandmother, who cooked a lot for us when I was a kid. She passed away.
So how many restaurants are too many? When you lose touch. When you feel like you don’t know what’s going on, or you feel overwhelmed. If you start to resent a restaurant, I think that might be it. But we’re not there yet, so I don’t know.
Is there a food trend you’re just completely sick of? No, because anything that’s done well is great, so…I’m tired of anybody doing anything that’s half-assed. But if you do anything, whether it’s trendy or not, that’s delicious and really interesting, I don’t care. I don’t care if everybody else is doing it, if you do it right.
Prediction for the next big food trend? I think we’re seeing a lot more vegetarian and vegetable focused cuisine. I think we’re gonna see more mashups of Indian and Middle Eastern stuff.
If you have to choose between pork or beef, which is your favorite? Probably beef.
Sweet or savory? Savory—without a doubt.
Single most important kitchen tool? Your palette.
What’s your go-to cocktail? A Negroni.◆
Get a behind-the-scenes look at our cover shoot with Jamie!