Jamie Bissonnette on TV Kitchens & The Best Egg Sandwich in NYC
Jamie Bissonnette always knew he was meant to cook. From that first memory of a juicy orange quenching his adolescent, soccer-induced thirst to admiring shiny, shimmering TV kitchens on the small screen as a teenager, he’s been fascinated with food and dining for as long as he can remember. We recently spoke with this chef and co-owner of Boston’s Coppa and Toro (now in Boston and NYC).
What attracted you to the restaurant industry and chef’s life in the first place?
I think that as a kid I loved cooking, and I didn’t realize it. Looking back, all of my major memories in life somehow involve food. Going to the grocery store and eating liverwurst and a pickle. Even the first time I played soccer as a kid — I remember how fun it was and the adrenaline — but my most vivid memory was eating the oranges and how orange they were, the cold oranges versus the warm oranges (because some were in a cooler and some weren’t), how they tasted. And I can remember the flavors exactly. So I think that I was just supposed to cook.
Any other childhood experiences you think shaped your future as a chef?
My mom was a pretty terrible cook, and we had the same meals most nights. Monday it was always this one dish called “Gross me out” — noodles and a bunch of different canned things gunked on top of it, liked canned turkey or sometimes beef stew. I’ve done some pretty bad staff meals, and they’re still better than that stuff. But on Tuesdays it was “fend for yourself,” so I would cook for myself and my sister and my mom would work late. And as I got older I became a vegetarian, eventually vegan for a little bit, and there wasn’t a lot out there to eat. I would be cooking at home watching the show “Great Chefs” on the Discovery channel, and I just remember going, “Man, I love kitchens.” I just loved watching them whip cream and chantilly in a copper bowl and cast iron pans, all the stainless steel of the kitchen and the red tile on the floor. I was just so enamored by it. I would watch it, and I would try and mimic some of the things that I saw. And all of a sudden at band practice the bandmates were like, “Yo, you keep cooking us these awesome lunches, but you don’t know how to play any of our songs.” So I got kicked out of the band and went to culinary school when I was 17. I was so young but I was that kid, like, “I know what I’m gonna do.” And I just happened to be right.
Your Twitter profile describes you as “Eat Offal, listen to hardcore, dance hard or die” which seems like a pretty tough persona. Is there anything about you that people might be surprised to know?
I never intended for that image to look tough, so that’s funny. “Eat offal,” is because I love cooking offal. “Listen to hardcore,” is the kind of music that I grew up in. And, “dance hard or die,” is a specific lyric from a specific hardcore band that was very much about not being tough, but about unity and being together. I think that if there’s one thing that people don’t know about me from my public persona, the one thing that I don’t think anybody knows — I’m a total cat dude. I’ve got two big ass cats.
How’d you meet Ken Oringer and why’d you decide to work together?
Maybe I’m turning into a weird hippie lately, and this doesn’t sound like me but I’m about to say it: I think we were supposed to know each other. As a kid, I had a neighbor who turned out to be his college roommate. And it was just one of those things — I’d hear Ken’s name from different parts of my life, professional and not. When I graduated culinary school, I moved back to Hartford, CT (an area where I’m from) and turned into a complete loser townie for about a year and a half. I knew I was going to end up dead or in jail, so I was like, New York or Boston? Well I grew up going to Boston and used to go up there a lot for hardcore shows. I had friends up there and could stay with some family while I get on my feet. It was August first and by August 17th I was living in Boston. Ken and I always saw each other out, late night at this one bar that every restaurant person went to called Silvertone, a place where you could walk in one night and see Ming Tsai, Ken Oringer, Barbara Lynch and Michael Schlow — the heavy hitters of the Boston chef world at that time. So I would go there, and Ken and I would always end up talking about food. We would talk about how to roast a beet or when I staged in Paris. We would end up talking until 2 o’clock in the morning about traditional techniques of dishes that we both loved. I could see his love for food was similar to mine. He saw a young, really eager, knowledge-craving kid — me. And we always just kind of stayed in contact. And then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he called me about a new project that he thought I’d be a great chef for (at the time I was at Eastern Standard), and I said sure. We talked, and we started working together. And that was about 10 years ago.
What inspired you and Ken to bring Toro to NYC?
When Ken opened up Toro, I loved it from the beginning. From living in Europe, I loved Spanish food. And there was really no one doing innovative modern takes of Spanish tapas in Boston. There were some old school places that were super traditional and awesome, but there was nothing new and edgy. When it opened up, I went there pretty much every day on my days off and sat at the bar. I knew I could go there and get a really awesome cheese plate and really cool ham and pickled oysters, patatas bravas, shishito peppers. And I would even go there, get a couple things to go and bring them to the movies on my day off — sit there with popcorn. And then the opening chef left and they were struggling. I was the chef de cuisine at KO Prime [in the Nine Zero hotel] at the time, and I wanted to get out of the hotel world, go to a smaller kitchen. I wanted to cook. I told Ken I wanted a change and he said: why don’t you become my business partner, take over Toro, and we’ll work on it together. We did that for about a year and a half, and then we opened up Coppa. And that was six years ago.
I’ve always done a lot of charcuterie and taught it at Boston University, done symposiums for different magazines, demos. One of the things I love about being a chef is that being a chef is being a teacher. I love learning from others, and I also love teaching. I was doing a lot of that and an old photographer friend of mine called me and said he’d love to jump on this new book idea that a publisher he worked with was doing. Even though they had a chef to write it, he just felt like I’d be better. They were looking for more innovative flavors of charcuterie (not just traditional stuff) for home cooks, not just for professionals. I thought that was awesome. So I wrote a recipe that day and sent it to them. A year and a half later we finally got around to finishing it up. It was a really interesting process and fun. I don’t know that I’m going to be writing any more books anytime soon. But it was great.
How would you describe your personal culinary style and ethos?
I always try to take influence from the things that are around me. I’m a voracious reader of cookbooks, old and new. Sometimes I love looking through books from the ‘70s and ‘60s. A lot of inspiration comes from travel and eating out. I think the most important thing that any culinary professional can do is just continue to eat and learn and taste. Ken taught me that. If you’re always tasting and always questioning and always talking about food, you’re going to keep having different ideas.
Any culinary adventures coming up?
I just planned a vacation with my girlfriend to somewhere I’ve never been before, to have food I’m not that familiar with. I’m really excited to learn more about it. I’m going to the Philippines. I just love how much it’s been affected by all the different people who basically tried to ruin it. Whether it was Spain, Japan or the US, there’ve been so many influences on the food there. A couple of my sous chefs in New York are from the Philippines. It’s just fascinating, and I’m really excited to see how all these different cultures smashed together on a group of islands.
In what ways have you seen tech (social media or otherwise) affect your business?
So many. Everything is happening so fast, I can’t keep up. I feel like we’re in a time like the industrial revolution, like there’s so much happening. I think the restaurant industry does a really bad job of really using it in creative ways. Touching tables is something that everybody does — managers, servers — they go to tables to ask how things are. To touch a table virtually on Instagram or Twitter when a guest is still in the restaurant is seemingly less personal but also more personal because not everybody does. I like doing that. All the different online aggregate ratings systems — people love ‘em, people hate ‘em, but it’s a snapshot we can see in real time for the first time — what people not in the restaurant industry think of our restaurants.
I think it’s up to us to be responsible to use them to learn and grow. It would take somebody handwriting a letter or word of mouth to learn that one of your bartenders was rude to a guest last night. We all have a little bit of ego that what we do is right. I think it’s so important to use those tools. I just fell in love with Google Analytics, seeing who’s looking at our website and what devices people are using, talking to our web designer to do a certain thing because 99% of people are looking at us on iPhone. Finding where that stuff is — I’m fascinated by it.
Any favorite NYC haunts?
I’ll never get sick of The John Dory by April Bloomfield in the Ace Hotel. It has one of my favorite things in New York to eat — this butter cracker sandwich thing [Carta di Musica]. I’ll never get sick of that. A restaurant in Soho called Egg Shop — it’s a breakfast spot. I used to live on Lafayette and Spring. Eggs are my favorite food; I’m fascinated by them. I think I went there every day for two weeks for breakfast. I loved it so much I reached out to find out who did their website, branding and collateral. I think that restaurant is so slick, welcoming. And the food is delicious. Their egg sandwich is like, the best.
Can you describe your favorite dish at Toro?
I love one of the simplest tapas, pan con tomate — toasted bread rubbed with garlic, topped with grated tomato, olive oil and salt. I love ours — one that was inspired by Spanish cans of seafood. We take the liquid from canned sardines, whip it with goat butter, dollop the goat butter on top of the pan con tomate and then put the broken sardines on top. I could never get sick of that. So delicious.
Pan con tomate at Toro
What might pair well with it?
We have a half bottle and by the glass of Basque cider. A super dry, kind of funky one with the goat butter, canned seafood and the pan con tomate? It’s like a match made in heaven.