To fish or cook? Thankfully, Abram Bissell chose the latter. Since his early teens, this Key West native has dedicated himself to the culinary craft—from sweaty shifts at his aunt’s small café to spinning dough at every imaginable pizzeria in town. The lure of kitchen life drew Bissell from the Keys to a far less tropical latitude and the New England Culinary Institute.
After culinary school, Bissell joined the team at Chef Frank McClelland’s L’Espalier in Boston and then headed west to Big Sur in California, where he worked at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn. In 2006, Bissell decided to take on New York City with a post at Danny Meyer’s The Modern, and two years later he transitioned to the Meyer crown jewel: Eleven Madison Park. Working under Chef Daniel Humm, Bissell quickly advanced in the kitchen, moving from line cook to executive sous chef by 2010. During his EMP tenure, the restaurant received four stars from The New York Times and three Michelin stars, and it landed a spot on San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best” list.
In 2012, Humm tapped Bissell to lead the team at The NoMad. An integral figure in the design and development of the kitchen and menu, Bissell’s philosophy is represented in every dish. It’s refined comfort food rooted in technique—served morning, noon, and late night to as many as 1,500 hotel guests and ravenous New Yorkers.
Why: No one, least of all a child, should grow up hungry.
About: Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry and Cooking Matters campaigns are ending childhood hunger in America by ensuring all children get the healthy food they need, every day.
Interview with Chef Abram Bissell of The NoMad – New York, NY
Dan Catinella: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Abram Bissell: I grew up surrounded by food. I was born and raised in the Florida Keys and had two choices for my first job—cook or fish. I chose cooking and began working with my aunt, who ran a small local café. I started bussing tables when I was 15, but soon realized that my passion lay with baking. I've worked almost every pizza place you can think of in the Keys. Culinary school was just the next natural step.
DC: Where did you go to culinary school?
AB: When I began researching culinary schools, the first one that popped up was Culinary Institute of America, and they turned me down. I started looking for other schools and landed at New England Culinary Institute. They don't have a distinct pastry program so I spent more time doing savory and fell away from pastry. I'm still somewhat involved with the pastry side.
DC: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
AB: When young cooks come work for me, I usually try to help them understand what the commitment is. When you get involved in restaurants and with food, it’s a big commitment. You aren't going to part of the "other side of life"—when people are eating and playing and celebrating holidays, you are going to be working. The Food Network makes it seem sparkly and great, but it’s still servitude.
DC: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
AB: The NoMad is not currently working with charities. We are, however, going to do some work with Flat Iron Chefs because of their work with the Madison Square Park Conservatory. We do make a point to source our ingredients close by. For example, we are at the 14th Street market two to three times per week and use TheChefsWeb.com, a purveyor and distribution resource, and other opportunities to make sure we are buying from local farms.
DC: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
AB: When I go out to eat, I don’t like to be challenged. I want something tasty and delicious and not have to think too hard about it. This follows here at The NoMad. The food is familiar and rooted in traditional technique. We want you to understand what’s on your plate, and we want it to be its best version.
DC: What goes into creating a dish?
AB: A lot of it is seasonality. We are getting ready for the spring transition, and we build around whatever is fresh and coming into season. If a purveyor comes up with something they are really excited about then we will try it. A lot of chefs just pick a protein and build a dish around that. We may find a great vegetable, and we’ll start with the garnish and go from there.
DC: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
AB: Continuing to grow the skills and knowledge of our staff and cooks in-house. We received so much recognition in our first year that I don’t want to fall into being stagnant.
DC: What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?
AB: I'm very proud of what this restaurant has accomplished thus far. I think we’ve been lucky with the staff we’ve attracted and accrued and have filled our establishment with very passionate cooks—almost 51 percent of our original staff are still in the building so it’s a small turnover. But I have to say it’s my 2-year-old daughter. She arrived when we were working on The NoMad. It’s certainly hard to create a balance between being a new dad and head chef. I basically already have 50 "children" in the restaurant.
DC: Where do you see yourself in five years?
AB: I'd like to think that I will still be at The NoMad. I can confidently say that this place is my home. I would love to be able to see it grow and to support that change. It’s my hope that this happens and we continue to be recognized for what we do.