Interview with Chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro – Boston, MA (2010)

November 2010

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jamie Bissonnette: I started to cook because my mother couldn't. I wasn't a good enough musician and I'd always cooked as a kid because my mom wasn't a good cook, so we fended for ourselves. I was a vegan and my mom refused to acknowledge that. I would try to recreate the dishes from television at home. I really liked the satisfaction of cooking for someone and having them enjoy it. Eventually I got kicked out of my house and my band wasn't very good, so I went to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. It was fun and there were lots of distractions. I spent a lot of time on tour in bands. I went to culinary school when I was 17 but got serious about cooking when I was 20. When I turned 20 I realized bands weren't the way to go. When I was 21 I'd stopped being vegetarian and vegan.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
JB: Probably not. 10-15 years ago it had a lot more oomph. Maybe if you work in a restaurant first for a few years. A lot of people who attend culinary school leave the profession after a few years. There's a lot of sensationalism in our profession now and there's no room for prima donnas. There are people out of culinary school who may not know how to use a butcher knife but they have nuance and palate and there are others who want to use a tweezer for everything. It doesn't require the same level of commitment it used to now—it's treated more like a college.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JB: Ask questions, taste, and read, read, read. Buy cookbooks or go to the library, check out old cookbooks and learn. Remember this is a difficult, demanding job whether you work at Alinea or Joe's. You have to move quickly and be efficient.

AB: Who is the coolest chef you have worked with?
JB: There are different levels of cool. Well, one day, I taught at Boston University and I got to work with Jacques Pépin. He knows more about food than any human alive. He's probably forgotten more about food then I'll ever know. Marc Orfaly is fun and sporadic. Ken Oringer is fun because he pushes you. There are no excuses. You make the time, just make sure you do it. I love how he pushes me. Even when I didn't work for him, he would come into restaurants I worked at and continue to push me.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JB: Sometimes seasonality and the farmers market. Remember the purple asparagus? Or I'm out for dinner and I see a dish I want to recreate. Or sometimes I have cravings for certain kinds of food so I make them.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JB: Salty, sour, rich. Salt and acid. Fried food is great, but unless you put sea salt and lemon juice on it, it's bland.

AB: What ingredient do you feel is under-appreciated?
JB: Spring just hit and I can't get enough ramps. I try not to be too repetitive but right now we have ramps everywhere. We have a rabbit dish on and the only reason we have it is because I love the combination of ramps and rabbit.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JB: For Toro and the other restaurants I believe in cool, casual, edgy food that's tasty. I want the same attention to detail as there is in fine dining, but it doesn't have to cost $40. The service can have the same refined technique. I like small plates. It's like having a tasting menu, but people get to pick.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JB: Opening up Eastern Standard. That place was so big and I was so young and I didn't know my ass from my elbow. We didn't know it would have such a cult following: Red Sox games, graduations, etc. I worked 48 hour shifts straight through without sleeping. It made me respect our craft more.

AB: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
JB: I'd be afraid to because I'm really happy with who I am now and I wouldn't want to change that. When I was younger I had an opportunity to travel to South East Asia and I didn't. I also wish I hadn’t been a vegan.

AB: What trends do you see emerging?
JB: Small plates everywhere. I'm glad we were ahead of that curve. Inexpensive plates. We have over 50 dishes on menu and most are under $10. I see other restaurants doing tapas, small plates, cichetti, etc. Nose to tail eating is another one. My favorite food is tripe and the more places cooking the entire animal, the more I get to eat those foods.

AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JB: I wish we had more seats. We're a small restaurant and we could probably do another 50 covers a night. People come in and we don't take reservations, so sometimes there's a 2 hour wait. We want more people coming through the restaurant.

AB: What are you doing to survive in this economy? Are there any practices that are working for you?
JB: We didn't change much of what we did. We streamlined how we cook so we're more efficient. We're very accommodating, whether it’s a dietary concern or something else. I treat people like it’s my house. If you want ketchup, we won't make fun of that.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JB: I would probably be in a band, touring, or as a roadie. I’d be doing something with music.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JB: It's a small community and chefs exchange recipes but also farmers; we’re sharing ideas, recommending restaurants. When people come in and we're busy we'll call other restaurants. We’re caring and we treat restaurant people well. We have an underground chefs’ club and there's always something going on. I used to cook those chef club dinners. A lot of the older generation don't do it as much. Some of the younger guys do a lot more of that. We've been talking about trying to get together and do something under the radar.

AB: What is your favorite kitchen rule?
JB: Taste your food. You need to taste it. Don't rely on some one else’s mise en place.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JB: I think more about the failures and how to prevent them than I do about what I've done right. One of the things I think is a great judge of a restaurant is when other restaurant people come to eat here, and it makes me proud that we're a restaurant persons’ restaurant. We have a few huge hams we've cured and we're very proud of those.

AB: What does success mean for you? What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JB: Ken [Oringer] and I are going to open up multiple restaurants. The next one, Coppa, will feature Italian small plates. Courtney [Bissonnette] will be General Manager but still do the cocktails here.