Interview with Chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro – Boston, MA (2009)

October 2009

Katherine Martinelli: How did you and Ken Oringer start working together?
Jamie Bissonnette: I worked for him in 2001 at Clio.

KM: How did that evolve into your partnership at Toro?
JB: We always remained friends and [Ken Oringer] was getting ready to open a restaurant in a hotel with the Klimpton restaurant group. I was running Eastern Standard and he called me and asked how I felt about going with him to do this project. I did that for two years and then was done [at KO Prime]. We decided to become partners and work on a restaurant together.

KM: Why did you decide to open another restaurant together after Toro?
JB: Pretty much immediately after we started working together at KO Prime we talked about what we wanted to do. We started working more and more together at Toro and started talking about restaurants we wanted to open. We wrote a list with a lot of ideas for other restaurants. This location became available and already had a wood burning oven. That neighborhood was lacking a small plates Italian concept, so we though this was a good opportunity. We talked to the landlord and the price was right so we decided to do it.

KM: What is the concept behind Coppa?
JB: It’s going to be a neighborhood Italian inoteca with a focus on whole animals, handmade pastas, and pizza.

KM: Tell me about how the concept has affected other decisions at the restaurant, from types of plates to kitchen equipment.
JB: The major thing is that in order for it to be a neighborhood restaurant there can’t be any pretension. With an average plate cost of $12 and having it plated on a $90 plate, it just doesn’t look right. It’s incongruous. So we decided to go with inexpensive Bauscher plateware and no frills Libbey and Oven Earthstone glassware; we wanted to give it the feel of being in somebody’s house.

[In the kitchen] we built everything we need around the wood burning stove. Originally we talked about only doing two pastas and the rest small plates and pizza. But we decided more pasta was the way to go because there’s not a lot of good pasta in that area.

KM: What type of range did you go with?
JB: Jade, of course!

KM: Did you put in any specialty equipment?
JB: No. I’m hoping to get a plancha after November 3… [for having the winning dish at the Rising Stars Gala]. We’ve got a Hobart mixer that’s pretty grassroots.

KM: How is your wife, Courtney Bissonnette involved in Coppa?
JB: Courtney is the general manager and she is heading up the beverage program. She will also continue to head up cocktail program at Toro as well.

KM: What is it like to work on a new project with your spouse?
JB: We already spend a lot of time working at Toro together and we used to work at Eastern Standard together. It’s good because we have good control over our down time. We know if we’re both off and we go out for dinner, we don’t spend the whole time talking about work.

It’s also really fun to start from the bottom and talk about what kind of glassware. Ken and his wife are a part of it too and it’s fun to collaborate and to have that energy. Courtney is a visionary when it comes to restaurants—way better than me—and seeing her point of view is invaluable. I don’t think I would get as much insight doing it with someone else; because we’re married we can be so much more open.

KM: Will you still have responsibilities at Toro?
JB: It’s a work in progress. Toro is my flagship. That’s our first restaurant together. The way [Ken] had [Toro] before he made me partner was good, but since we’ve been running it together it’s awesome. We have a lot of regulars and it’s a lot larger than Coppa. A lot of our regulars would be nervous not seeing me there. And I love cooking there. I’ll go to three days at Toro and four days at Coppa. Eventually our sous chefs at both will be able to run the restaurants with minimal supervision from Ken and me.

KM: What are the challenges of opening a restaurant right now?
JB: There are always the structural challenges, like when you take down a wall and realize that it’s not up to code and you need to get permits. That’s our biggest problem. Or you order piece of equipment and realize it’s much bigger than it’s supposed to be. Other than that, the drawbacks and setbacks are really the permits

KM: How influenced have you been by the state of the economy? Did you wait to open because of it? Has it affected your menu structure and price point?
JB: Yes and no. Toro opened when the economy was great with a lower check point and it was always busier. Ken and I looked at that business model and said how can we do this and continue to be successful, and take that same idea for Coppa. The big part isn’t even related to the economy. I like having a restaurant where I see the same faces on a regular basis, neighborhood people. If you have a neighborhood restaurant with a $130 tasting menu, you won’t see the same people because most people can’t afford to go out and spend that much on dinner. Being able to go in and get pizza for $12 and appetizers for $5 we’ll see people coming in more often.

KM: When is Coppa slated to open?
JB: We just locked down our training schedule. Our kitchen got finished yesterday and we’ll start cooking this weekend and trying recipes. We’ll fire up the pizza oven for the first time.

KM: Coppa has already it's received a lot of media attention. How do you generate buzz?
JB: It just happened. I have no idea.

KM: You have a reputation for being a "chef's chef." What do you think it is about your cooking that appeals to other chefs?
JB: I don’t know. But for me having restaurant people—whether cooks, servers, managers, dishwashers—come into Toro on a regular basis is the most flattering thing you can have. Growing up cooking and being in restaurants, I’ve always thought that the restaurants that have restaurant people going to them were always the ones that had something going on. When we eat out we’re not ordering romaine salad, we’re looking at blood sausage with pigs head and more interesting dishes. And that’s what I like to cook. I love calf’s brain. It’s the most interesting and delicate offal, but I also like that shock value. Having something that not everybody else serves brings restaurant people in.

KM: What's next? Will you and Ken keep opening restaurants together?
JB: Absolutely. Even still, we’re looking whenever property becomes available in Boston. We’re always looking to see if we can do another project. If we have to try to open something else in January then we’ll see where we are. Clio is doing really well right now, and my sous chef is awesome. I could open another project and I have no doubt that [my sous chef] Mike would make the same decisions with the food, the guests, and even the finances. If something becomes available and the timing is right, and the neighborhood is right, we could definitely do something else quickly. But we’re not going to rush it if it’s too expensive or not in the right place.