Chef Jamie Bissonnette gained notoriety for his soulful food, innovative style and pork proficiency at his Boston restaurants, Coppa and Toro. Last fall, Bissonnette brought his incredible tapas menu to Manhattan when he opened a second Toro with business partner and fellow empire builder Ken Oringer. As we predicted, New Yorkers are just as infatuated as Bostonians with their Barcelona-style tapas—think Galician octopus with potatoes and charred onions, ham and pigs’ head croquetas and griddled garlic shrimp. (Go ahead. Lick the plate.) We chat with Bissonnette about his upcoming charcuterie-focused cookbook (due out this summer), expanding to NYC, and the beauty of Spanish cuisine.
AndrewZimmern.com: What changes did you and Ken Oringer make to your original concept when opening Toro 2.0 in NYC?
Jamie Bissonnette: We looked at the space we have here in NYC and realized that we could do a bigger menu. Then we sat and talked food, went to Spain, and came back with the opening menu. For example, we had these incredible ruby red carabineros [shrimp] at some restaurant right on the water in San Sebastian, and we knew we wanted them on the menu. It’s such a specialized product and it took us a bit to source, but we now have them. Also, we tried these amazing stewed chickpeas that had these chunks of pigs’ feet at the Boqueria in Barcelona and I wanted to do a version of that at Toro. Same with these setas that were so simple, just sautéed mushrooms with an egg yolk in the middle that you break over it, and we put that on the opening menu and still offer it (you can now add cocks combs to it too).
AZ.com: What were some of the major challenges of opening a restaurant in NYC? Differences in restaurant culture between New York and Boston?
JB: For us, I think it was hard during construction living in Boston and not being here for the in-the-moment decisions regarding construction and design. That and just working with new teams. In Boston, when we walk into the building department we know where to go. In NYC everything was so new.
The biggest difference between the two cities is the diversity of specialized product you can get in New York at any given time—things like percebes [goose barnacles] from Galicia for example. We serve those as a special in Boston when we can get them, and in New York they are actually on the menu. It’s just easier to source specialized ingredients here in New York.
AZ.com: How did you meet Ken Oringer?
JB: We met when I staged at Clio in 2000. I loved his food and style. Eventually we started working together again in 2007, and it’s been a honeymoon ever since (professionally).
AZ.com: You’re known for nose-to-tail dishes at Coppa. What influenced you to put the odd bits center stage on the menu?
JB: When I moved to Boston the offal game was tight. Lydia Shire had a whole section at Biba; it was amazingly inspiring. When they closed, and I started thinking about the offal, and lack of it, I wanted to learn more about it. When we were opening Eastern Standard, Garrett Harker asked if I was going to use offal, and I said yes. He really pushed me to showcase more of it.
AZ.com: You have a cookbook coming out this summer that’s all about charcuterie. What types of charcuterie do you think are the most approachable for the home cook? What’s your favorite recipe from the cookbook?
JB: Curing at home is tricky. My book is more about having fun with charcuterie, trying new flavors. I would say the tricks you’ll learn are that most charcuterie can be approachable and fun. Meatloaf is definitely the most approachable thing to start off with—everyone has their own version, and it’s easy to step it up a notch with great ingredients. As far as a favorite recipe in the book, that would probably be the Vietnamese bologna (although my favorite recipe changes based on what I’m in the mood for at the moment).
AZ.com: What is it about Spanish cuisine that you love? What are your favorite regions or cities in Spain for food?
JB: I love Spain. Seriously, the idea of eating a little bit often, as the say in San Sebastian, is genius. I would much rather snack than feast most of the time. Roam, pintxo bar to pintxo bar, glass of cidre, Txakoli or beer, some tortilla, bocadillos, pintxo, setas, I mean… I could go on all day about the joys of chowing for 5 hours and not feeling full! And while I love traveling and seeing new cities, San Sebastian really does stay one of my favorites. The food there is so soulful.
AZ.com: What tattoo are you getting next? Who’s your favorite tattoo artist? Any regrets?
JB: I don’t have a favorite tattooer. I have some that I want to get more from, and some I have never met that I want to have tattoo me. I think that the tattooer Grime is so amazing, and would love a tattoo from him one day. My next tattoo should be to finish my back. I think we are 30-40 hours in, and probably have 10-20 hours left, but something happened at 30 and tattoos started to really fucking hurt.
AZ.com: Name 3 chefs in Boston and 3 in NYC whose food you can’t stop thinking about.
JB: Boston: Louis DiBiccari of Tavern Road; Meghann Ward of Coppa; Jay Hajj of Mike’s City Diner (but when he does Lebanese pop-up food, the BEST).
NYC: Brooks Headley of Del Posto; April Bloomfield of John Dory; Paul Carmichael of Má Pêche.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JB: Boston: Hot sauces, bottle of sparkling wine (rosé), anchovies, pickled lime and brown bananas (going to be bread…). NYC: Butter, eggs, homemade leftover berbere spiced rice with turkey, a six pack of diet coke cans, hot sauce, kale, cantaloupe, blue berries, and canned Manzanilla olives with anchovies.
About Jamie Bissonnette
Even as a child, Bissonnette was drawn to the kitchen eschewing cartoons for cooking shows on the Discovery Channel. With this early start, he earned his Culinary Arts degree from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale by the young age of 19 and spent his early 20s eating and cooking his way through Paris, San Francisco, New York and Phoenix. These early experiences fed his culinary drive, teaching him expression through his daily-changing menus.
After cooking in Europe and across the United States, Bissonnette settled in Boston and began working in some of the city’s most notable kitchens. Following stints at a few highly regarded restaurants, Bissonnette opened Eastern Standard as executive chef in 2005. Two years later, he was recruited for the steakhouse KO Prime, winning praise for his modern take on this classic fare. That year in 2007, The Improper Bostonian named him “Rising Star Chef” and KO Prime “Best New Restaurant.” Shortly after in the fall of 2008, Bissonnette joined Ken Oringer as executive chef and partner of the acclaimed tapas restaurant Toro in Boston’s South End and then together in late 2009 they opened the innovative Italian enoteca Coppa. StarChefs awarded Bissonnette Rising Star Chef that same year, and directly following Coppa was awarded 3 Stars in a rave review from the Boston Globe and honorable mention in Esquire’s Best New Restaurants annual list.
Bissonnette is a local champion of nose-to-tail cuisine and is well-known locally and nationally for his exceptional charcuterie and passionate dedication to supporting local, sustainable purveyors. He was spokesperson for the Wisconsin Cheese Board in 2008, has been featured in The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, and Edible Boston, among many others and in 2011 was awarded the prestigious honor of Food & Wine magazine’s first ever People Choice Best New Chef. Bissonnette was also announced as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards, Best Chef: Northeast for the past three years in a row.
As chef and owner of Coppa and Toro in Boston, Bissonnette continues to helm the kitchens of both award-winning restaurants, and can be found at either (and often both) nightly overseeing his menus of innovative small plates and nose to tail cooking. Additionally, he just opened Toro in New York City with partner Ken Oringer.