With a buzz-worthy New York restaurant that opened last September and a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Northeast last week, Jamie Bissonnette, 36, has been garnering serious attention in the food world. But the Boston-based chef takes success in stride. “Everything we make today is going to end up in a toilet tomorrow. How seriously can you take yourself? It’s all in how you get it there and having fun,” says Bissonnette.
Fun for the chef comes in the form of nose-to-tail cooking and charcuterie. He is the chef of Toro, a tapas restaurant, and co-owner and chef at the enoteca Coppa, both in the South End. He and business partner Ken Oringer opened a New York offshoot of Toro last year.
Boston-based restaurateur Barbara Lynch, who was recognized as Outstanding Restaurateur, presented the award to Bissonnette at the Beard Foundation ceremony in New York. Other nominees in Bissonnette’s category included Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, Matt Jennings of Farmstead in Providence (who announced a few days later that he will close the restaurant and open one in Boston), Michael Leviton of Lumiere in Newton, and Barry Maiden of Hungry Mother in Cambridge. The chef spoke from Toro New York before returning to Boston. “I only have one record player,” he says. It’s in Boston.
Q. The James Beard Awards are known as the Oscars of food. Does it feel like that when you’re there?
A. I’ve never been to the Oscars. But it is walking on a red carpet with people taking your photo and cameras everywhere. A lot of the people there are still the same scumbags and punk rockers I go out for beers with. People dress up and I got a haircut for it. The first year I was nominated, I was blown away.
‘When Barbara [Lynch] opened the envelope, she said “Bissonnette takes it.” Just having her say it meant so much to me. ’
Q. Other than winning, what was the best part of the night?
A. I came with my friends, my father, and business partner Ken Oringer. We went to John Dory and crushed a ton of shellfish platters. It was great to have my father and his wife there. Ken was there and Matt Jennings, one of my best friends. How often can you get some of the best people from all over the country in one room at once? Our industry is so unbelievably supportive.
Q. Was it back to work after the awards?
A. My friend Chris Shepherd from Underbelly in Houston, who won Best Chef Southwest, and I committed to judge a scholarship competition for Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, where we both went. We had to be there at 9 a.m. the next morning. I didn’t show up until about 10:30. I took the night off and was back to work the next day.
Q. Were you surprised by the win?
A. My dad was sitting next to me, and said, “Do you have a speech ready?” I said, “It’s not my year.” He told me “If you do, don’t be too long. People get bored.” The energy in the room was intense. When Barbara opened the envelope, she said “Bissonnette takes it.” Just having her say it meant so much to me. Matt Jennings jumped out of his seat and was jumping on me. After I said my thank yous, Daniel Boulud put the medal around my neck. When I walked backstage Barbara said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Q. What does your award and Barbara Lynch’s as Outstanding Restaurateur say about the Boston food scene?
A. There are a lot of great things happening in Boston. Barbara’s been at the top of her game for years and it’s great to get the city back on that map.
Q. How has Toro been received in New York?
A. Ken and I have a good amount of support from friends already in our building. We have Tom Colicchio on one side and Del Posto on the other side. The chef, Mark Ladner, he’s a Boston guy. It felt like that same camaraderie that we had in Boston. It made me proud.
Q. How are diners and crowds different in New York?
A. First-come first-serve seating for the communal tables is not popular in New York. Other than that, it’s the same as Boston, in that we get a lot of tourists. Regulars in New York don’t come in quite as often because of the variety available. But we see a lot of the same restaurant chefs coming in: Pearl and Ash, Mike Anthony from Gramercy Tavern. We’ve gotten a lot of support from Dave Chang and his staff. Like you see in Boston, the restaurants have become big supporters of each other.
Q. How do you split your time among three restaurants in two cities?
A. My teams in Boston are so great. It allowed Ken and me to be down here. Before New Year’s Eve we were in New York all the time. Now we’re starting to pull back. When people ask me where I spend most of my time, I say, “in Connecticut on the train.”