Jamie Bissonnette on Winning a James Beard Award
The Toro chef discusses Boston expats, anxiety attacks, and accepting the culinary world’s highest honor from Barbara Lynch.
On May 5, Jamie Bissonnette, the tattoo-laden, offal-loving, Food & Wine winner for Best New Chef, added another adjective to his already crowded moniker, James Beard Award winner. The chef and co-owner of the perpetually crowded South End spots, Toro and Coppa, is now spreading his nose-to-tail gospel at Toro New York’s Chelsea outpost, but as we found out, you can never take the Boston out of the rebel chef. We caught up with Bissonnette after the James Beard pandemonium to discuss that night’s festivities, his philosophy on succinct acceptance speeches, and how he’s managing his cross-state restaurant empire.
How were the James Beard Awards?
Dammit, I wish you would have asked me that before we had the party. I can’t remember anything. No, I’m just kidding. It was my third time being nominated and just having my name spoken on stage was humbling. The first year, my friend Matt Jennings [a fellow nominee] and I made it a party weekend. Last year we took it a little bit easier. This year my dad came down and we had a nice afternoon at John Dory. I do have to say, before the ceremony we grabbed a drink across the street from The Lincoln Center and I thought I was having a heart attack. I was short of breath and my heart racing. I thought maybe I was just suffering from a bad hangover from partying the night before at Chefs Night Out. All these things were going through my head, like, “did I eat too much salt?” and “should I go see a doctor and have someone check my blood pressure?” I finally said something out loud and Ken [Oringer], my business partner goes, “dude, that’s just anxiety.”
When you started out on this path, did you ever imagine you’d get to this point?
Ha, no! When someone emailed me that I was on the long list of James Beard nominees, I wrote back, “very funny.” Then I started getting blown up on Twitter and I just became swollen with pride. When I moved to Boston, I remember meeting Joanne Chang when I was buying bread for a restaurant I was working at as a line cook. I remember being wowed and wanting to learn under her some day. To be standing in the same room as her 12 years later was dreamlike.
How was it to receive the award from Barbara Lynch?
I’ve never worked with Barbara, but we’ve been friendly for a long time. My ex-wife, whom I’m still best friends with, worked for Barbara at No. 9 Park for a couple of years. She worked at B&G Oysters as well. They had become very good friends and because of that relationship, Barbara and I had gotten to know each other. When Ken and I opened KO Prime, she came into eat a couple times and was just so unbelievably supportive and kind. When she announced my name, the way she said it was so great. Barbara announced everyone’s full name, but when she opened the envelope she went, “Bissonnette takes it!” It was almost like hearing, “And Thornton scores!” Barbara made it so personal. I had asked somebody to record the speech, and when I got back I had to watch it to actually see what I said.
Yeah, your speech was fairly short, were you shell-shocked?
My dad had asked me if I had a speech written, but I was convinced I wasn’t going to win, so I said, “no.” But I vowed that if I ever did win, I’d make it quick. The energy in the room is so raucous and fun and I’d seen chefs in the past just kill it by getting super long-winded.
I saw on Instagram that some other chefs like Will Gilson and Louis DiBiccari went down to New York to support you.
Those are my best friends. Those are my bros. I got a text from Louis when I was at lunch that said, “on my way down.” Andy Cartin (owner of Merrill & Co.), who is my best friend in the world, had come to New York the night before. Then Will Gilson texted me that day to say he was coming down to party. Jody Adams came and found us before the red carpet at the awards and told us she had come to support all the Boston people. Tim and Nancy Cushman from O Ya came over and said hello. Boston’s just got a dynamic food scene where everybody is so supportive of each other.
You talked about the camaraderie between Boston chefs, are you experiencing that same sort of dynamic in New York?
A little bit. I’ve definitely met some chefs, but also there’s a lot of Boston expats in New York. Del Posto is in the same building as Toro and Mark Ladner is a guy who grew up right outside of Boston. Matt Abdoo, his chef de cuisine, did his college externship with me and lived in Boston for years. Justin Morel, who is a general manager at a lot of the Craft properties is an old Boston person who used to work for Barbara. Janet Kim who works at La Colombe Coffee is another former No. 9 Park person. The list goes on and on and on. There’s a lot of Boston camaraderie even in New York. There’s good friends I have here, but I have over 20 years of Boston ties, so it’s not even comparable.
How are you balancing restaurants in two different cities? Is it proving to be difficult?
There’s definitely easier days than others. I’m such a reactionary person that when someone is having problems with a dish I want to just jump on my scooter and help out. Being hands-on and in-the-moment is where most chefs really excel. You have to look at a guy like Tom Colicchio, though. He’s someone who I really look up to and he’s no longer in the orchestra pit. He’s a conductor. I think that’s what really good chefs do. Barbara does that really well. Her restaurants are unbelievably consistent and she’s constantly on the road doing events. People say, “But Barbara’s not on the line anymore.” Well, Barbara shouldn’t be on the line. She’s too good for that. She can now see the matrix.
Is that where you’re going with your career?
I don’t know. All I know is that I get a nice three-hour office day whenever I take the train back to Boston.
All you restaurants are partnerships with Ken Oringer. At this point, would you ever venture out on your own?
People ask me that question all the time and Ken and I have the same answer. If I wanted to do something, like say a food truck that only serves spaetzle, his reaction would probably be, “dude, that’s great.” He would have no problem with me doing it on my own, but at the same time, he’s my best friend and we’re still probably going to work together anyway. So, whether we both financially have our names on the bank statement or take out the loan together, it doesn’t matter, we’ll still find a way to work together.