Culture

Jamie Bissonnette, the Quintessential Chef, Makes a Triumphant Return Home

Culture

Jamie Bissonnette, the Quintessential Chef, Makes a Triumphant Return Home

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Fresh off a Lucky Star Bus from New York on a brisk October walk down Washington Street in Boston’s historic-turned-hip dining destination that is the South End, I’m headed towards Toro for one of their legendary Thursday industry nights. This one marks the official release party for chef-owner Jamie Bissonnette’s new tome, The New Charcuterie Cookbook: Exceptional Cured Meats To Make And Serve At Home (Page Street Publishing).

Outside the restaurant, I immediately spot Toro’s co-chef-owner, Ken Oringer, also a James Beard winner (and a secret party animal), where there is a line of people fighting to move. He has his hands in the air and signature sly-shy grin. “This is one of the craziest industry nights I’ve ever seen here and it’s not even midnight!” Oringer exclaims at 10:45pm. “I can’t even find Jamie in there! Let’s go grab a drink.”

I tell Chef Oringer that I need to pace myself in preparation for dental surgery at 11am the following morning.

“Are you kidding me? 11am? Quit being a pussy. Let’s go to the bar.”

Standing at the bar I ran into Andy Cartin, owner of Boston critic faves JM Curley and Merril & Co. “This reminds me of a fucking teenage house party,” he laughed.

As we begin to wrench ourselves through a doorway already crammed with Boston restaurant industry ragers, Bissonnette gracefully fights through both lines while serving his own “bar snacks.” He’d made them on the line that earlier evening from recipes available in his new book. In one hand he held a serving board of Cha lua, a Vietnamese bologna with fish sauce, pork, palm sugar steamed in a banana leaf. In the other, a board packed with crostinis topped with whipped pork lard with black truffle and honey.

It’s a party for Bissonnette and he is cooking and running his own food.

It would probably come as a shock to most, but it was thankfully a familiar sight. Bissonnette is now officially a James Beard award winner for Best Chef Northeast. But for years he was the best secret chef in Boston’s food scene, long called a “punk rock chef” for having tattoos despite being part of the local hardcore—not punk—scene, which also explains why so many Toro regulars are guys with names like Texas Mike, Sucky Pedro, Spucky, Smelly Tom, Worm the Perm, Gay Eric, Spanky, Poochie Mane, P Boy etc.

When I was a lowly barback at Toro, I was humbled while Bissonette bused tables and swept up at Toro’s industry nights while chefs, cooks, bartenders and barflys would crowd surf over the perpetually chaotic stainless steel bar for a Fernet Branca. (At this party there was a Fernet ice luge stationed on one of their communal tables–Fernet is the food industry’s de facto official spirit.)

Held on the first Thursday of every month, Toro’s industry night is the coolest bar scene in Boston with the exception of famed gay bar The Ramrod’s punk rock Tuesdays. As Toro assistant general manager Katy Chirichiello tells it: “Industry night is one massive love fest that makes a 17 hour day bearable because everyone here gets what we do and appreciates it on a real level. But tonight it’s like that on steroids.”

That is almost an understatement as this Biss Bash has even more meaning now that he is also the underdog champion of the tight knit New York scene along with Oringer. The duo just celebrated their one year anniversary of the Pete Wells-two star-blessed Toro in the Meatpacking District. Bissonnette makes no bones over who he has written the book for—and it’s not Meatpacking guidos.

“I wrote this thinking about people that I know that love to cook, but aren’t chefs. People who will try to follow the recipes because they aren’t overwhelming.  Like my father and friends that cook,” Bissonnette tells me in between picking up empty beer cans and wine glasses while simultaneously signing copies of his book.

The book is now available just about everywhere. It’s as vibrant and colorful as the heavily tattooed chef himself, thanks to sharp photography by Ken Goodman, another fellow old school Boston hardcore transplant. Many of the recipes have actually been served in Bissonnette’s three restaurants—the Toros in Boston and NYC and the enoteca Coppa in Boston, for which Jamie actually won his James Beard award. The book serves as a cheat sheet for both of Bissonnettes restaurants, where you can find many of the sausages confits, salumi, pates on the ever changing menus. Think of it as an Anarchists Cookbook that’s actually not lame.

Although thankfully New Yorkers and Bostonians alike have the privilege of Oringer and Bissonnette zipping back and forth on overnight Acelas to work in all their restaurants, I’m reminded that the true spirit of Catalan and Basque pintxo bar culture is perfectly captured inside the chaotic walls of the South End original—now in it’s 9th year—where guests actually seek out seats at the bar and enthusiastically share food and conversation with total strangers. With The New Charcuterie Cookbook selling well thus far, one can assume that people will still be lazy enough to keep coming in to Toro and Coppa for a truly unique experience.

Photo by Hilary O’Rourke.