Welcome to the inaugural edition of Plato 'n' Plates, a series in which Eater Boston contributor and illustrator Emily Phares chats with local chefs to discuss their food philosophies. First up, Jamie Bissonnette — co-owner of Toro (now with additional locations in New York City and Bangkok), Coppa, and the brand new Little Donkey. He is also a cookbook author.
Jamie Bissonnette recently bought some 1950s postcard-looking things with potluck recipes printed on them. This eBay purchase reveals two things about Bissonnette: First, that he is a self-professed collector of "random, dumb shit." And second, that he has something of a nostalgic streak, which is reflected in his approach to food. I sat down with Bissonnette, chef and co-owner of the newly opened Little Donkey, to learn more about how he thinks about food — his "food philosophy," if you will — including his musings on Spanish snacking, the theater of eating, and the biggest problem with food today.
Talking more about his vintage eBay score, Bissonnette notes that longtime collaborator Ken Oringer has a similar tendency to get inspired by the past rather than current food fads. "Ken’s the same way — when we sit around and talk about food, we don't talk about all the new trends," says Bissonnette. "We both know them, we’re reading all the same stuff, we’ll get the foods in that we want to try that are new. But he and I will fall back on the nostalgia of Yorkshire pudding or the things that we grew up on. [Little Donkey’s] breakfast menu is going to have a lot of kickbacks to things that we both love."
Bissonnette isn’t stuck in the past, however. Besides continually opening new restaurants, including the recently launched Toro in Bangkok, the James Beard Award winner makes sure to stay current on all things food. From Michael Pollan’s missives to a Scandinavian food magazine called "Fool," from podcasts to policy discussions, Bissonnette is keenly attuned to what’s happening in the culinary world. Yet, he also realizes the downside of having too much information.
"There’s so much information out on the internet right now that people don’t do their research, and they just read the convenient thing that pops up in their online search," says Bissonnette, citing this as the biggest problem with food today. "People are basing their opinions on food off of sometimes an unreliable source, sometimes a reliable source, but I don’t think people are doing their due diligence. Because of that you’re seeing trends go in these almost tidal waves of just uneducated things. It frustrates me."
In addition to noting these culinary tidal waves that affect what we eat, Bissonnette also laments certain changes in how we eat.
"I do miss the family suppers and getting together with friends," says Bissonnette. "I try to, a couple of times a month, get people together and sit down and cook for each other and break bread and talk and hang out. Getting to know somebody these days, whether it’s a new friend or colleague or whatever, is really difficult because people are making it more about the theater of eating and less about the people that you’re eating with. As a restaurant owner I guess it’s kind of stupid to say this, but I wish that people ate at home more. I miss that."
Despite Bissonnette’s penchant for nostalgia, however, he’s not advocating for a return to food rules of yore. For example, on the topic of eating proper meals versus snacking, Bissonnette makes clear that he is not a three-meals-a-day kind of guy. "I really like the culture in Spain. When I go to San Sebastian my favorite thing is that there’s no defined meal period — it’s eat a little bit, often. I feel like that’s the way I was born to eat."
Bissonnette finds international inspiration in other ways, too. When asked if he has learned any food lessons from other countries, Bissonnette immediately talks about Thailand. "I really love their culture of quick eating," he says. "They’ve got McDonald’s and Burger King, sure. But their fast food is street food, and their street food is quality."
Next, Bissonnette says he thinks Dubai is amazing, which is when I learn that he loves culinary "mashups" — when a dish has evolved from one part of the world to another part of the world, executed slightly differently, while remaining inherently the same dish.
"I sound like a nerd saying it, but my favorite example of that is paella. You’ve got a region of Spain where they were conquered by two different people, the Moors and the Romans. When the Romans left, they left steel that was never around in that area before. People were able to make cooking vessels, so they made paella pans and planchas. And when the Moors left, they left rice. They tried to grow that strain of rice in that high-altitude, mountainous region, and they ended up with bomba calasparra rice, and they invented paella. That, to me, is what food is all about. There’s not as much of that happening now because everything’s pretty much been developed in the world, but there are still those influences happening, and that’s what I love."
Winding down our conversation, I ask Bissonnette if he can condense his food philosophy into one sentence. After noting that he has no interest in standing on a soapbox, Bissonnette thinks for a minute before saying, "Eat the way you want to eat, educate yourself to how you want to eat and get there, be as responsible to your body and the environment as you want, but at the end of the day, enjoy your fucking food and keep it to yourself. Something like that."
Header image: Little Donkey/Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater