Chef Jamie Bissonnette is frank about a lot of things. (Why does he read his websites’ analytics? “Marijuana.”) Frank about a lot of things except one: where’s the most sensitive place on his body to get a tattoo? “Man, I really don’t want to answer this,” he says. “That’s a leading question.”
The candid chef and co-owner of Boston’s Coppa and Toro, which has a second location in New York, is used to leading the conversation. Bissonnette grew up in Connecticut, where he was a straight-edge vegan, trained in Paris, where his chef forced him to eat meat, and later became Boston’s preeminent authority on all things offal. He expanded his tapas restaurant outside of Boston in 2013 with Toro New York City and won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast the following year. As Toro Boston enters its tenth year of operation, he and partner Ken Oringer say they will expand their restaurant empire even more in 2016.
We talked to Bissonnette while he sat on a Boston-bound train about the differences between the Boston and New York food scenes, great dive bars, and, of course, sensitive tattoo locations.
Toro has been open in Boston for a 10 years now. What’s the secret to staying relevant for a decade?
We’re really lucky in that respect. Ken and I and our chefs always get to kind of do whatever we want, which is what’s made Toro so much fun for us. But it’s also the kind of restaurant where our guests want different things. They want innovation, they want us to give them curveballs.
Ten years ago I was really obsessed with offal and that was not really seen a lot at that time, especially in Boston. Every dish was something offal-related. And as offal became more and more popular, more and more common, we realized that people in Boston were coming to us still for that. So it became a staple. It’s been great to see the things we’ve been passionate about become staples and stay.
We’ve got a good following. People know they can come in for awesome burgers and croquetas and jamón. Now we can do things that are a little bit different because we have the track record and the trust. It’s one of those things where weʼre never intentionally attempting to stay relevant, but we keep changing things and weʼre lucky enough that weʼre doing it in a way that people keep liking it. So I guess what I’m saying is I should actually be playing the lotto more often.
You mean playing Keno.
What’s funny is I almost said Keno, but I was afraid you wouldn’t knew what the hell I was talking about.
I know you play Keno in Boston dive bars.
My favorite Boston dive bar burned down five years ago and it was tragic. It was called T.C.’s Lounge. It was open since the ‘60s and they had a claw machine that was mostly filled with iPhone knockoffs and porn. The women’s room had a glass makeup table in it, and Iʼm not saying it was built for cocaine, but Iʼm pretty sure it was built for cocaine. It was the greatest dive bar. I miss that place so much.
How has your style changed over the past 10 years?
Well I still wear Vans. No, I’m just kidding. I’m 38 years old. I’ve been cooking professionally since I was 16, and I think that everything I do changes every single day. But my style has changed a lot in the respect that I understand now that I need to use more restraint. Every time I go to Spain, I come back and I’m like, everything has to be more traditional. We have to do more pinchos. And then I come back from Mexico and I’m like, we need to put chilaquiles on the brunch menu. And then I go eat in Indian restaurants in a little neighborhood in Austin, Texas, and then I come back I’m like, we need to do more with Madras curry.
My cooks love it because they get to learn, but my sous chefs hate it because they never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself that arbitrarily wanting to change a dish that everybody in the restaurant loves just because I want to eat something different doesn’t mean I should change it. So I do more cooking at friends’ houses and more events where I get to explore my green curry and Pakistani biryanis, stuff like that. Whereas five years ago I would have put them on the menu just to see what would happen.
Are people ordering less offal now? How have tastes changed?
Everyone keeps talking about how vegetables are taking center stage at a lot of restaurants, and we definitely see that. I see that more in Toro New York than I do in Boston. We still have a lot of people who come into Toro Boston because they know they can get sweetbreads and lamb tongues there, and we always have bone marrow on the menu, which excites people more often than not. We still fill that void for a lot of people there, which is awesome.
As far as my personal tastes, maybe it’s because my doctor told me to eat less of that stuff, but we’ve got more vegetables on the menu than we’ve ever had before. We still get a whole pig every week and use all of it. But we also have local farms that just pull up trucks and unload as many vegetables as we can physically store. And we put those on the menu.
We’ve also got more accessibility to interesting seafood in New England now than we’ve ever had before. For a long time it was only cod, haddock, skate, swordfish… those types. Now even the local fisherman are pulling into Long Island Sound and coming back up with blowfish. And we’re working with other people to pull in different kinds of scup and sea robins.
Are there any other differences in tastes between Boston and New York?
There are definitely a lot of differences. I get asked a lot to compare New York and Boston, but I just don’t think it’s fair to be honest. Because a) Boston’s my home. And b) New York is New York. You can’t really compare New York to anything. New York has the highest amount of amazing restaurants in the world and the highest amount of terrible restaurants in the world. People who live and spend a lot of time in New York have different tastes because they’re more educated; they get to see everything of a better quality. There’s so much more of it. Boston doesn’t have a great scene for Korean restaurants, but you see a lot of Korean influence on New York menus. Boston definitely has a higher concentration of quality Indian food than New York, but New York has more variety.
You talk a lot about how Toro is an industry-friendly place. What does that mean and how do you keep it friendly for people in the restaurant and bar businesses?
If I knew how to replicate that, I would just keep opening up restaurants because that’s the key to being successful: having the industry support you. We offer good variety, we put attention into our beer lists, our wine lists, our food. We were ahead of the curve when we said we’re going to do Michelin-level food, but we’re not going to put it on an expensive plate or a white tablecloth. We’re going to put it on smaller plates and charge less money because we have less overhead.
Having that industry following is great, because when someone goes to a new city, they always ask the people the servers they know, hey, where should I eat? Oh, I have a friend in Portland, Oregon, who used to live in Boston who used to work in a restaurant called Toro, and they talk about how awesome it was to work and eat there. So we get that word of mouth. That positivity is infectious, and it’s one of the things I love about our industry.
You have a pretty big social media following. Do you ever leverage that as a chef?
No, that’s silly. The only thing I do with social media or Internet stuff is look at the Google Analytics of where people come from and where people go to from our websites and feeds. I look at how we can affect that with anything from e-commerce of our gift certificates or my cookbooks or something like that. But not so much the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. To think that somebody would take a dish off of a menu or consider keeping something on a menu because people liked the aesthetics of a photo makes me nervous.
It seems crazy though that you would personally comb through Google Analytics. How do you have the patience?
Marijuana is a mother fucker. No, no, no. I can’t focus with that. That’s when I fall down the rabbit holes that don’t matter. It’s really weird because there were like four people last week who were looking at the Toro website on a RAZR phone or something ridiculous like that. I didn’t even know you could look at the Internet on a flip phone.
Where’s the most sensitive place on your body to get a tattoo?
That’s a leading question. Who told you to ask me that? I knew when I was talking about this last week it was going to come back and bite me in the ass. It’s between… Man, I really donʼt want to answer this question. It’s a spot a little bit south of your belly button. How’s that? The tops of your feet are pretty bad too. Actually my ass cheek was arguably the worst.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She’s lost a lot of money playing Keno in Boston dive bars. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep