Getting to the meat of the matter with Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette
In my most recent article, I described my experience attending a hog-butchering workshop led by Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette. He mentioned during the workshop that he had been a vegan when he was younger. I wanted to find out more about what would make someone change his eating habits so dramatically, so I set up an interview with Jamie to talk about the influences and experiences that led him to follow a different path than the one he set out on as a young man.
After settling into a comfortable seating area near the bar at KO Prime, Jamie and I talked about his experiences with food when he was growing up in the ’70s. He remembers always loving being in the kitchen. At age 7, he made an egg dish that was thick with cheese and he served it to the guys who were painting the house next door. They told him that they really liked it. That was the first time that he remembers people appreciating what he had cooked for them. He said that by the time he was 11, he realized that he was a better cook than his mom.
Playing It Straight Edge
Between ages 12 and 14, Jamie began to transition into being a vegetarian, largely under the influence of the budding “straight-edge” movement in Hartford, Conn. (The straight-edge aesthetic combines a love for hardcore punk with an aversion to “poisoning the body,” often leading its adherents to give up meat.) He started touring with bands, playing electric and stand-up bass. Soon enough, he became a vegan.
I asked what the band ate while on the road. “A lot of Twizzlers and Fritos,” Jamie says. “Because we were vegan we ate a lot of fast food fries and fruit. We’d stay at people’s houses, usually the house of the parents of whoever had booked the show. We ate a lot of bagels and tofu. When we had a few days off we’d have big cookouts and I’d make a huge vegan feast. I loved Indian food and I’d look for dishes that were vegan or could be made to be vegan: fried rice, lentils, white beans, pasta, things like that.”
Eventually Jamie realized that he wasn’t making any money from music and that he didn’t like touring, so he decided to go to culinary school. He entered the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and graduated at 19. He was still a vegetarian and an on-and-off vegan, but he had needed to taste cream and butter as part of his culinary training.
After chef school, Jamie returned to Boston. He began doing Mixed Martial Arts and found that his energy level was much higher if he avoided eating meat. But a chef in told him that in order to become a great chef he had to cook meat, and in order to cook meat he would have to eat it.
I asked Jamie what made him decide to do as the chef commanded rather than continue to do what made him feel best physically. He replied that he met the chef’s demands because that’s the kind of relationship that a young chef has with a mentor. “The chef is like a sergeant in the military — you don’t doubt the people who’ve been doing this a long time.” He was 22 years old at this point. “I said to myself, ‘Well, I want to be a chef, so this is what I need to do.'”
Waste Not, Want Not
How had his interest in butchering started? Jamie replied without hesitation: “Waste! I saw a lot of people wasting stuff. I was a daytime sous chef and we were getting in already fabricated [pre-cut] pork loins. I could see fat and connective tissue still on the meat and I wanted to do something with all that stuff. This was in the mid-’90s and pâté was not in vogue — maybe in NYC or France but not in Boston. I decided to learn how to cook all of this stuff. I found a book from an old Time-Life series: Terrines, Pâtés and Galantines.”
To this day, Jamie snaps up editions of the out-of-print book when they come up on eBay. “One year I gave them as a holiday present to every cook in the kitchen.”
Meanwhile, he traveled, learned more about charcuterie, went back to Europe, and then returned to Boston in 2001 after working in Paris at a restaurant that had its own garden.
Right after 9/11, fine dining slowed down considerably. Jamie was working for Mark Orfaly at Pigalle, a highly regarded fine-dining restaurant. Jamie wanted to figure out a way to save money on what they were cooking. They decided to try to make food out of what they already had on hand. Jamie expressed his admiration for Mark’s leadership style: “Mark said, ‘Let’s do this together. Let’s make this a journey.'” Jamie was in charge of a Sunday tasting menu featuring regional food from France, and he focused on areas such as Normandy, which allowed him to incorporate charcuterie.
Jamie then did a second stint in France. When he returned to Boston, Eastern Standard was opening in Kenmore Square, near Fenway Park. Everyone told him not to attach himself to the restaurant, that the neighborhood was dead, that only Red Sox fans were there, and that Red Sox fans did not want to eat fancy French food. Jamie decided to take a chance and signed on at the restaurant anyway.
Their P.R. rep told them that they needed to showcase what made them different from other restaurants. They decided to make Eastern Standard known for charcuterie. Eastern Standard began to feature dishes like “offal of the day.” Boston University owns the Hotel Commonwealth, where Eastern Standard is located, and Rebecca Alstead, the head of B.U.’s Gastronomy Program, ate at Eastern Standard frequently. Impressed by Jamie’s skill at charcuterie, she asked Jamie to give a lesson on making it at the program.
The class went well, and Jamie came away with a reputation for being able to teach chefs how to use all the parts of an animal efficiently and well.
The Whole Beast
Many chefs feel that making the best and most thorough use of an animal is a way of respecting animals whose lives have been sacrificed in order to feed people. I asked Jamie what he would say to anyone who wants to know what he thinks about the ethics of eating meat, since he has the unusual perspective of having been both a serious vegan and a dedicated carnivore as well as a purveyor of meat dishes.
“I like to look at different sides of an argument. I’m a big devil’s advocate,” he says. “That said, I don’t know the answer to that question. I’d have to take two years off of work to travel and visit many farms, and even then I don’t know if I’ll ever find the answer. Also, I think that if we cut meat out of our diets it will be a devastating blow to our economy. The balance in our lives would be affected.”
We talk about other aspects of eating responsibly. “With the economy starting to tank, it’s been getting harder to be a responsible consumer,” Jamie remarks. “If you want to eat in a sustainable way, only grass-fed beef, etc., then you’re going to have to reduce your caloric intake, because it’s going to be a lot more expensive to eat that way.” He adds: “I think that grass-fed beef doesn’t taste that good, by the way.”
I respond that the way I deal with the expense/responsible eating equation is to have reduced my red meat consumption substantially. I eat it very rarely, and so when I do choose to eat it I can afford to buy a little bit of high quality, sustainably-raised meat.
“We need to educate people,” Jamie agrees. He points to the example of Share Our Strength, which educates the public about childhood hunger. “We need to reeducate people about how to eat less meat.” This may seem to be an unusual sentiment from a chef who prides himself on his butchering skills. But the point of whole-carcass breakdown is to use “everything but the oink,” as they say in the South, and that makes for a more sustainable way of using animals for meat.
Tripe à la Collinsville
Recipe by Jamie Bissonnette
This recipe makes 15-16 servings.
Jamie named this tripe stew after his hometown, the way French chefs often name the dishes they create. It will keep well for 7-10 days in the refrigerator, and freezes well for six to eight months.
The recipe calls for mirepoix. Mirepoix is a mixture of diced onion, carrots, and celery. It always has a ratio of 50 percent diced onions, 25 percent diced carrots, and 25 percent diced celery. A flavor-builder for other dishes, it’s not usually served alone. Tripe à la Collinsville also calls for making a sachet. This website provides instructions on how to do that. Esplette is a type of chili pepper. Jamie used ground, dried Esplette in this recipe.
Jamie says this stew makes a nice dinner served alongside an arugula salad and a toasted baguette. Serve it with dry, spicy white wine, or a white with a minerally character.
6 pounds (roughly) honeycomb tripe. Either pork or beef is fine.
1/2 bottle white wine + 2 cups for second soaking session
3 quarts chicken stock
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup diced celery
1 teaspoon caraway
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
If frozen, defrost the tripe in cold water in your refrigerator. Once defrosted, soak the tripe in a fresh pot of water mixed with the half-bottle of white wine for 3-12 hours. Store in the refrigerator while soaking.
Clean by scrubbing off the small pieces of fat with blunt side of a large kitchen knife. Rinse, and cover again in a pot of cold water with 2 cups of white wine, and 1 cup of salt.
Bring to a simmer. Turn off immediately and strain.
Return to the pot, and cover by 4 inches with chicken stock. Add a cheesecloth sachet (or wire screen tea ball) that contains the mirepoix, caraway, coriander, fennel seed, and mustard seed. Bring to a boil, reduce to low simmer, and cook for 5-6 hours with a tight-fitting lid.
Cool the tripe overnight in its liquid. Put the bowl that it’s in over an ice bath (i.e., a bigger bowl full of ice), which will help it cool faster. When it’s cool enough to go into the fridge, refresh the ice in the ice bath bowl and place the bowl of cooling tripe above it once more and move the whole setup into the refrigerator.
14 shallots, julienned
5-6 garlic cloves, sliced
2 Anaheim peppers, julienned
3 Poblano peppers, julienned
1 and 1/2 red jalapeño peppers, julienned
2/3 fennel bulb, brunoise (diced into small squares)
3 28-oz. cans of chopped tomatoes, but if you have access to ripe mixed heirloom tomatoes, use 5 cups or 2 pounds of those, chopped with the skin on and seed left in all of the prepared tripe, cut into bite-size pieces
4 cups applejack whiskey
Sachet (this one containing only the following four spices, and no mirepoix vegetables)
• 1 teaspoon caraway seed
• 1 teaspoon coriander seed
• 1 teaspoon fennel seed
• 1 teaspoon mustard seed
• Salt to taste
Esplette pepper, dried and ground to taste
Reserved braising liquid from the first step
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup fines herbs (a specific blend of basil, chervil, tarragon, marjoram, and chives)
Lemon juice, squeezed fresh, to taste
1. Sweat shallots in olive oil in a tall stockpot.
2. While cooking the shallots, bring the tripe back to the boil in the braising liquid, strain, then reserve the braising liquid (the mixture with the chicken stock, white wine, and the first sachet of mirepoix and spices).
3. When the shallots are tender, add garlic. Cook until garlic is translucent. Add all three types of fresh peppers (not Esplette) and fennel. Cook until tender.
4. Add the new sachet and apple jack. Cook until liquid reduces by half.
5. Strain the canned tomatoes or, if using heirloom, dice them. Add the tomato, and reduce to simmer. Add the tripe.
6. Cook for 45 minutes, rewetting the tripe with the reserved braising liquid as needed. Thin to desired consistency with tripe liquid.
7. Finish with salt and Esplette.
8. To serve, season with fines herbs and butter. Squeeze lemon juice to taste over the top.