'Like Going To Church': How A Boston Chef Found School Success Through Food

Download Audio
Chef and restaurateur Jamie Bissonnette, at Little Donkey in Cambridge (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Chef and restaurateur Jamie Bissonnette, at Little Donkey in Cambridge (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette describes himself as a late bloomer.

Today he's the chef-partner of three area restaurants: Torro, Coppa and Little Donkey. But his road to this success wasn’t always straightforward.

Growing up in suburban Connecticut, Bissonnette said he always felt like a bit of an outsider.

"I was getting into a fair amount of trouble. I was fighting a lot," he says. "I think everyone in that region kind of wrote me off when I shaved my head and dressed differently."

He said in his teenage years he got pulled into some negative spaces, and he didn't have a lot of direction. In high school, his guidance counselors encouraged him to enroll in a work/study class that allowed students to leave campus every day for a job. Bissonnette also remembers his father regularly telling him that his main goal at the time should be: "Just make sure you don't go to jail."

"Hearing things like that was really damaging," he says. "I was like, 'Oh, if I’m destined to go nowhere, then why should I apply myself?' "

That attitude led to grades that only barely passed muster in school. But there was one ray of hope that lit up Bisonnette's high school years: punk rock.

While he liked well-known bands like Bad Brains, Slapshot and Gorilla Biscuits, Bissonnette connected the most with smaller local bands and the fans that came out to watch them. He recalls becoming close with the handful of students from his school that he'd run into every weekend at punk rock shows.

"Music was my salvation," Bissonnette says.

Music would also prove to be the start of his unusual path to a career in food.

When Bissonnette was 14, he formed a band with several of his friends. They regularly booked gigs at small venues along the East Coast. And any time they stayed overnight in a new city, it was always a struggle to find food because, at the time, Bissonnette and his friends were vegan. During the late 1980s and early 1990s there weren't a lot of options. The group always found themselves customizing their orders. And Bissonnette said he started to develop quite the knack for pairing flavor profiles.

One of his biggest inspirations to pursue a career in food came when he met a guy at a show in Connecticut who was a devoted follower of the Hare Krishna faith. The man invited the band to a service one night and the free meal that followed, consisting of traditional Indian fare like chana dal and dosa.

"The spices that were in the dal and all of the chutneys blew my mind," Bissonnette says. "And I really started to think about flavors and how they work together."

Pretty soon, Bissonnette says he became obsessed with recreating those flavor profiles at home and experimenting with new dishes.

"I fell in love with it," he says.

But as Bissonnette's love for cooking grew, his interest in his band began to fade. He stopped going to practice and paying attention to the comings and goings of local groups. And pretty soon his friends took notice.

"One of my friends who was in the band said, 'You should be a cook, man. You're a pretty terrible musician,'" Bissonnette recalls. A harsh message, but one he says he knew was right.

Not long after that conversation, Bissonnette got some more bad news: He was expelled from school after getting into a fight. But he didn't get discouraged. Instead, he completed his GED and enrolled in culinary school.

Bissonnette remembers his parents being skeptical that a different school would work for him. But that wasn't the case.

"High school to culinary school, to me, wasn’t comparable," he says. "Going to culinary school was like the proverbial going to church. I walked in and was like, 'This is where I’m supposed to be.' "

He said everything clicked in culinary school. The chef hat, neckerchief and apron the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale issued him felt like the uniform he knew he'd wear for the rest of his life. Bissonnette says knife skills came easy for him, he kept his work station clean, and would often lose track of time while practicing techniques he learned in class.

His hard work was noticed. He remembers the chef-instructors telling him he had a natural talent for cooking and that he had the potential to go far in the industry. That vote of confidence helped him succeed.

"It was environment," Bissonnette says. "It was having people believe in me and say, 'We think you’re good at what you do.' I needed that."

After graduating at 19, Bissonnette's culinary journey took him across the United States and Europe. Today, Boston is his home base.

And while he says he worked hard to achieve the success he's enjoying today, finding this passion took the confidence of his teachers and a little bit of luck.

"I’m very lucky that I fell into food because if I hadn’t, my Dad tells me all the time, he’d be visiting me in prison."

This segment aired on June 24, 2019.

Headshot of Carrie Jung

Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live