Ex-vegan charcuterie champ Jamie Bissonnette: tripe with pigs feet second to none (except pizza)

Justine Costigan
29 January, 2015

From vegan chef to nose-to-tail advocate and master charcutier, there’s no part of an animal Jamie Bissonnette can't – and won't – turn into a feast.

Giving up veganism for a passion for charcuterie isn’t an obvious career move, but it’s one that’s paid off in spades for east coast-based US chef Jamie Bissonnette. The owner of Toro NYC (dubbed the hottest ticket in town), Coppa and Toro Boston and a James Beard Best Chef award winner, Bissonnette has become a local champion of nose-to-tail eating and his 2014 book, The New Charcuterie Cookbook, exceptional cured meat to make and serve at home, has inspired a new generation of home charcutiers. A former straight-edge punk (the only punks dedicated to clean living), Bissonnette has never followed the crowd.

I spoke to him ahead of his upcoming Melbourne Food and Wine Festival visit.

Jamie Bissonnette

Q: Why nose to tail?

I started cooking offal because it wasn’t being used at the restaurants I worked at, and the chefs would let me be creative with it. I always believed in the frugality of being a chef. We buy food, fix it up, then sell it for a profit.  [At the same time] we also get to be passionate, creative, and teach. I loved learning about whole animal usage and now I love teaching about it.  I think it’s important to not be wasteful, and to keep up the tradition of the food I love.

Q: How does a vegan become a nose-to-tail eater? What happened?

I was vegetarian, and an on-and-off vegan for about seven years. I started culinary school vegan and ended up as a vegetarian.  A few years later a chef spoke to me about tasting and learning, and I went on to be an omnivore. In my personal life I like to eat healthy a lot, and go on vegan stints, but I could never go back to veganism as eggs are my favourite food, and the thought of life without cheese would be like a car with no wheels.

"I could never go back to veganism as eggs are my favourite food."

Q: How did you discover charcuterie and curing?

I learned from various chefs in my younger years: A coppa from one chef, and a paté from another.  I learned [how to make] my first paté in 1996, but [I only] really got into this in 2000.

Q: Which cuisines do you think have some of the best examples of the form? 

I love the Spanish, Italian, and French charcuteries, but am a big fan of the preservations and flavours in Vietnam, Thailand, and China. Vietnamese Bologna is one of the most perfect cured meats, and Thai sour sausages are so good.  

Q: In western cultures, we used to eat the whole beast before we became rich enough to opt just for the prime cuts. What are we missing out on? What flavours and textures should we learn to enjoy again?

This is hard. Some people grow up with limited palates and do not enjoy offal.  Nothing wrong with that!  I dislike some foods, too, such as peanut butter and salmon.  If someone is open to trying different things, I think that nudja and cooked tripe with pigs feet are something, when made wicked tasty, are texturally and flavour-wise second to none (except maybe cold pizza).

Q: If you’re hesitant about charcuterie, what’s a good way to ease yourself into it?

Read, ask questions, research, learn.  The more I learn, the less I realise I know.  Education is my driving force.

Q: Some people find parts of the animal to be an acquired taste. How do you start children on a nose-to-tail diet?

Honestly.  I have no idea.  I was a picky kid.  I didn’t like mayo or cheese for a bit.  Hated yoghurt, and didn’t like tinned tuna, but always loved liverwurst.

Q: How have American palates embraced the new enthusiasm for charcuterie?

The USA is a big place, so I can only comment on New England and NYC.  In my areas I see people being educated and enjoying a lot of the new charcuteries in restaurants.  I know that so many more artisan producers are succeeding, so that tells me that more people are eating them!

Q: What are some of the signature “nose-to-tail” dishes at your restaurants? Which part of the animal will your guests be eating next?

We always have bone marrow, beef heart, tripe and sausage.  I love making sausage. Coming up we’ll be eating sausages with South East Asian flavours and some Merguez made with goat.

Q: What should enthusiastic amateur nose-to-tail cooks watch out for?

Know where your animals are from.  Don’t cure supermarket meat, cook it. If you purchase a meat grinder, get one where the blades are sharp and can be easily sharpened or replaced. Always work with your meat as cold as possible or it can be problematic for texture, flavour and health!

Q: What will you be sharing with Melbourne Food and Wine guests in your masterclasses? Why should they come along?

I am going to share the only thing I really have, my love for food and teaching. People should come to watch me play with my sausage…

Jamie Bissonnette will be presenting a masterclass at the 2015 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival on 7-8 March. He will also cook with Jesse Gerner at Bomba on 4 March. Buy tickets here.

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