Many chefs acquire a passion for food early in life. Jamie Bissonnette seemed to be born with it.

Perhaps his earliest memory is of climbing drawers to reach the kitchen countertop and feasting on whatever he could find.

“Every childhood memory I have is of food,” Bissonnette says. “I can’t remember who won my first soccer game, but I can still taste the oranges we got at halftime. I lived for flavor.”

The dishes that Bissonnette cooks today are rich, earthy and sensual. Go to one of his four Boston and New York restaurants and find suquet de mariscos, a Spanish soup featuring warm lobster and cool sea urchin, adrift on an ocean of parsnip-infused milk … or fresh mackerel marinated in Thai curry … or fried croquettes accented by pig cheeks or (perhaps) tender lemon-infused bacalao. You’re bombarded by flavors from around the globe.

However, Bissonnette’s voracious passion, his quest to eat the world, is tempered by rigorous discipline and a perfectionist’s never-ending struggle to do it right. Ask him about paella and he takes you through Spanish history and shows you how ancient Rome’s invasion and Arab conquests converged to form this one dish.

“Being a chef is about being a student,” Bissonnette says. “I’m constantly researching everything. When I meet a new thing, I want to learn all about it. I want to know every possible variation.”

While much of Bissonnette’s repertoire comes from foreign lands, that doesn’t mean he finds a traditional recipe and slavishly copies it.

“When I was young, I traveled,” Bissonnette says. “I respect authenticity, but it’s flavor that matters. Dishes are always changing – and they should. As we find new ingredients, we can play around. A Spanish dish calls for Seville oranges; why not try yuzu? That’s not sacrilege; it’s the way food should evolve.”

Perhaps this sounds like youthful arrogance – it’s not. Bissonnette is endearingly humble.

“I’m not Picasso,” he says. “I’m more like a plumber than a painter.”

Bissonnette doesn’t boss his line cooks. He listens to them.

“We cook by committee,” he says, “and that’s how it should be. A line cook has an idea for a new entree, he or she brings it to all the cooks, and we tinker with it, try to make it better. It gives us all a feeling of ownership of the restaurant and the menu.”

Bissonnette and his crew enjoy pushing the envelope. He won an award for snout-to-tail cooking (he’s received many prizes, including the Oscar of the restaurant world, the James Beard Award, in 2014), and his restaurants serve every part of the pig. When the cooks make spaghetti carbonara, they use sea urchin instead of cream. But Bissonnette never makes you eat anything you don’t like. “You like your steak well done? Well, who am I to say you can’t have it?” he says. “At the end of the day, my goal is to give my guests the best experience possible. Still, for me, the simple act of taking raw things and magically turning them into plates of wonder – that brings me joy. I love cooking. Always.”

1. Toro Paella

Photo by Emily Hagen
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Spanish onions, diced and sauteed in olive oil
  • 1/2 cup scallions, white parts only, diced
  • 1 cup sliced Spanish chorizo
  • 1 cup red bell pepper, diced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup chicken breast or thigh meat
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • 2 cups Calasparra or bomba rice
  • 10 threads saffron
  • 1 can conserva (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups lobster stock
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 6 to 10 top neck or count neck clams
  • 18 mussels
  • 4 to 5 shrimp
  • 1/2 cup English peas
  • Olive oil, ¼ cup sliced scallion tops and lemon wedges for garnish

Combine garlic, onions, white scallions, chorizo, red pepper, salt and black pepper to taste in a paella pan.

Saute over high heat for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add chicken, tomato paste, rice and saffron, and stir, making sure to evenly coat.

Toast for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add a can of conserva, if using.

Evenly distribute and flatten out rice in pan.

Add all stocks. Once boiling, add clams and cook 5 to 10 minutes, until they open up and rice grains are clearly visible.

Add mussels, and reduce heat to medium. Once the mussels open, add shrimp and peas.

Cook over medium heat until shrimp and rice are cooked and have created a crispy bottom called socarrat. Add stock as necessary during cooking.

Garnish with olive oil, scallion tops and lemon slices.

2. Galician Empanada

Yields 6-8 portions

For the Dough

  • 350 g flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Pinch black pepper, fine ground (to order)
  • 1 teaspoon yeast, instant
  • 240 ml water, warm
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus some to grease the pan

Mix flour, salt and yeast in a bowl.

Add water and olive oil, mix with a fork until combined.

Knead by hand for 5 to 6 minutes.

Form into a ball.

Rub with oil.

Place in a bowl, cover to rest in a warm place for 2 hours.

For the Filling

  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 20 shishito peppers, stems removed, sliced
  • 1 cup piquillo peppers, drained and julienned
  • 3 Spanish onions, brunoised
  • 20 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 500 g Ventresca or Bonito (Spanish tuna conserve oil, packed)
  • 2 Tablespoons parsley, picked and roughly chopped
  • Salt, to taste
  • Ground pepper, to taste
  • Sherry vinegar, to taste

Heat the oil in a large pan until hot enough to sear.

Add the shishitos and season with salt.

Saute for 2-3 minutes.

Add the onion and garlic.

Mix and cook over medium heat, not allowing the onions to brown.

Add piquillos and cook until all is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Remove from heat and stir in tuna.

Add parsley and season again with sherry. Taste and adjust.

Cool and use immediately, or store in the refrigerator for 3 days.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grease a casuela or crème brulee dish.

Divide dough into 2 or 4 portions depending on the size of your dish.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface.

Press it into the dish, pressing in the corners.

Add filling to the dish on top of the dough, smooth it out.

Roll a smaller round of dough out to top the empanada.

Cut a hole in the center to allow steam to escape.

Decorate as you’d like.

Bake for 45-55 minutes.

Remove and cool in the dish slightly.

Remove from dish, and cut in half.

Best served at room temperature with aioli and burnt lemon sauces.

Bissonnette AT BOTANICAL!

What
Botanical! – a three-day exploration of the way food, drink and the land intersect – features a menu curated by James Beard Award winner Jamie Bissonnette. Day One is the Passport Dinner, a sit-down, six-course meal. Day Two is Viva La Vida, a tapas-centric re-creation of Spanish nightlife. Day Three is a tasting and question-answer sessions with chefs and sommeliers.

When
April 26-28

Where
Tulsa Botanic Garden

Tickets
Go to botanicaltulsa.org or call 918-289-0330.