"I've got a culinary boner just walking around this place," said Jamie Bissonette as he cradled an assortment of winter vegetables in the middle of the MUNCHIES rooftop garden. As the waning produce of autumn lent its last yields of tender produce on an early December day, the James Beard award-winning chef stared across the rooftop, loaded with ideas.
"Not to be down on you guys, but I didn't expect it to be so dope and so vast. A lot of people will tell you that they have a rooftop farm, but when you get there, you realize that it's more of a garden. Your rooftop is actually a farm."
A part-time Bostonian and New Yorker alike, Bissonette is chef and partner at Beantown favorites Coppa, an Italian enoteca, and Toro, a Barcelona-style tapas bar. In fall 2013, Bissonnette and co-chef and partner Ken Oringer brought Toro to New York City, where thousands of New Yorkers load up on Spanish-inspired fare inside the Chelsea neighborhood space. Bissonnette is also a winner of the Cochon 555 nose-to-tail competition, was awarded the inaugural People's Choice: Best New Chef award by Food & Wine Magazine, and the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Northeast.
Needless to say, we knew the fate of our vegetables was in great hands.
"You don't see people growing hakuri turnips, carrots, sunflowers, Thai basil, and pineapple sage in Brooklyn. I'm blown away by the variety of things that you have and how beautiful and well kept it is. There's hundreds of employees at VICE, and there's 50 employees at my restaurant, and if we had something like that, they would ravage it. It would be completely decimated in the best of ways."
With enough of a haul to feed the entire Toro staff, Bisonnette headed back to his own kitchen to assess the vegetables, one by one. "I want to use the herbs and vegetables to flavor some basmati rice," Bissonette explained as he pulled out a large pot, placed it over medium-high heat, and began sautéing the onions, lemongrass, and mushrooms in butter, sprinkling it all with baharat, an aromatic Middle Eastern spice mixture, to give it some oomph. As he turned up the heat, the room began to fill with the aromas of cinnamon, coriander, paprika, cloves, nutmeg, and caramelizing onions. He added the rice and pushed the pot to the backburner to simmer to move on to the vegetables.
"I picked a little bit of everything that was on the roof because I wanted to get my hands on all of it. I loved the turnips so, so, so much, and the delicata squash was super firm, flavorful, and the flesh was very creamy." Bissonnette pulled out a sauté pan, cranked the heat over medium high, and cooked the squash with butter, allowing the butter to brown over the course of the cooking time to lend a nutty, lush flavor to the creamy vegetable. He then added the turnips and carrots to the pan as the delicata was nearly done. "I often have canned baby squid lying around my apartment, so I wanted to give this dish some salinity and oceanic flavor," he said as he popped open a can of txiperones and drizzled olive oil and sherry on top.
With the fluffy aromatic rice ready, Bisonnette quickly plated it over a large dish, enough for a family style gathering, topped it off with the tender cooked vegetables, and drizzled the whole thing with the txiperones. After throwing some baby kale and edible flowers from the garden on top, he admitted, "it's really just a dish that should be called 'rice with stuff.'"