"We're trying to define a new style of eatery, something that gives you fine-dining cuisine in a relaxed environment. The idea is to not be second to Eleven Madison Park, but to be just as good at our own thing."
It didn't take long for Chef Abram Bissell to move up the ranks at Eleven Madison Park—he went from line cook to sous chef in little over a year, working alongside Executive Chef Daniel Humm as they jumped from 1 to 3 Michelin stars and were rated Adam Platt's #1 restaurant in NYC. Now at NoMad, one of the city's most recent additions to the trendy hotel scene around Madison Square Park, Bissell takes some of the best parts of the EMP menu and lets them shine in a new light.
Take us back to your earlier days as a chef—was fine-dining always the goal? I grew up in the Florida Keys, and there people say you either fish or you cook. I wasn't great on a boat so I wound up cooking. I started cooking in fish houses, which were as rustic as it gets. But I actually started to lean towards baking at about fifteen. And then I moved up the coast—it was easy to do that with cooking. I had moved to North Carolina and gotten a position in a catering company running their pastry program, doing wedding cakes and large-form dessert events.
What age were you at this time? I was 18.
That's young to be doing wedding cakes. I was very young, and I feel like I was very lucky to have gotten that position. I then went to New England Culinary Institute, which doesn't have a pastry program, so I ended up doing mostly savory in culinary school. One of my professors sent me to Boston for my externship at L' Espalier, and I just had such an amazing experience with that—I fell in love with the same attention to detail that I appreciated with pastry. That's where fine-dining stemmed from—I really fell in love with the details and bit of perfection that went into everything.
A few years later when you moved to NYC, you landed as a cook at Eleven Madison Park. Do you remember what station you started in? Yeah, I started in meat roast.
You then became the sous chef within two years, which is really fast, right? Yeah, I only moved two positions within the kitchen as a cook—from meat roast to tournant. Within fourteen months I was running the kitchen.
In our interview with Executive Chef Daniel Humm, he made a point that he only hires people he can particularly see himself spending time with. It's so important. I left last night at two in the morning and was back at eight—we spend more time in the restaurant than we do in our homes. So the people you surround yourself with need to be people that you can love completely. A lot of restaurant life is very hard work. You want to be next to somebody with that you're ready to celebrate with when it's a good time but also someone who's going to be there with you when it's not.
What about your relationship with Chef Daniel works so well? We have the ability to check each other in a very real way. He's pushed me beyond what I ever thought was possible— four years ago I never would have thought I was ready to run a restaurant like NoMad. He pushed me into that ability. At the same time I think I brought a certain restraint to some of our work, which has brought a more cohesive feeling to us as a company. There's a certain point when it is time to stop and say, "You know what, we need two days to stop, rest and recharge." I think that a kind of balance has come from our relationship.
What was your focus with creating the menu together at NoMad? Our focus—just like our focus at EMP—was to be the best in what we do. EMP is a world-class restaurant that wants to be the best world-class restaurant. For us, we're trying to define a new style of eatery, something that gives you fine-dining cuisine in a relaxed environment. The idea is to not be second to EMP but to be just as good at our own thing.
Is that exciting or liberating for you? It has simplicity to it that I find to be very rewarding on a daily basis. In a lot of ways, NoMad takes the EMP method of distilling flavor profiles into something that is much more simplified. And that's been hugely rewarding for me to be able to do that.
Is there a menu item that's personal to you? I don't think there's just a single thing, but a lot of the products we're using have a personal feeling to them. I've learned so much about sustainable farming and how to care properly for animals, and I know the people who are farming and fishing, which is a really great feeling to have.
You've had a preference for local food from an early age. Is it a particularly good time for you to be a chef in New York? I feel like when I came to New York that was something that was already happening, but I think I would have looked for it if it wasn't. I do feel that it's very important to know where your food's coming from.
On November 5th you're going to be at New York Magazine's New York Taste (buy tickets here). Can you let us know what you're going to serve? We're going to be doing sea urchin custard with a king crab and green apple salad and a green apple foam. Through most of the end of spring into summer, sea urchin isn't really available on the east coast—they go too deep in the water. I was out at Pierless Fish last Sunday when they got their first sea urchin in. We popped a few open right there, and they're really sweet—they've lost that slight iodine flavor, and that really is such a beautiful fall and winter seafood. So I'm really excited to feature it.
Do you feel your staff is ready for such a big event? It's going to take extra planning and staff, but it's great for my management team to go and represent the restaurant. Everyone's had their heads down really plowing through the past couple of months, so it's going to feel really good for everybody to be able to get out and see some smiling faces, hand them some food, and get some feedback.
On top of that, the holidays are going to be in full bloom soon. Is this an exciting or nerve-wracking time for you? I think that sometimes when you're a year into a restaurant you anticipate it—this is just a new challenge for us. We want to find out what our staff is capable of, so in a lot of ways we're kind of embracing it. Personally I love the turn into fall; the weather first starts to turn and the flavors get a little bit richer, and it's really a beautiful time of the year. People are really looking to settle into their dining experience this time of year. I love it.