It's just over an hour after we've touched down in Hong Kong, and Jamie Bissonnette has already sniffed out a street joint where a woman snips piping-hot lengths of tripe into a bubbling broth with kitchen shears. "You want some of that?" he asks me, his eyes lit up. In the second it takes me to turn around, he's cradling a little tray of it in his hands.
>> PHOTOS: Jamie Bissonnette in Hong Kong <<
We stray to the side of the street for a moment. The tripe, threaded onto a wooden skewer in bite-sized pieces, is drizzled with a zigzag of red chili sauce. The oil pooling in its honeycomb pockets is still sizzling. We each stab a piece with chopsticks; it gives just enough under our teeth with a pleasant squishiness, and the unmistakable umami flavor floods our brains.
In August, Jamie — Food & Wine's People's Best New Chef 2011, James Beard Award nominee, and Boston's answer to New York levels of foodie hysteria thanks to Toro and Coppa — shot me a casual email wondering if I was "interested in talking about" accompanying him to Asia's world city for a week as guests of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. A few months later, we've been flown 14 hours over the North Pole, welcomed to Hong Kong by a driver named Vigor, and checked into the fancy Langham Place in Mongkok.
Back in the night market, we toss our chili-sauce-covered chopsticks and weave through the crowds. Jamie has been here just once before, for a scant 20 hours during a break from a cruise he was cooking for, but now he's roaming the streets like a bloodhound, all of the sights flooding back to him. "I can't believe I remember this," he keeps telling me as we hang a right, and then a left, and then another left.
Before we realize how far we've walked, we dead-end at the pier overlooking Victoria Harbor, all of the city's psychedelic skyscrapers stretched out above us. It's more of a lightshow than a skyline, and we stand, transfixed, along with the throng around us. We're still starving, so with the taste of tripe lingering, we wrangle ourselves a bowl of lap cheung sausage and rice, topped with scallions, miniscule dried shrimp, and peanuts, plus a Styrofoam bowl of scalding broth with spaetzle-like fish dumpling pieces and crispy cabbage.
Jamie once told me that he never had any doubt in his mind that he would be a chef: as a kid, he favored cooking shows over cartoons. But his culinary career has not been typical by any means. As a punk kid in the hardcore scene of Hartford, Connecticut, he toured with straight-edge bands. He graduated from culinary school at 19, covered in tattoos and a committed vegetarian. Later, he dabbled in professional MMA fights ("Insurance wouldn't cover the breaks and bruises") and took a spiritual detour as a Hare Krishna.
Bissonnette is nobody's idea of a traditional chef. He is impulsive and restless, and gives off the aura of someone who has become comfortable with the idea of not fitting in, ever. Even now, at midnight, with Hong Kong splayed in front of us, you get the sense he could be asking himself the same question that's been put to him countless times: how did this kid from Canton find himself at the forefront of modern American cuisine?