One of Maine’s most accomplished chefs ditched his knife set for a camera and wound up creating a visual feast of a book about soups.
When Derek Bissonnette was 16, he landed his first kitchen gig, at a bakery in Searsport. He went on to study baking and pastry at the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 2000. He got hired to do desserts at Kennebunk’s estimable White Barn Inn, jumped to a renowned restaurant in rural Virginia, and then joined the kitchen at an elegant English countryside hotel. Along the way, he picked up savory-cooking skills. In 2009, he returned to the White Barn and, in 2015, was promoted to executive chef. Then, he called it quits in 2017 to become a photographer.
After Bissonnette took over the White Barn kitchen, he started toting a camera to work to create a visual record of dishes he and his staff came up with. Photography clicked with him. “Making food look great is something I’ve always strived for,” he says. “To do that through a fresh medium was exciting.” He never took a lesson (“I just learned through failure”), but the White Barn’s lofted 18th-century dining room proved ideal for playing with staging and natural light.
As Bissonnette’s passion for his hobby grew, his passion for his job faded. “I’m an in-the-trenches kind of worker — I like to cook,” he says. “The executive chef role was a great challenge, but I don’t think it was really for me, spending so much time balancing staff and numbers and all that.”
He quit and started a food photography business, and soon, Kennebunkport’s Cider Mill Press recruited him to do a cookbook. Soup: The Ultimate Book of Soups and Stews married Bissonnette’s culinary and visual aptitudes. In four months, he cooked, photographed, and wrote recipes for more than 300 soups. At 800 pages, the book is thick with gorgeous shots of bisques, chowders, and stocks (plus thorough sections on history, ingredients, tools, and techniques). Many recipes he already knew well, like the pumpkin-and-scallop soup that was a Thanksgiving staple at the White Barn. Others, he had to figure out, like the Szechuan-spiced shoyu ramen. “Until this book, I wouldn’t have said soup was my specialty,” he says. “But I got to utilize a lot of what I’ve learned over the years, and besides, I wanted to learn new stuff.” — Will Grunewald