“Soup: The Ultimate Book of Soups and Stews.” By Derek Bissonnette. Cider Mill Press, 2018. $35.00.

KENNEBUNK — The pumpkin, onion, carrot, apple, garlic and thyme have been blended, combined with the white wine and chicken stock, and strained. While the mixture simmers, Derek Bissonnette sears six scallops, basting them with spoonfuls of melted butter as the pan sizzles and pops. He’s making Pumpkin Soup with Seared Diver Scallops and Chinese Five-Spice Cream.

“This soup has a nice pumpkin flavor, but it’s got apples, too, so it gives it a nice little sweet flavor,” he said. “It’s one we used to do at the White Barn every Thanksgiving. It made its appearance only on that day.”

The sound of the scallops cooking is accompanied by the loud click of canine toenails dancing across the floor, as Bissonette’s bulldog, Chelsea, begs for a handout.

“This is what she did during the whole book,” Bissonnette said. ” ‘Where’s mine?’ ”

Derek Bissonnette of DB Maine photography stirs his pumpkin soup Tuesday, October 2, 2018. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Bissonnette, former executive chef at the elegant White Barn Inn in Kennebunk and an alum of the critically acclaimed Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, is demonstrating one of the 300-plus recipes from his new 800-page cookbook “Soup: The Ultimate Book of Soups and Stews” in his home kitchen, where he tested every dish that went into the project. Bissonnette, 38, is a fine-dining chef turned food photographer. He wrote or re-wrote all of the recipes – a good 60 percent were already in his repertoire, he says – and took all of the photos. And he did it in just four months.

“The house became the book of soups, but my wife was very supportive about it,” he said.

He started by making stocks – dashi, chicken, veal, lobster – early last winter, before he’d even signed the book contract. He bought a chest freezer and another fridge/freezer combo so he’d have plenty of room to store them.

By Dec. 1, his soup extravaganza was well underway. A typical week looked like this: He shopped for ingredients at the beginning of each week, buying enough to make three or four soups a day. As his deadline loomed, he doubled down, making as many as six soups a day. Bissonnette made the soups one by one, plated and styled them, then took them down to his basement photo studio for photographing and photo editing. His days began at 7 a.m. and ended, if he were lucky, by 10 or 11 p.m.

“But that’s the life of a kitchen chef,” Bissonnette said, “so it’s nothing I’m not used to. I’m doing it in the comfort of my home, too. I’ve got my dogs around, I’ve got the TV going. I can be watching a game while I’m prepping soup. So it’s really satisfying as well.”

Bissonnette’s wife and neighbors ate well during the birthing of the book, as did his dogs, Chelsea and an Old English bulldog named Reina. The two pets snored contentedly on the sofa, curled up on either side of Bissonnette, as he talked about how he became a chef.

IT TOOK A VILLAGE

His love affair with food began when he was a high school student in Belfast. Bissonnette borrowed money from his mother to buy a car. She apparently thought he wasn’t paying her back fast enough, so one day when he got home from school she told him he was starting a new job the next day at Periwinkles, a bakery in Searsport owned by Sean Hogan. He’d have to be there at 4 a.m. His mother (Bissonnette dedicated the cookbook to her) chose a bakery because she and her son sometimes made whoopie pies or brownies together, and she thought he had a knack.

Derek Bissonnette of DB Maine photography pours his pumpkin soup on a plate with seared diver scallops Tuesday, October 2, 2018. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“I was very lucky to have Sean Hogan as my boss,” Bissonnette recalled. “He really instilled consistency and quality into what I do. We used to make these sweet cookies that we piped into little rosettes, and he’d look over them and if one wasn’t perfect, he’d scrape them back into the bowl.”

“It wasn’t about making each of those cookie perfect,” he clarified. “It was making sure that I understood that in this business, consistency is so important.”

Hogan would give him a list of things to do, then promise Bissonnette if he finished the list on time, Hogan would teach him something new.

“Going into my second year I really started falling in love with it,” Bissonnette said. “I’d go in before school. I’d go in after school.”

In his senior year at the local vocational school, Bissonnette convinced his culinary instructor that he would learn more working in the bakery than attending class, so he managed to get school credit for the job.

After Bissonnette graduated high school, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, then returned home to work at an inn in Lincolnville. From there, he took a job as a pastry cook at the White Barn Inn. That was followed by stints at the Inn at Little Washington, a few years working with a chef in Great Britain, and, ultimately, a return to the White Barn Inn.

The Inn at Little Washington recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, just before becoming the Washington, D.C.-area’s first three-starred Michelin restaurant. Chef/proprietor Patrick O’ Connell, who wrote a blurb for Bissonnette’s cookbook, invited chefs who had worked there over four decades to an event he called the “Innstock Culinary Family Reunion.” Bissonnette has a photo on his refrigerator of the event, with all the chefs standing outside the inn, wearing tie-dyed shirts. Bissonnette served his Maine Lobster Bisque with Pernod cream at the event – it’s one of the recipes in his cookbook – and caught the attention of internationally renowned chef José Andrés.

Derek Bissonnette of DB Maine photography makes pumpkin soup with seared diver scallops Tuesday, October 2, 2018. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“He tried it, and he liked it so much he wanted to come up and meet me and look at the book,” Bissonnette said. “So that was very exciting. I said ‘Chef, how do you rate it, on a scale of one to 10? And he said 9.5.”

When Jonathan Cartwright, Bissonnette’s mentor at the White Barn Inn, left the executive chef position in 2015, Bissonnette got the job. (Cartwright wrote the forward to “Soup.”) Inadvertently, the job helped launch him on his new photography career. As executive chef, Bissonnette wanted to get better pictures of the White Barn’s food than he could with his smart phone. He bought an inexpensive camera to keep in the kitchen, and taught himself to use it.

Before two years had passed, Bissonnette realized he wasn’t happy in the kitchen anymore. He didn’t think executive cheffing was right for him – and he was falling in love with photography.

“Not that I don’t have the skills,” he said. “I just don’t enjoy it. I gave it a go. I did the best I could, and the White Barn’s very dear in my heart. I spent many, many, many a day there and I love it, but the next step for me is to own my own place, and that’s never been something I was interested in. I’ve worked at enough small places to realize that’s just not for me. I don’t want to be on the line when I’m 52 years old, so I figure if there’s chance to do something else, it’s now. And who knows where the journey is going to take me?”

NEW FOCUS

So far, it’s taken him to his new business, DB Maine Photography, and the cookbook, which has something for everyone – meat eater, vegetarian and vegan. It encompasses Asian soups, Mediterranean soups, chowders and gumbos, and chilled and dessert soups. The Soup for Kids chapter includes recipes for baked potato soup, macaroni and cheese soup, and chilled peanut butter and jelly soup.

Some of the recipes are classics that the publishers asked him to include; Bissonnette says the French Onion soup is one of his favorites. And some were inspired by soups he used to make as a working chef. He also reached out to chef friends for their recipes. The Cullen Skink, a type of haddock chowder, for example, came from a Scottish chef and friend.

And then there’s that pumpkin soup, smooth with a touch of sweet apple, and warm spices that dissolve quickly with the melting cream. Pairing pumpkin and scallops might seem a little out of the ordinary, but the sweetness of the shellfish complements the soup well and the scallops add contrasting texture. Bissonette tops the soup with crispy strands of pumpkin and a sprig of rosemary. He doesn’t usually like inedible garnishes, he says, but the scent of the rosemary rises with the steam of the soup, providing another treat for the senses. The recipe is adaptable, Bissonnette notes. Shrimp, lobster, even pork belly can replace the scallops. And acorn, butternut or spaghetti squash can fill in for the pumpkin.

Derek Bissonnette of DB Maine photography makes pumpkin soup with seared diver scallops Tuesday, October 2, 2018. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“I tried to keep it comfortable for a home cook, but interesting enough to attract a professional chef,” said Bissonnette, who admitted that this batch was the first soup he has made since last spring when he finished testing recipes for “Soup.”

Now that the cookbook is done, Bissonette has been taking photographs for Edible Maine magazine. Most of his photography work has come through the professional relationships he forged as a chef. He still has a hand in cooking. He’s the on-call chef at a local restaurant when it’s short staffed; he prepares private dinners with Cartwright, and teaches cooking classes at the Inn at English Meadows in Kennebunk. Eventually, Bissonnette would like to finish his basement for a proper kitchen studio where he could do photography and also offer occasional private dinners or cooking classes.

But as far as being a full-time chef, Bissonnette says he’s made his choice, and he isn’t looking back.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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