Nicole L. Bissonnette learned her entrepreneurial skills and strong work ethic from her father.
“My biggest business inspiration is my dad, Ron Bissonnette,” she said. “He was co-owner of a regional supermarket chain, and I grew up at the dinner table listening to business strategy and trends. I try to emulate his work ethic.”
Bissonnette always knew she wanted to have her own business. Now she starts her day at 8:15 a.m. with her 20-month old son, Lucien “Luc,” in tow.
“He has his jobs of turning on the steam tables, putting my tasting spoons in cups, eating his morning berries and breaking a dish or two,” Bissonnette said. “I set up the kitchen, check over our prep list and make sauces or soups, receive our deliveries until Luc’s nanny arrives around 10 a.m. I write the daily specials, field emails and calls and post anything noteworthy on our Facebook page.”
Bissonnette is the proprietor and chef of Bistro 157 and Venue by Bistro in Valparaiso. She is also the co-proprietor of Bartlett's Gourmet Grill & Tavern in Beverly Shores.
Bissonnette often cooks lunch.
“I really enjoy the cooking aspect of the business the most,” Bissonnette said. “I act as head chef, restaurant and catering manager. I enjoy teaching and explaining why dishes are prepared the way I prepare them. I have a very established catering business.
The most satisfying aspect of her career, Bissonnette said, is providing a place for people to relax, eat well and enjoy themselves.
“All aspects of the experience are important, and I do my best to make sure that my experienced and friendly crew is able to make that happen,” Bissonnette said.
She enjoys working with kitchen staff.
“It makes me proud to hear from past cooks or trainees who have gone on to succeed in other jobs and reminisce about the foundation they built at Bistro 157,” Bissonnette said.
Her biggest challenge is finding balance.
“Prioritizing family is my main concern, and my husband and I try to balance work stress and quality time with our boys,” Bissonnette said. “We do try to keep Sunday afternoons as family time and also try to plan a few small overnights throughout the year. Gratefully, our boys love music and to eat various foods and our most recent trip was to Memphis for barbeque, oysters and Graceland.”
Bissonnette, who always enjoyed cooking and eating unusual foods as a child, studied French and business in college. During her junior year, she studied abroad in Strasbourg, France.
“I developed a keen interest in food through traveling,” Bissonnette said. “I felt that I got to know a country through its food and libation as most great discussions are had sharing food and drink.”
Bissonnette, who opened Bistro 157 in June 2001, said she gained valuable experience working at Paris restaurants Le Floridita, Shozan, Loire Valley and Troigros, a three-star Michelin restaurant, and Chicago’s 160 Blue.
“When I first decided to get into the culinary arts, I voraciously read every cookbook and memoir that I could,” Bissonnette said.
She said her chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, Le Floridita and Troisgros were incredibly talented individuals.
“I took away their passion for food and importance of tasting every dish as it evolves during the cooking process,” Bissonnette said. “A big help in my early years as owner was my husband, Gary Sanders. Most problems that I faced, he had already handled in his career.”
Bissonnette believes that one’s passion can shine through in all aspects of life.
“I think through my Catholic upbringing, I have always practiced the Golden Rule, and I sincerely care about all people I encounter through work or socially,” Bissonnette said. “But I must credit an incredibly gentle and happy soul, one I met though Bistro 157, who was tragically killed last year, with a mantra that I try to live by each day: ‘work hard, spread love, have fun.’ I think this encapsulates what we all should do on a daily basis.”
Doug Pierce, a Valparaiso community leader retired from the Design Organization architecture firm and a Bistro 157 customer since its inception, describes Bissonnette as a true chef.
“She understands every detail of the proper gourmet food,” Pierce said.
He said Bissonnette’s establishment has become a neighborhood bistro for like-minded individuals, many of whom are local small business owners, to meet.
Pierce said Bissonnette has “nailed” the three things a restaurant should strive for: atmosphere, staff and food.
“The staff always gets a thumbs-up,” Pierce said. “She has been able to retain staff for quite a number of years which is remarkable.”
Pierce said the atmosphere is pleasant with Bissonnette able to attract good local artists and the menu changes on a regular basis making it interesting.
Pierce said Bissonnette’s knowledge of wines is impressive and the fully stocked bar has become a very important feature in downtown Valparaiso.
“We are so blessed with an incredible revival,” Pierce said. “Nicole and a handful of others like her have been at the heart of Valparaiso’s renaissance. They have participated in planning and different events the city people have tried to put on. I think the lesson is that to get big in retail you really have to be involved if you want your business to grow and actually be a benefit to all concerned.”
Bissonnette has contributed talent, time, food and money to her community.
“It is an honor to be able to use my talents to inspire people to support various causes,” Bissonnette said. “At the end of the day, if you are not a participant in a community, whether big or small, and making a difference in some small way, then what is the purpose of being here?”