By Lesley Snyder
The term “chef” is not exactly Jamie or Michael Bissonette’s cup of tea. For this father-and-son team, it connotes inflexible culinary techniques and non-negotiable menu items – it’s stuffy, Jamie says wryly. While both have chef-caliber cooking talent, the pompous implications (however tongue-in-cheek) do not suit the Bissonettes’ down-to-earth food philosophy. Jamie and Michael are two of the friendliest faces in Shelburne, and their family restaurant, the Dutch Mill, is as warm and accommodating as your grandmother’s kitchen. Their skills are grass roots: “Cooking just comes natural,” Jamie explains. “And you learn as you go. We’re very hands-on here. We get suggestions from customers, or we think, ‘Hey, let’s try this.’ We’re not afraid to create.” Having formerly worked at several Vermont restaurants, Jamie boasts over a decade of on-the-job experience before finally sinking his teeth into his own business endeavor. “It was a dream of mine to have a restaurant,” he admits, “and in 1995, we took the jump.” Jamie’s parents, Charles and Corrine Bissonette, helped to build Jamie’s dream into the historic Route 7 landmark, erected just short of a century ago.
His son Michael’s culinary experiences are no small potatoes either. He was seven years old when the Mill opened and has been his restaurateur father’s right-hand man for nearly the past two decades. While he wasn’t on the line quite yet, young Michael would help out around the business, washing dishes and tending to the grounds. At age 14, he would look after the dining room as host and server, and by age 18, Michael was behind the grill. While he has tuned in to his share of Food Network specials, Michael’s instructor was closer to home: his father. But even the student has some tricks up his sleeve. “His wraps are superior,” Jamie praises. Grilled chicken, breakfast, veggie – wraps are Michael’s favorite dish to prepare. Char-broiled and sealed with melted cheese, his wrap-rolling technique is just one of the many new ideas that Michael brings to the table. “The specials are all Michael,” Jamie mentions.
While father and son are the masterminds behind the meals, Mill maintenance is a team effort. Jamie’s wife, Mary Lou, and Michael’s fiancé, Jess, as well as their “rock solid” employees are all essential components to keeping the blades spinning. But the wind for this mill comes from Charlie and Corrine. “Without my parents,” Jamie explains, “we wouldn’t have this restaurant.” And Michael doesn’t hesitate to second the gratitude. “It’s a special thing to get to see my parents every day,” Jamie confides. Corrine still stops by to lend a hand in the dining room. When Jamie told Dad he was bringing in a creemee machine, Charlie quickly asked, “What can I do to help?” In two days, Charlie built a cherry wood bar which now frames the snack station. Jamie grins: “At age 75, my dad is still the man.” With only two sets of hands in the kitchen, these culinary artists have their favorite go-to gadgets, and both are Charlie’s handiwork. For Michael, a well-plated meal is all about presentation. “It’s a #10 can,” Michael describes, “and my grandfather put a wooden handle on top so it doesn’t burn your hand.” It’s used to melt items like cheeseburgers to gooey perfection. And Jamie’s favorite kitchen tool is just as heartwarming (but not hand-warming!). “It’s a spatula my dad made,” Jamie shares. “It’s 3-foot long so you can flip without burning yourself.” Even when Charlie and Corrine are away from the shop, it’s clear they still have a hand in the business.
Jamie has been overseeing food service since the restaurant’s establishment, but he is soon “passing the torch” to Michael – and he certainly can handle the heat. “When the line is out the door and the slips are piling up,” Michael explains, “that’s when I’m less stressed.” Add a couple catering jobs to the to-do list, and this is when Michael shines. There’s no time to be out to lunch when you’re working the line; it is a mere two-cook kitchen. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” Michael affirms. The Bissonettes’ devotion to their customers is grist for the mill. “The best aspect of our business is our good, local clientele,” Michael says. While the walls of the Mill are embedded in history, the meals evolve with the market – if the customer can dream it up, the kitchen can create it. The breakfast menu is a wall-of-fame of customer creations, like Jackie’s Special Omelet and Eggs Fred. Catering is the Dutch Mill’s meal ticket, and they cater in every sense of the word: “A lot of places will say we have this, this and this and that’s it, that’s all you get, ” Jamie explains. “We don’t work that way.” From pig roasts to food with Filipino flair, the Mill will cater to every customer’s palate. It is this receptiveness that gives the Mill its comfortable atmosphere and long list of repeat customers. Loyal customers stop by just to say, “Hello,” and when regulars become out-of-towners, “they leave with tears,” Jamie says.
Owning a family restaurant means work can boil over the diner’s walls and seep into every aspect of life – but Jamie knows to get away while things are still simmering. “I have a camp in Montgomery,” he explains. “I’ll even drive up to just sit on the porch.” Though work is on the back burner, there’s still shoptalk. “It’s where we do a lot of thinking for this place,” Michael says. The steps Michael takes to keep balance in his life are towards home: “I look forward to coming home every day to my fiancé, Jess, and my dog, Moe.” Sports are an outlet too; anyone who has dined at the Mill can vouch for the Bissonettes’ Red Sox fanaticism.
As for what’s on the Mill’s horizon, Michael doesn’t sugarcoat it: “I want to be the busiest business in the area. And until that happens, we’ll keep working harder.” While it’s hard to believe the Bissonettes could have any more room on the plate, they never bite off more than they can chew. Good people plus good food is always the Mill’s recipe for success.
Just like home, the Dutch Mill Family Restaurant is right where you left it, conveniently located at 4309 Shelburne Road. Seven days a week, enjoy breakfast 7:30 am-2 pm and lunch 11 am-2 pm. The Mill is staying awake a little later these days; be sure to visit the snack bar 2-9 pm.