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Oct 28, 2013

Jon Bignelli ('04) executes culinary success in New York City

Former Food Network Chopped champion mixes it up with famed chef Wylie Dufresne
By Sande Snead (’82)

Job Bignelli cooking dinner
Jon bignelli ('04), executive chef at Alder in New York City, puts finishing touches on an entree. 

Originally published in Fall 2013 Madison magazine.

When executive chef Jon Bignelli (’04) and noted celebrity chef Wylie Dufresne opened Alder restaurant in New York City’s East Village on March 28, 2013, there were lines out the door and down the block—at least for the first two weeks.

“We were the big high-profile restaurant to open in March,” Bignelli says. “But in New York, there is the next big restaurant to open every week.”

Nevertheless, the chances for success for this new gastropub remain more than high. The chef duo of Bignelli and Dufresne first worked together at the now famous wd-50 restaurant on the Lower East Side, where the food is more “wacky” as Bignelli describes it. At wd-50 Dufresne, a James Beard Foundation culinary award winner, perfected his techniques and became the national proponent of molecular gastronomy – the movement to incorporate science and new techniques in the preparation and presentation of food.

“Compared to wd-50, Alder has more approachable menu,” says Bignelli. “A gastropub is hard for people here to understand because the U.S. doesn’t really have a version of a ‘pub.’ In France, it’s a bistro; in Japan, it’s an izakaya. It’s a bit like a diner that serves food all day, where food is more about functionality as opposed to pleasure. We’re trying to create a public house – an American version where you can get a bite to eat, or a just a drink or a full dinner.”

Though he cringes at the term and actually finds “foodies” annoying, Bignelli has been in love with cuisine since he was a mere boy. Both of his parents were French teachers and he traveled with them to France often, where they opened his mind to food.

“When I was 5 years old, I had escargot, Indian food, sushi,” Bignellii says. “Like any kid, when introduced to something new, sometimes I would say, ‘Do I like this?’ And of course, my Dad would say, ‘Yeah, you love that!’”

An only child, Bignelli and his parents had a gourmet home-cooked dinner together every night. He thought everybody did that. “My parents played cribbage together and whoever lost, had to cook,” Bignelli recalls. My father lost a lot, but he found he really loved being in the kitchen. He would make me steamed artichokes with hollandaise sauce for a snack. As I got older, it became clear that we were the oddballs.”

Still, that strong background stood him in good stead. At JMU, Bignelli majored in cultural anthropology, which he says prepared him for work at wd-50. “It’s one of the most scientific restaurants in the country,” he says. Bignelli joined wd-50 in March 2007, as roundsman and was promoted to sous chef a year later. In June 2009, he became wd-50’s chef de cuisine. He and Dufresne built the restaurant to a commercial and critical success before opening Alder this spring.

Reviews for Adler have been tremendously positive with the restaurant getting five stars from New York Magazine and a 4 out of 5 from the New York Daily News. Celebrities have also taken notice. Celebrity chefs, singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, supermodel Karlie Kloss, and Parks and Recreation tv-show comedian Aziz Ansari are among recent A-list guests.

Bignelli is a celebrity chef in his own right. He won the Seasons Choppings (holiday challenge) episode of The Food Network’s reality show Chopped in season three.

Even though it was only one day of shooting, Bignelli says, “It was very challenging. Being a TV chef is not my goal. Wylie and I have worked together for six years now. The next restaurant we open, I’d like to be the owner/chef. But I also don’t want to still be grinding when I’m 50. I’d like to have children, find balance, make money and not get burned out.”

When not cooking, Bignelli says he loves music events and concerts, but he mostly sleeps. “I’m at work by 11 a.m. at the latest and get home between 1 and 2 a.m.”

And what did he think about the food at JMU?

“I loved D-Hall, man, I really did. The big deal was when Chick-fil-A came. And then there was Dukes, and that pizza joint in the freshman halls. I used to love Luigi’s, Dave’s Taverna, Thai Café and Saigon Café on 33.”

Learn more about the chef and see the menu and videos.