Ken Oringer, the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of five Boston-area restaurants and Toro NYC, spent his youth playing around in the kitchen, eventually growing up to earn some of the most coveted accolades in the culinary world (James Beard Award, Best New Chef North East, 2001; Best Chef, Boston Magazine, 2000; and Iron Chef America, Coffee Battle vs Cat Cora, 2008, to name just a few). The successful entrepreneur spoke with us about his favorite food cities, having restaurant-launch nightmares and the one food he can’t stand.
What drew you to cooking in the first place?
Ever since I was a kid — back in the day, before the internet and other stuff — I was watching cooking shows like Julia Child’s, and a bunch of things like that really got me into loving food. My parents loved food as well, and when I was six, seven, eight years old, they encouraged me to go in the kitchen and play around. I’d be making dinner for the family when I was eight years old and roasting chickens and just doing things that I saw on TV. And then I started reading cooking magazines like Gourmet, and I loved it.
Favorite food cities?
I love Asian food, so Tokyo for me is the best of the best of the best — the best food in the world. I love going to Tokyo. Barcelona’s another town that obviously has inspired Toro through my travels. San Sebastian also — I love the whole tapas crawl culture.
Can you describe the experience of what opening a new restaurant is like, especially your first compared to your fifth?
It’s funny — you always have that same fear that when you open the doors, no one’s going to come in. And you have those nightmares — a week before, the night before — that you open the doors and then you have like, two people come in. So I always have those fears, but I think as you spend the time preparing, really working with each individual and every member of team to be in sync, then the rest is the easy part. The cooking, pouring drinks, serving and all that stuff — that’s what people with restaurant experience do. It’s second nature. As long as you spend the time preparing and getting everybody comfortable, the rest is easy.
Why did you decide to start working with Jamie Bissonnette?
Jamie I’ve known for a long time. He spent some time in the kitchen at Clio back in the day, and we used to see each other at this one bar that a lot of restaurant people used to hang out at after work. And we’d always talk about food. It was nice to see a younger guy so into classic French food and things that I love — like how to make a great cassoulet or pâté de campagne or stuffed pig’s feet or whatever. He was just a real student of food in general and especially of classic French food, which is what I grew up learning as well. So we would just talk food and talk food and talk food, and we’d always have these conversations and debates and I could just see the passion that he had. And we just kept in touch. I would always pop in and eat where he was cooking. And there was one point where I had an opportunity for this consulting job down at a place called KO Prime and I was like, “Man, Jamie would be the perfect fit.” I told him that I thought it could be beneficial for both of us, because I thought he had a ton of talent and it would be good because we see eye to eye and could collaborate. After that, we worked so well together, I brought him over to Toro and we kind of became partners. Then we opened up Coppa and Toro New York, and the rest is history.
You’ve earned so many accolades — how do you regard awards or critics’ reviews?
Awards are great but it’s funny, the older you get the less they mean to you. I just care about having teams that are motivated and having asses in seats that can generate revenue — and the whole formula of being able to have talented people that can work and fuel the fire. As far as accolades — we got a 2-star review in The NY Times at Toro, and that was an amazing moment where we were super, super pumped and celebrated with the whole restaurant. So I mean, they’re great. James Beard awards are phenomenal and high points of your life when you really look at those. But when push comes to shove, how many asses are in those seats every night? Happy guests, that matters most.
Anything surprising that people don’t know about you?
I’d probably rather be with my kids cooking than be in any restaurant kitchen cooking. My kids are by far my most enjoyable sous chefs.
Has social media affected what you’re doing at your restaurants?
It’s so important. It’s amazing how you can have almost instant feedback from so many people. You can throw up a picture of a dish on Instagram and get hundreds of likes for it and realize, “Wow, this might have legs. Let’s keep it on the menu for a week.” So I love it.
Any Boston and NYC go-to spots?
Right next to Toro is my favorite diner anywhere in the US, called Mike’s City Diner. My buddy Jay is the owner/chef over there, which is phenomenal. I go there almost on a daily basis. I’ll pop in, have a little of this, a little of that, have some corned beef hash. I’m always there, nibbling food.
I also love in New York, Mission Chinese — huge fan. I always find I’m dragging myself to that spot. Black Seed Bagels — I’d go there every day if I didn’t have to worry about eating so much cream cheese and bagels. Um, where else? I love, love Empellon Al Pastor. And then in Boston, Blue Dragon, Ming Tsai’s spot.
One of your favorite dishes at Coppa?
Our menus change so much. I mean, it would probably have to be a pasta. We do a cavatelli with what we call long-cooked broccoli, plus chicken sausage and fennel pollen — and lots of others. So probably one of those.
Fave midnight snack?
I’m in the kitchen late at Coppa and always digging my fingers into the crockpot of meatballs that fall apart — it’s like a poor man’s meatball sub.
I love my mezcal, and I love late-night, microwaved White Castle cheeseburgers.
Any food you dislike?
One food that I really can’t eat — oddly enough because I prepare it all the time — is eggs. I was force-fed them when I was a kid and I cook them on a daily basis all kinds of ways for my kids, but it’s the only food that if you put it in front of me, I’d rather eat bull testicles.
What would we find in your fridge?
I’m a condiment freak so I’ve got every kind of salt, fish sauce and fermented salted vegetables. Plus I love chili, so all kinds of hot sauce.