By Dana Mortell
This spring, ICE was thrilled to invite renowned Chef/Restaurateur Ken Oringer to share his experience and insight with our students. As a James Beard award-winning chef of four celebrated Boston restaurants and one New York location, Oringer has helped shape the national culinary scene, using his passion for travel and exotic cuisines to inform his creativity in the kitchen.
Growing up, Oringer wasn’t surrounded by unique ingredients or international cuisines. But as a kid, he always wanted to hold a knife because he knew he belonged in a restaurant kitchen. Whenever his parents would take him to Chinatown, Ken was always amazed by the cooks stir frying in woks over a high heat flame. His favorite treat at street fairs was lamb on a stick, an exotic foodstuff in his Massachusetts hometown. Observing these different techniques and flavors fostered his curiosity well into his adolescence.
Oringer’s first foray in the business was a position at a family-run Italian deli. There, he learned how mise en place and preparation influenced the end product. Once he reached the ripe age of 15 years, he decided that it was his time to work in a proper restaurant. He went door-to-door asking for work, even if it was unpaid. All Ken wanted was the experience of working in a professional kitchen to enhance his skills, which he continued to do through high school.
Following his parents’ influence, Ken headed off to business school, but still dreamed of being a chef. He nearly flunked out after his first semester at Bryant College, continuing to research food during his spare time. However, the strict curriculum in finance and accounting wound up being a blessing, benefiting the day-to-day operations of his current restaurant group.
After graduating from college, Oringer knew that he didn’t want to sit behind a desk. His business school internships had proved uninspiring, and he knew that his heart was still in the kitchen. Ken enrolled in culinary school with an exceptional sense of focus. He knew exactly what he needed to do to succeed and was always the first student in class and the last one out. Ken also explains that he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes in class, seeing them as an opportunity to learn as much as possible from his chef-instructors.
Once it was time to choose an externship site, Oringer sought placement at the River Café in Brooklyn with Chef David Burke. It was the 1980s and Burke was fearless. Ken had frontline access to a menu chock-full of exotic items such as duck tongue confit. He recalls wanting to taste everything to make up for lost years, having only tasted sushi or oysters for the first time as an undergrad. As an entry-level cook with no money, River Café gave him the opportunity to experience these new ingredients while learning and working.
After culinary school, Oringer went back to New England and got his first job at Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island. The restaurant was among the first to start using organic and local ingredients, similar to the Alice Waters philosophy. Over the next few years, Oringer worked his way up to the role of pastry chef and created a menu where all ice cream was made to order.
But Oringer had more on his mind than Italian classics. On one occasion, he remembers visiting an off-the-beaten-path Cambodian restaurant in South Providence. From fresh galangal to fried shallots, he was endlessly intrigued by the use of these new and complex flavors. He gave Al Forno his two weeks’ notice, and headed back to Boston to pursue the next phase of his career.
In Boston, Oringer begged to be hired at Le Marquis de Lafayette, a prominent French restaurant where Jean-Georges was consulting chef, incorporating flavors from Bangkok throughout the menu. He may have been the only American in a kitchen of French-speakers, but Ken was enamored with Jean-Georges’ cooking style. He was working with the best products from around the world, including kilos of black truffles. Eventually, Oringer was promoted to sous chef, mastering the art of survival in one of the country’s most demanding kitchens.
After a stint as the Chef de Cuisine at Silks in the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco crafting Asian-influenced French cuisine, Oringer returned to Boston to open his first restaurant, Clio, in 1997. This was the point when business school became highly valuable, aiding with the design, financials and business plan for the restaurant. Clio was a rustic space with a casual vibe that served contemporary French and Asian cuisine. From day one, the restaurant was packed; a success owed in large part to the quality of Oringer’s staff. A team of positive and driven individuals, he recalls the team as being particularly respectful and effective communicators.
Clio opened the door to future opportunities for Oringer. In 1998, when he heard the James Beard Foundation nominated him for Best New Chef Northeast, he was shocked—and even more so when he won the award in 2001. With national recognition under his belt, developers and moguls started to approach him with national and international consulting and partnership ideas, but Oringer knew he had to be selective.
Uni, a sashimi bar located in the lounge of Clio, opened in 2002. It was born of Oringer’s travels to Asia, where he was inspired by chefs who spent their entire careers mastering a single style of dish or set of ingredients, especially the individuals who mastered tempura. Impressed by the art of performing and repeating a recipe for years on end, Oringer chose to have Uni specialize in different styles of sashimi, without maki rolls or rice. Oringer’s further travels brought him to Barcelona, where he was seduced by the culture of Spain’s tapas bars. Capturing the culture of social eating, Oringer opened Toro, following by the Italian enoteca, Copa, in 2010.
Oringer’s most recent project was opening a second location of Toro in New York City on 15th Street and 10th avenue—the same block as Mario Batali’s Del Posto and Tom Colicchio’s Colicchio & Sons. The restaurant opened in 2013 in a 9,000 square foot space with a private dining room, offering house-made charcuterie and 65 items on the menu. Oringer is thrilled to have his business translate to the competitive culture of New York dining, and the restaurant has proved a fantastic success.
Despite all his success, Oringer is an extremely humble individual whose philosophy is one of hard work, creativity and respect in the kitchen, while maintaining an open mind. Having great food isn’t good enough. His staff is taught to treat people well and take on the attitude that no task is too big or too small. That said, Oringer insists that cultivating an environment where the staff wants to stay is key, a task made more manageable by granting requests for personal matters and scheduling fairly. From what we can see, dedication, focus and clear communication—and never giving in to the temptation of ego—have been the main secrets to the success of Ken Oringer.