Toro's Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette on Coming Down from Beantown
"In six weeks we've already changed 15 dishes. It's always evolving."
Chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette may feel like the new kids in town, but plenty New Yorkers have made the trek up to Boston to feast at their tables. Our own Kenji worked for Oringer at several of his restaurants, including the original Toro in its opening year (and just gave us a journey into Toro's paella)—and he's not the only Oringer alum to heap praise on the chef.
These days we don't need a bus ticket to visit Toro, though the wait for a reservation at its new Meatpacking location is not exactly a short order, either. We sat with chefs Bissonnette and Oringer in the cavernous new space on 14th Street and 11th Avenue to debate on where New York and Boston's food scenes and why their dual chef partnership works so well.
Why did you both pick Boston as your city to establish your style of food?
Jamie: For me it wasn't a conscious decision. I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, which is sort of out of Boston, so I felt very connected to it through friends and family. I remember neighborhoods back in the late '80's to '90's, going in for punk rock shows, going to the Rathskeller, which is now a restaurant called the Eastern Standard. And you know when you just feel connected to a place for the first time? Like, when I went to Paris I was like, "Whoa, I'm supposed to be here." That's what I felt about Boston.
Ken: Boston was a much more conscious decision for me. I didn't love it when I first moved there, but I loved that it was an international city with a lot of culture. The longer I stayed, the more the city started to change and more great chefs developed restaurants, so it became a much more livable, funkier city. It's weird, because back then if you told me that Clio would be around 16 years later I would have told you that you were crazy. Back in those days there was money flying everywhere and opening a fine-dining restaurant that wasn't super-fancy was something new for Boston. It was lucky timing, I guess. And that gave us the opportunity to make it my home. It set my roots a little deeper to make something happen.
So now you're here. What about New York is starting to feel rewarding?
Jamie: The accessibility to some of the product that we couldn't get in Boston is ridiculous, like different seafood, and Pat LaFrieda has meat we couldn't get in large enough quantities in Boston.
Ken: We got three people calling us yesterday about percebes [a barnacle relative native to Spain and Portugal]. We've been trying for years to get percebes in Boston. The demand of the restaurants here makes everyone have to be on top of their game with ingredients, to be the best of the best. What we have in Boston is phenomenal, don't get me wrong. But here you can find anything a hell of a lot easier.
What about New York is just more of a pain in the ass to work in?
Jamie: Since we're new here it's hard to find staff. It's a new restaurant, and to get a young cook to leave a job and cook for us as the new guys in town has been difficult.
Ken: Construction took a long, long time. But I guess that's the red tape that New York has. It's been pretty frustrating, to say the least. Every day there's hiccups—we're still trying to get comfortable in our surroundings and I want to understand the flow, to get everybody in synch. But every day we get better, we push ourselves hard, and we surround ourselves with people that try to get better and more efficient.
And what's the most exciting part of being here?
Ken: A lot of little things are exciting. Sometimes we'll look at each other and go, "Holy shit, can you believe this?" We opened in New York and it's busy and Jean-Georges is in. We look at each other like, this is really cool! We both love having these superstar chefs we've looked up to our whole lives coming in—it's an amazing feeling to be able to cook for those guys, that they're curious about what we're doing.
Jamie: I'm just excited about the variety of things we can do. Our kitchens in Boston are so small, so here we can really expand and not be limited by demands of space. It's huge, and we can have a lot more fun with product. I love that if Ken goes to the farmer's or fish market, he's going to have something new, like live scallops. That, in the moment, if we only have 10 or 20 of them a night, we can change the menu up. In six weeks we've already changed 15 dishes. It's always evolving. That, for me, is really exciting.
How about you two? How does your partnership make sense for this new venture?
Ken: I think deep down we agree 99% of the time. We both have a voice of reason and we both can get emotional at times about certain things, but once we back down, I can't remember us disagreeing about anything.
Jamie: When we were interviewing, one of the candidates for general manager asked us, "With you being two chefs and partners, two owners, how do you balance it. What's the worst fight you've ever had?" And I stopped for a minute—I don't remember if we've ever really had a fight. Which means when it does happen it's going to be broken windows and thrown chairs.
What do you each most respect about the other?
Ken: Jamie's got a drive, a work ethic, and he's so detail oriented. I never have to worry about anything being done or getting taken care of. If he says he's going to do something, I don't think twice about it, ever.
Jamie: Ken has the best palate, and the way he looks at food is humbling. I know when I start talking about a dish he's going to say two things that are mind-blowing. It's awesome to be around someone who's always pushing you and you're learning from, but you're able to work together still as a team.
And you guys are sorta actually living here now, despite families and restaurants at home?
Jamie: I've been back once.
Ken: I've been back twice, just for a day. Neither of us has missed a day of service yet.
Wow. What outside of the restaurant is starting to feel like home, then?
Jamie: Late night Pakistani curries. There's a street cart in Soho that moves around a lot, but I love it. It's one of the guys who used to work at one of the places across from the Ace. There's a couple of those Pakistani curry joints I can't get enough of.
Ken: The West Village is so cool because it feels like where I live in the South End in Boston. I walk to work every day and it takes the city out of the city, which I like. Coming in I thought, "I'm not a spring chicken anymore. It's going to beat the shit outta me." But I can still get rest and stay out of the rat race. It's much more civilized than I thought it would be.