Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette: Boston's Culinary Dream Team Plays at Home

Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette
Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette | Noah Fecks
Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette | Noah Fecks

Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette love this city. The award-winning culinary dream duo seems to be in perpetual motion, traveling far and wide to bring a bazaar of Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Korean, and Thai flavors to Boston by way of uber-popular restaurants Coppa and UNI, and beloved tapas bar concept Toro. They’ve even brought a little piece of Boston’s pride to the world with Toro expansions to New York City and Bangkok. Soon, Dubai residents will be able to get their fill of jamón and sherry, too.

Still, when all of the jet-setting is done, Boston is their home. We sat down to chat with the two chefs in the dining room of their newest venture, Little Donkey, a neighborhood-y spot that just opened in Cambridge’s Central Square. We talked about creativity through the constraints of a small menu, fridge raids as inspiration, the demise of Brangelina, and what it’s like to cook tapas in Thailand.

So, talk to me about your impending world domination. You’re here, you’re in New York, you’re in Bangkok, Dubai’s on the docket…

Jamie Bissonnette: World domination? I don’t know. Every time I’m somewhere else for a while, I think, “I just want to be back in Boston.”

Ken Oringer: Global expansion is one thing, and world domination is another. I don’t think we’re ever out to dominate anything. It’s just a matter of expressing ourselves and doing some fun stuff in some fun cities. Like Bangkok, for instance. We never thought that would actually come to fruition. When we first opened up in New York, this guy asked us, “You wanna do Toro Bangkok?” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” Three years later, he’s saying, “The development’s built. Are you guys ready to start talking?” We’re like, “Holy shit.”

Why did Bangkok make sense for you?

Oringer:  We both love Asia. I love Bangkok; it’s one of my favorite cities anywhere, and we were thrilled that the restaurant wasn’t in a hotel, so it wasn’t this sterile type deal.

Bissonnette: We’re opening up restaurants in places we want to travel to anyway.

little donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

What do you think it is about Toro that makes people want it in places like Bangkok?

Bissonnette: Toro is inherently just fun. It’s a fun restaurant, and it’s also just really good. When people come to Toro, you have a lot of the things that they want. Somebody who might not necessarily be a foodie can go to Toro and feel like they had a really amazing time. It wasn’t about the food for them, but it was about the energy and the environment. And then somebody who is a foodie can come in and say, “Oh, wow. The food is interesting -- innovative and delicious.” Embodying that energy of nightlife tapas bars in Spain and Barcelona. It nails it. It’s the place where you just want to go and hang out.

Oringer: Usually, you go out to eat, and then you go out afterward to a club, or a bar, or whatever. But again, like Jamie said, the great thing about Toro is that you can have great food in a fun place. Sometimes the two don’t mix, you know? Our price point is definitely right, also. That’s the beauty of Spain. Like, the wines are obviously less expensive than France or California, so you can drink some pretty esoteric stuff for not a lot of money. And the food – paellas are festive, and people can share all these small plates, and it makes for a really fun night.

When you’re moving to these new cities, do you have challenges translating what Toro is to you to those different places?

Oringer: Absolutely. When we went to Bangkok both of us were shocked when we started cooking over there, making things for the staff. Like the tortilla española, which is the most famous tapa in the world. We made one for the Thai people, and…

Bissonnette: I was so excited!

Oringer: Yeah, and they took one bite and nobody said anything! Nobody went back to it. We were curious, asking each other, “What’s going on here?” And we talked to them and they said that the tortilla basically has no flavor to them. Something so elemental to Spanish cuisine. So we said, “OK, we’re going to have to adjust things for this market a little bit.” And then we ended up adding a black garlic aioli, fried shallots, chives, and crunchy potatoes on top. We had to make it a lot more of a flavor bomb because they’re used to so much flavor in all their food.

Bissonnette: That’s just one example. There were a multitude. It’s interesting -- dining out with friends in Bangkok, we realized that there’s definitely a craving for more punch, like Chef said. And it’s not necessarily more heat; it’s more salt, more texture, more sourness, more sweetness…

Oringer: More acidity. You know, their food is so unique to that part of the world. You go to Hong Kong, and you can eat in 50,000 different kinds of restaurants. Bangkok is still… To be a Spanish restaurant, you kind of have to poke around a little bit. But the beauty of it is the hotel chefs back in the day -- the Robichons, and those famous guys who opened up restaurants over there -- they were able to source some great ingredients from Europe, Japan, and other places. So we’re serving oysters from Brittany that are better than any oyster you can get anywhere. Same with jamón ibérico and things like that.

Bissonnette: But you can’t find kosher salt in the entire country.

Really? So how do you deal with that?

Bissonnette: Local sea salt, some different kinds of salts. Fish sauce. But that also explains a lot. We would make a dish that would be very simple with just a pinch of sea salt on it, and all of the Thai people would say, "This is so salty." Because they’re not used to finishing salt. They’re used to a more umami-building salt.

Raw Bar little donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

Right. But you can get oysters from Brittany and nobody wants kosher salt?

Oringer: Yeah. We had a hard time even teaching the cooks to season with salt. Some of them had never even seen salt in their lives.

Bissonnette: Someone kept asking why we kept putting sugar on the tomatoes.

So can you talk a little bit about training in those places?

Bissonnette: The more you learn about cooking, the more you realize that cooking is cooking, and sautéing and wok-frying are basically the same thing with different heat levels in a different shaped sauté pan. But when you meet people who haven’t been cooking in a variety of food cultures, that little difference is like chocolate milk to a bottle of vodka.

Oringer: Ooh, White Russians!

Bissonnette: But for me, it’s just the same as it is with anyone anywhere. Patience and repetition -- especially with the language barrier. You have to think back to elemental communication. Everything has to be very direct and clear, otherwise the inference can be very bad. Some cultures are very literal. You show someone how to cook something, and it’s inferred that sometimes it’s going to get swapped around depending on what’s happening because of which ticket comes in first. Then service starts, and you see them not doing something because something else hasn’t been ordered yet. It’s not intelligence levels; it’s just cultural.

Little Donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

So how have all these ventures come back now to this space, Little Donkey?

Oringer: This restaurant is the culmination of all of our travels. We don’t want to be held to one type of cuisine in this restaurant. It’s inspired by street foods from around the world. We talk about ideas 24/7. Like, “Oh man, we should make Thai sticky ribs!” Then we’ll say, “We should make…”

Bissonnette: Jamaican jerk lobster!

Oringer: And then we’ll say, “Let’s do some crab nachos with queso fundido!” We’ve both just traveled so much and get excited by the littlest things.

Bissonnette: Whole fried fish tikka masala style!

Oringer: We both love raw bars, so we have a raw bar with percebes and king crab, and snow crab, and live sea urchin... it’s just stuff that kind of comes organically to us. We just want to cook food that tastes good, and not overthink anything.

Little Donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

Is this kind of like a dream come true, then? You get to play, and you're not beholden to a cuisine or a concept?

Bissonnette: It’s funny, because the way we’ve always worked together is that one of us will say something, and the other one will play the devil’s advocate. It was easy to submit to that advocacy at Toro -- someone would say, “I don’t know if that’s gonna work. That’s such a Korean dish.” Then we’d try to figure out a way to make it fit into Spanish food. The same thing would happen at Coppa. Here, we’ve never had to say that once. There’s not a single thing inhibiting any part of our creativity.

Oringer: It’s so nice. We say it’s like the way we cook at home. If you were to come over to my apartment, we’d open up the fridge and say, “OK, we’ve got some oysters and some king crab. Let’s start with that. I’m gonna make Louis dressing, because I’ve got some ketchup and mayo and some cornichons. I’ve got some leftover rice and this and that -- we’ll make some fried rice.” Jamie’s girlfriend loves cookie dough, so we’ll squeeze a pack of cookie dough onto a plate and we’ll say, “OK, let’s make a mousse with condensed milk and throw some sea salt on it.” And that’s our dinner. So, it’s just so nice to be able to just cook without thinking about anything else.

So why do it in Boston? I feel like -- just looking around this space -- it looks like it could be in Chelsea in Manhattan. So why do it here?

Bissonnette: A year and a half after Toro in New York opened, we were spending a lot of time down there, and we were talking a lot about doing more, and what we wanted to do next with our creativity, wanting to have that outlet. Boston’s our home; Ken’s raising his children here. He’s lived here for, like, 70 years.

You look great!

Bissonnette:  I’ve lived here for 20 years. We just wanted to come home. Everybody here was so supportive of Toro New York, and as we were coming back and spending more time here -- Ken was back at UNI, and I was back and Toro and Coppa -- people were so excited we were back, and it just felt like it was time. We’ve always wanted to do a restaurant in Cambridge.

Oringer: We just have such deep roots here. I love this city, and it feels so good to be here. As much as we travel, from Bangkok to New York to Dubai next year, every time I get off a train or a plane, it just feels so good to be here. The camaraderie, the support, it’s just been very good to us for a long time.

I know both of you have spoken pretty widely about the community here being a lot more supportive and less competitive than it is in other cities. Do you feel like Boston’s continuing that trend? Even as the scene explodes and everyone’s fighting for chefs because there’s a lack of talent and so many jobs?

Bissonnette: I think it’s getting stronger. There’s always a couple bad apples everywhere, but mostly it’s getting stronger. We’re on countless group texts with all of our chef friends who own restaurants all over the city, saying, “Hey, I need a dishwasher tonight, does anybody have one?” I’ll watch someone send his sous chef on his day off to fill in for someone whose sous chef cut off his thumb or whatever. There’s so much more support here than there is in other cities.

Oringer: It is what it is. Whoever you get in the door, you just have to work that much harder to motivate them and excite them about being a part of your organization for as long as you can.

Little Donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

So, why Central Square? I feel like a lot of people would say Somerville is the hot place to open these days.

Bissonnette: I just love Central Square. I lived around here for seven or eight years. I’ve always loved how raw it is, how cultural it is, how diverse it is. Oringer will sometimes be standing in the restaurant on a busy night and look around and be like, “This is a restaurant. Look at how many different kinds of people are in here.” With all of the colleges and universities surrounding us, too, we get all walks of life. And we’re at the price point that makes it easy for different kinds of people to come here for a lot of different reasons. That’s what I love about it.

Oringer: It has that grit that we both love. We love urban restaurants. We’re not going to be opening a restaurant in Wellesley. We love energy, and there’s so much diversity, like Jamie said. We’re next to H-Mart, next to an Indian market, across from a dive bar, near a Salvation Army store, across from a vegetarian diner… It’s like being in Queens. It’s really freakin’ cool. Look around right now. We haven’t even really started lunch service, and there’s a group of students here, a couple of older women having drinks at the bar, a supermodel sitting over there… that’s my wife, I’m just saying.

When there are so many different influences and you really do have free reign, how do you keep it all from being all over the place? How do you tie it all together and edit?

Oringer: I think the size of the menu helps with self-editing. Normally, we go with huge menus. Toro and Coppa have huge menus, and here we wanted to go with something smaller so it felt more focused and not so schizophrenic.

Bissonnette: That’s 100% right. Not being able to put all of our ideas down at once forces us to be a little more concise, and we analyze things. We say, “That’s maybe a Mexican dish and that’s an Indian dish, but there are a lot of similar spices and similar textures, so we can’t do both.” We couldn’t put a roti or a naan dish right next to a soft tortilla dish with similar flavors and textures. It wouldn’t work.

Little Donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

So what do you guys do when you’re picking new dishes? Do you flip a coin?

Bissonnette: We’ve never fought about a dish. We’ve debated seasonings, flavors, and styles, but we keep each other in check. It really organically just happens.

You guys have had a working relationship with each other for a long time, and the fact that you can write menus together…

Bissonnette: It’s funny -- I think for a lot of chefs that’s the hardest part. For us, it’s the gravy. When we have the days when we can sit and just talk about food, those are some of the best days.

Oringer: We’re both obsessed with food more than anything. We just get so much enjoyment talking about it, and then bringing it to fruition. And it can be the simplest thing.

It’s a pretty unique long-running relationship in the industry. You guys are the power couple.

Oringer: We’re like the Obamas.

Bissonnette: I was gonna say we’re like Brangelina, but that’s not really relevant anymore.

Dubai’s next on the horizon. We talked about some of the challenges you’ve had in Bangkok; what are you facing in Dubai?

Oringer: We’re doing business with a huge restaurant operator, which has its challenges, like just designing the restaurant, for instance. You’re on conference calls with 30 people, so it’s the complete opposite of the way we’ve done a lot of our restaurants. It’s got a more corporate structure. But it’s good because we learn things from these people who do so many systematic operations.

What do you think is it about Dubai that makes people want to be there right now? What makes you want to be there?

Oringer: I’d be lying if I didn’t say people want to be there because they want to make money. We’re not doing it to make money. But Jamie was just eating all over the city, and there are a ton of ex-pats, a lot of people from London, and these people love food. There’s more business there than God knows what, so these people want to go out. They want to entertain, they want to have options. A lot of them are from Europe, and it makes sense to have something Spanish, because you can only eat in so many Italian restaurants or Japanese restaurants. We’ll be a nice little niche.

Little Donkey
Courtesy of Little Donkey

What did you love about Dubai, Jamie?

Bissonnette: I loved the food. I loved all of the Middle Eastern and Indian mashup dishes. I loved the fish markets, I loved the souks. Here, if you want sumac, you get one kind of sumac. There, you order sumac and they say, “What kind?” And they show you like 10 different kinds. I was just blown away by some of the ingredients there.

Did you bring some spices home with you?

Bissonnette: I brought back a big bag of sumac; the biggest, greenest cardamom I’ve ever had; a bunch of dried limes; different spice blends like baharat; some dried fish; some dried shrimp… though I think the shrimp got confiscated.

So what’s next for you in Boston?

Bissonnette: Next we’re gonna have lunch service, dinner service tonight, and work on a new menu. Other than that, I don’t think there’s much we need to worry about for a while.

Oringer: And try to figure out when the fuck we can open up brunch.

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Lauren Friel is a freelance writer living in Boston who is also interested in tasting all the different kinds of sumac. You can find more of her work via her website, Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @vin_drop.