Ken Oringer was barely six years old when he first hatched the dream of becoming a chef. “I would watch Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet, and later read cookbooks religiously. I grew up in New Jersey, so we’d go to street fairs, visit Chinatown and Little Italy in New York, and I’d see lambs cooking on spits. My parents encouraged me in the kitchen. First there were roast chickens and beef stews, then consommé,” he says.
That PBS-fueled childhood served as the impetus that propelled the young, ambitious cook through the Culinary Institute of America and onto the opening of first restaurant in 1997: the tony French-American Clio, inside Boston’s equally swanky Eliot Hotel. Before that, Oringer had cut his teeth as a pastry chef at the celebrated Al Forno in Providence, RI, and worked for David Burke at the River Café in Brooklyn, as well as the new-to-the-U.S. Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Le Marquis de Lafayette in Boston. After a run as chef de cuisine at Silks, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, in San Francisco, he was ready to make his mark as executive chef in the city he loved.
“I just wanted to open a restaurant, and hoped it did well,” says Oringer, who admits he never anticipated the success of his small—and growing—empire of Beantown restaurants. “Todd English and Jody Adams had paved the way in Boston, but their food was rustic, and I wanted to do something lighter, a little more fine dining. The timing was right.”
Since then, Oringer has demonstrated an on-the-money knack for timing. Following Clio, he unveiled sashimi bar Uni, tapas restaurant Toro, Mexican taqueria La Verdad, and the enoteca Coppa—in partnership with chef Jamie Bissonnette—which all remain Boston hot spots. Organic restaurant Earth at Hidden Pond opened in Kennebunkport, ME, in 2011, and now Oringer has his hands full at the second Toro outpost that he just debuted with Bissonnette in New York.
Every night, the bustling South Chelsea restaurant is packed with young, sherry-swilling diners clamoring to eat their $76 paella Valenciana at the exhibitionist chef’s counter. “It’s been pretty wild. We never thought we’d be this busy this quickly; maybe 100 people a night until word got out. But we’ve had amazing support being in the same building as Colicchio & Sons and Del Posto. Jonathan Waxman, David Chang, and Jean-Georges have all come in and given advice,” Oringer says.
At Toro, New Yorkers may first be making the acquaintance of the James Beard Award-winning Oringer, but in Boston, where his restaurants have significantly helped transform the city’s culinary scene, his roots run deep. In the 16 years since Clio has opened, Oringer has seen “dramatic” changes. “On any given night you can go out for Szechuan, Sri Lankan, or Malaysian now. Between what Barbara Lynch, Tony Maws, Ming Tsai, and Ana Sortun have done, I’d put this city up against any other,” he says.
Oringer’s passionate cooking pays homage to the vast international influences he has encountered on myriad travels. Here are the 10 of the dishes that have inspired him to take on so many diverse, soulful cuisines.