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Q & A with Toro’s Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette

image0031Boston has a lot more to offer New York than just Baked Beans, Clam Chowder and Cream Pies.  In fact, our city has just become home to one of the South End’s best restaurants, Toro, a Barcelona-inspired tapas joint owned by chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette.

Housed in the old Nabisco Factory building in the Meatpacking District, overlooking the Hudson River, the 100-seat eatery is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, an arched entryway flanked by an ivy-colored wall, and a pair of lofty, wooden shelves sporting hanging Iberico Hams.  And like its Boston predecessor, Toro serves a mix of traditional and modern Spanish dishes, made with greenmarket-inspired ingredients. “Paying respect to the classics is easy for me, because I have such a respect for Spanish culture,” Oringer says of the menu, which includes standards, like Patatas Bravas, Boquerones and Pan Con Tomate.  “But we do our own take on dishes too, because when it comes down to it, being creative is what drives me.”

That mission to merge the past, present and future of Spanish cuisine has resulted in a whopping 62-item menu (the Boston branch clocks in at 44).  Dishes are divided into suix categories: Pinchos (small snacks), Cold Tapas, Hot Tapas, Charcuterie, Tapas a la Plancha (cooked on a griddle), and Paellas y Platos, or larger plates, like Rabbit and Artichoke Paella with Calasparra Rice, and Salt-Crusted Mediterranean Sea Bass with Fresh Herbs. “We have way more space and equipment in our New York kitchen, which allows us to offer more than ever before,” explains Bissonnette.  “Also, the suppliers in New York have different things, so we can get more of a variety of foods that we don’t see in Boston quite as often.  For example, it’s harder for us to get Percebes (goose barnacles) over there.  We’ll have them as specials on occasion, but in New York, we can actually serve them every day.”

We also spoke with the chefs about their most annoying kitchen quirks, the ingredients they just can’t bring themselves to cook with, and why they prefer New York’s dining scene to Boston’s!

KO: Married to my amazing wife Celine, and we have two kids.

JB: Divorced.

When did you first realize that you wanted to become a chef?
KO: When I was eight years old I would watch Julia Child shows and cook for my family.  I also fell in love with cookbooks at a very young age.

JB: I knew it when I was a teenager.  I would always cook for friends after band practice and after going to punk rock shows.

What do you think you would have been if you hadn’t become a chef?
KO: I’ve always loved baseball as a kid, so I probably would have tried my hand at that.  Or an architect.  I love architecture and design and I always pay attention to it when I travel and with my restaurants.

JB: I would have loved to be a spy.

What job would you say really kick-started your career?
KO: I would say if I had to look back, it would be when I worked at River Café with David Burke back in the day.  It taught me how great restaurants are run, how to push yourself and be creative.

JB: I’m not sure there was one job in particular that kick-started anything, but working with Ken Oringer has made me the best chef I could be.

What’s the most valuable bit of advice you’ve ever received from a friend or mentor?
KO: To work harder than anybody else.  That came from David Burke.

JB: Pay attention to everything, and always keep one hand clean so you can answer the phone.  Missed calls are missed opportunities.

How did the two of you meet, and what would you say makes your relationship work so well?
KO: Jamie and I have such respect for each other in the kitchen and as friends.  We really listen to each other and try and understand where the other is coming from.

JB: I met Ken through family friends, and then came to Boston to stage at Clio.  We always stayed in contact and would see each other at events and out after work.  He called me one day and asked if I wanted to come work for him.  I did, and two years later we became partners.   We work so well together because we’re both realistic about things.  While we don’t always have the same opinion, we both respect each other and can see the other’s point of view.

How/when/where did you develop your passion for Spanish cuisine?
KO: Back when I was in the early days of Clio, I started to do events in Spain… this was like, 15 years ago.  I had the chance to go to the lab at El Bulli and it really changed the way I look at Spanish cuisine.  When I was doing these events, I would be hanging out with different chefs, going to these random little restaurants nobody knew about in these small towns, and I just fell in love with it.  I would go to Spain a couple of times a year and do as many events there as I could because I just loved it.  Travel has always been a big inspiration for me in my restaurants.  Like after spending time in Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market I knew I wanted to open a sashimi bar, and that was the inspiration behind Uni.  Same with my time in Italy and Coppa.

JB: I love the flavors and the style of small plate eating.  Eating in Spain is what really hooked me.  Going through the Basque country and eating my way through San Sebastian.  I knew I wanted to cook Spanish food.

How did you end up with such an enormous, 62 item menu?
KO: It’s funny; Jamie and I both love big menus.  We wrote ours out to be this big with the purpose of testing and cutting dishes before opening, and we just love food so much and were so connected to these dishes that it was hard for us to cut any of them.  We thought about taking some off, but didn’t want to pick any to cut!  In the end, it really shows our style – how we like to cook, and how we like to eat.

JB: Ken and I sat down together to look at what we should take off when we were planning the menu, and we talked through every single dish.  Instead of taking dishes off, we ended up adding even more!  But our menu will change regularly; sometimes we’ll have more dishes and sometimes less.

If you were to eat as a guest at the restaurant, what would you order and why?
KO: For some reason the one dish I will never get sick of is Paella Valencia.  I could eat that every day and be happy.  Also, I would start with an Uni, Caviar and Quail Egg Spoon with Jamon Crumble.  And the Testa Croquettes.

JB: I would order all the Plancha Fish, the Tripe and some classics.  I love that variety we have coming from the Plancha, Tripe is my favorite food, and the classics are what remind me of Spain.

What do you particularly appreciate about NYC’s dining scene over Boston’s, and vice versa?  
KO: In New York there are just a lot of people coming through the dining room.  I love the masses and there’s so much energy here.  Also we have a full dining room well into late night here, and I wouldn’t have expected that.  In Boston, I love that it’s our home and it’s comforting to go back there.  We know those people have our back.

JB: In NYC there are just so many more people and it allows us to offer more variety in our menu.  In Boston, I miss my friends.  But I am loving making new friends in the industry here in NYC.

Who would your ultimate dream guest be at the restaurant and why (they can be living, dead or fictional!)
KO: I get excited when any chef comes into the restaurant.  My dream guests would be those chefs that have really inspired me throughout my entire career, like Juan Mari Arzak, Joan Roca and Michel Bras.

JB: I love cooking for Jacques Pepin and he’s my ultimate dream guest.  He’s been to Coppa and Toro in Boston and is a great friend.  Everytime I have cooked for him, he has given me advice that has made me a better cook.  I love his opinions and his passion.

What do you consider to be your ultimate career achievement to date?
KO: Wow, that’s hard to say.  I’m still motivated to push hard every day and that’s what I’m most proud of.

JB: I have a really cool Sharpie collection.

What would your loved ones say is your most annoying (and at the same time, adorable), kitchen quirk? 
KO: That I’m always at the stove!  Even when we have people over, I prefer to entertain from the kitchen while I’m cooking.

JB: I have a touch of compulsion when it comes to cleaning and where things go.  It can be frustrating when I re-arrange everything over and over again.

How would your line cooks describe your style in the kitchen?
KO: Hard to say, but probably that I’m beyond hands-on.  Also that I push hard and expect a lot, but that I have a ton of respect for those who work with me.

JB: As a teacher, a drill sergeant and a crazy person.

What ingredients or foods can you just not bring yourself to cook with or eat?
KO: Eggs.  It’s weird because I absolutely love to cook with them, but they’re probably one of my least favorite ingredients to eat (except in the Uni, Caviar and Quail Egg Spoon, but that’s a different story).  But given that I don’t eat eggs that often, it’s funny how much they appear on the menu.  Txipirones with a Fried Farm Egg, Deviled Eggs with Conserved Tuna Belly, and the classic Tortilla Espanola.

JB: I dislike peanut butter, but will cook with it.  I also do not like to cook with salmon bones.

What’s your go-to meal after a long night of service?
KO: Usually I try to be a little healthy late at night and I’ll eat a salad.  Or I’ll break down and eat street meat or a hot dog from a cart.  Hot dogs are my guilty pleasure.

JB: Cheese, pizza, chicken wings, or eggs.

What’s next for you; another restaurant, a cookbook, food T.V?
KO: I can’t even think that far ahead; right now I’m just focused on the new restaurant.  I would love to do a cookbook one day, but it takes so much work, and right now I just don’t have the time.

JB: Working on a cookbook now, but my next project is tonight’s service.

You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner? And no, you can’t say both!
KO: I plead the fifth!

JB: Dinner, for sure.  A big, hot long one…

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