Interview with Ken Oringer

Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking?
Ken Oringer: I’ve always felt comfortable in the kitchen. When I was 6 I began tooling around in the kitchen with my family. My parents, my two older sisters, and my twin brother all love food and love to cook! My parents allowed me to play in the kitchen so I made dishes like roast chicken for the whole family.

AT: Did you attend culinary school?
KO: I got a B.A. in business management from Bryant College, and then I went to culinary school at the CIA. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I knew I wanted to be the boss, so I got degree in business first and went from there. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing!

AT: Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
KO: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Mostly I look for people that are creative, passionate, driven, and love food.

AT: Who are your mentors?
KO: My strongest mentor is definitely Jacques Pepin. I read all his books as a kid and must have tried out every recipe from La Technique and La Methode. Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Burke were mentors as well. Michel Bras had a huge influence on my food, especially when I worked as pastry chef at Al Forno in Providence, RI. Eating around Asia had a very strong effect on me too. I’ve been traveling all over Asia for about 13 years now, and it’s definitely influenced my style.

AT: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KO: My philosophy is to cook food that’s not too crazy, but that has exciting, unexpected flavors and is very unique. I’ve trained with very good chefs, and though I like to follow classic combinations, I’m not afraid to take some risks.

AT: What do you mean by “not too crazy”? After all, I know you have barnacles on your menu!
KO: “Too crazy” would be serving the barnacles with passion fruit gelee and coconut foam. My preparation is more classic and influenced by my travels. If you go to Spain, you are going to get barnacles. How many restaurants serve barnacles in the US? Maybe 3, at the most. I’ll stop at nothing to get them! I’m relentless about sourcing products. Anything I can get that’s different and unique I will get!

AT: Are there any other unusual ingredients that you especially like to source?
KO: I use eucalyptus a lot. I like Argon oil from Morocco, and Espelette pepper from the Basque country. Also Grains of Paradise, a sweet, flowery peppercorn from Africa. It’s black outside and white inside and it’s a very complex, different kind of pepper. I serve it with calamari, foie gras, and a whole range of stuff.

AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
KO: We use our vegetable juicer and blender a thousand times a day! Also indispensable is our Thermomix Blender, with which I make everything from crème Anglaise to hot mayonnaise. I could cook beef stew in that that thing if I wanted to do. It makes the smoothest purees possible, and any kind of emulsion. We change our menu everyday but we use the Thermomix Blender for at least 20 percent of our dishes.

AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
KO: I use a technique I learned from Hervé This to reduce vegetable demi-glaces through evaporation (as opposed to reduction). Instead of using a heat source to reduce the liquid, we lay the juice in a pan and let it evaporate. The molecules aren’t broken down and the flavor isn’t affected. It’s intensified! So the result has the body of a reduction, but much more flavor.

AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
KO: How much drive do you have? What separates you from the hundreds of other people we have coming in? I’m looking for someone that has the fire behind them and that certain something makes them really special – some unique quality and confidence. I don’t necessarily look for a cook that has worked for the best restaurants in the world. It’s more important that they have a good head on their shoulders, and that something special…

AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
KO: Eat as much as possible, try as many different things as you can and read religiously.

AT: What are your favorite cookbooks?
KO: Anything by Jacques Pepin, especially The Art of Cooking Vol. 1 and 2. Also Michel Bras’ books, and Joel Robuchon’s Simply French. I also refer to a whole bunch of Japanese books on sushi, but they’re all in Japanese! In English there’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. The culinary encyclopedias by Alain Ducasse are unbelievable: Les Grands Livres de Cuisine.

AT: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
KO: Paris, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

AT: Tell me about the restaurant you’re opening up in Asia – it’s in Bankok right?
KO: The project in Bangkok is actually on hold for now. I’m in the process of doing it but right now, I’m focusing on Toro, my tapas restaurant in Boston. It’s a very funky, contemporary, but still traditional. It’s a Barcelona-style tapas bar located in the South End in Boston. As for the Bankok project, the concept is a combination of Clio and Uni. It will target the young, hip tourist crowd, the sophisticated British and Italians living in Bangkok, and the international business population.

AT: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Boston?
KO: Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge; Tacos El Charo in Jamaica Plain; Taiwan Café in Chinatown.

AT: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
KO: People are definitely looking more toward science, which is wonderful. I only hope that no one loses focus on great cooking. At its best, the science trend will lead to a combination of innovation and great taste. Another trend is the use of unique ingredients from all over the world. The exotic is becoming more mainstream; the gastronomic world is getting smaller and smaller…

   Published: Septermber 2006