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Life Lessons From Toro Dream Team Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette

The duo behind some of Boston and NYC's most popular restaurants open up about partnership, New York vs. Boston, and what the future holds.

Jamie Bissonnette (left) and Ken Oringer (right)
Jamie Bissonnette (left) and Ken Oringer (right)
Jennifer Olson

Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette regularly finish each other's sentences, but it's no big deal — they've known each other for years. In the late '90s, Oringer established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the New England food world when he opened Clio in Boston, for which he eventually won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast in 2001. He opened up Uni, a well-reviewed sushi lounge at Clio in 2002, and followed it up with Toro in 2005. Meanwhile, Bissonnette "moved to Boston because I wanted to work and learn from KO [Oringer]," he says now. Bissonnette worked in the Clio kitchen, where he made an impression on Oringer: "He came from Connecticut up to Boston, spent some time in the kitchen at Clio and I could tell that he was a young chef obsessed with food, cooking, and that wanted to be the best," Oringer says. "He went on to work at some other restaurants around town, but we would see each other at bars after work and talk food until two o'clock, three o'clock in the morning."

Bissonnette eventually made his own name at Eastern Standard, but after a particularly bad day, he got an unexpected call from Oringer, who tapped Bissonnette to head up the kitchen at KO Prime in 2007. Together, the two opened Coppa — as partners — just two years later. The rest is history: Now, these two are at the helm of a group that includes the critically acclaimed Coppa and Toro, which also has a New York City outpost of Toro. Their secret seems to be actually liking each other and prioritizing respect in their kitchens. Eater sat down with Oringer and Bissonnette at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to talk about how their partnership works, the differences between operating in Boston and New York, and to find out what the future holds (spoiler alert: breakfast). Read on for more:

You guys have been working together a very long time. How would you describe your partnership?
Ken Oringer: It just works. I don't know, it's hard to describe. We get along so well, but we look at things sometimes...
Jamie Bissonnette: ... so differently ...
KO: ... from opposite spectrums. But when push comes to shove, we both have a sensible side. We always come to terms because we're both ideas people and nothing's too crazy for us. We decided to open up a restaurant in New York [without] ever really thinking about it. One day we said, "Fuck it, let's just open up in New York." We love challenging each other, we love pushing each other, and we always, at the end of the day, see things the same way.

"One day we said, 'Fuck it, let's just open up in New York.'" — Oringer

JB: Even when we don't see eye-to-eye on something, we both have such strong mutual respect for each other where we know we'd never do anything out of spite. Even if one of us is like, "No, that's a bad idea," eventually one of us always circles back and says, "Let's revisit that idea. Let's see if it works." We learn from each other always. It's a great, growing relationship. 
KO: I think respect is definitely the key, too. I respect everything this guy does. He's not only an amazing chef — he knows so much about food, studies everything religiously, knows every fact — but again, he has an amazing business sense. He knows how to treat people well. I think that's the key. I have so much respect for how he looks at things that it just makes sense in terms of how we do things.

Tell me about how the partnership started.
KO: I've known Jamie for forever, for a long-ass time. My stoner roommate in college was actually an old buddy of his... There's definitely an age difference and I was already pretty established at Clio, but I saw something really special in him and we always kept up a relationship. He made a great name for himself at Eastern Standard then I was like, "You know what Jamie, we should do something together," because I was starting to plan new things and I just opened Toro. We would talk about different concepts all the time...
JB: After spending a little bit of time at Clio, I was working as a pastry chef at one restaurant and a sous chef at another at the same time. I'd see KO out and he'd always go, "Man, you're always working." We always kept in contact. I think one of the things that KO and I always have the same love for is old-school French cooking. We both love Jean-Louis Palladin and Jacques Pepin, [Alain] Ducasse. We both have lots of respect for people like Bernard Loiseau and Michel Guerard. We would talk about those foods and [how] we weren't seeing them anymore, that inspiration.

Coppa

Coppa, Boston. Photo: Cal Bingham

One day seemingly out of the blue he called my cell phone number — on a day where I had set the back kitchen on fire by plugging something into an electrical outlet that didn't have the right amperage, and I knew it, and I used it. It was terrible. I was like, "Man, I'm going to get fired, I almost burned down this whole restaurant." I was feeling really bad about myself. The fire department was leaving and I was like, "Man, I've been here long enough I want to go, I want to be pushed, and I want to work with somebody else who's a better chef than I am that can teach me." And he called me 20 minutes later out of the blue: "Hey, do you have time to get coffee?" We got coffee and started talking about KO Prime. I opened up as the chef de cuisine, from there it just kind of happened.

How do decisions get made at your restaurants?
KO: We have amazing teams, and again, I think we're both smart enough to know we don't know all the answers and we always look to our resources. We never pretend to know everything. I think that's another key our relationship: We respect people that we work with and their opinions. Even if it's something like changing a garnish on a dish... We'll talk to the sous chefs and the chefs: "What do you guys think?" We both know our opinion but it will be good either way. We don't take our decisions too seriously, either.

"There's never any competition with who's right or wrong or how to make a decision." — Bissonnette

JB: When it comes to any major decision somebody asks us, "Who makes the decisions business wise?" Any of our staff would say: "We ask Ken and Ken says, 'Ask Jamie.' And then we ask Jamie and Jamie says, 'Ask Ken.'" Then they say, "We already asked both of you," and then we connect and talk it out, then we give the answer. There's never any competition with who's right or wrong or how to make a decision. It's always done for the best interest of everybody in mind.

We're almost at two years of Toro NYC... does it feel like two years?
JB: It feels like two, it feels like 12, and it also feels like yesterday.

With the perspective you have coming into the second year, what are the major differences between running a restaurant in Boston versus running a restaurant in New York?
KO: Running a restaurant is the same anywhere you do it, but I think the scale of things is different. New York is a lot bigger than Boston, so that changes things. We need a lot more people, we have a lot more managers, and we just hired a director of operations in New York. We try to run them all the same way. It's just a matter of having more people understand our culture and our vision. Money has never been the motivator for Jamie and me, which I think is a real key. We just want to serve the best food in the most comfortable environment and have a staff that buys into it, loves it, and has fun.

It makes things a lot easier where we're not analyzing every decision by its impact on the bottom line. If we want to serve percebes at Toro New York and charge 15 bucks for them where in Spain they'd serve them for 50 bucks, we're going to do it because we want people to be able to try this delicacy. It means more for us to have somebody say, "Man I just had a percebes, I've never had them before... and they're so cool." It's like this steamer but with 10 times more flavor. We love that shit, we live for that stuff.

"The more complicated you make it, the more people fuck things up." — Oringer

Two years in, what are your feelings about the restaurant culture in Boston versus New York?
JB:
I think that restaurant cultures from city to city can be comparable, but any restaurant culture compared to New York is not fair. New York is its own place, it's so many different people. There's so much going on... One of the things that I love is taking what we do in Boston and the way we do it with our staff — having that family environment, doing food and staff first, worrying about the economics and the finances and all that stuff second — bringing that to New York is something that's not as much the norm. It makes for a restaurant that has less turnover and a great family feel to it. 
KO: And it's a humble way of doing business, which is also important to us. We don't want to open restaurants for our egos or anything like that. We open restaurants because we love to cook for people, we love to educate people, and it's a very simple business. We always tell people: We cook, people come in and eat, we make sure they have a good time and that's it. The more complicated you make it, the more people fuck things up. 
JB: Buy food, fix it up, sell it for a profit, and make sure you smile when you do it — and you've got the basics down.

Toro NYC. [Photo: Daniel Krieger]

Toro NYC. Photo: Daniel Krieger

You guys are now well-established in New York City, and O Ya just opened. Do you think we're going to be seeing more chefs from Boston try their hand in New York?
JB: I don't know. The Boston restaurant scene is so connected and so friendly and familiar. We all hang out and we're all friends. Not a lot of people talk about wanting to come down to New York, but a lot of our friends in New York talk about wanting to go to Boston.

What advice would you give them? What do they need to know about coming to Boston?
KO: [Mario] Batali just came and Jamie and I spoke to him numerous times about the market. Every town is different, but [in] Boston, there is such a camaraderie among chefs. In New York there is, but New York's so busy; everybody's lives are too hectic. In Boston we could go out for a drink and see 10 chefs every night after work. In New York, it depends what neighborhood you're in or who you're going to see. Anybody coming to Boston, [don't make] the Ducasse mistake when he went to New York and said, "I'm going to do this that New Yorkers have never seen, I'm going to do this that New Yorkers have never seen." If you go in brash, it doesn't work anywhere, whether it's New York or Boston, but especially Boston. They like their own, they really embrace their own. I think it's important for people to come in humbly, get to know the chefs and where we buy things, which farmers, and just blend right into the community.

"Not a lot of people talk about wanting to come down to New York, but a lot of our friends in NY talk about wanting to go to Boston." — Bissonnette JB: My advice is to be kind... You can't walk in and tell people what you're going to do. You go in and humbly get to know people. Like any relationship, you can't walk in strong-minded and strong-willed and expect every single person just to succumb to every demand, and Boston's very much like that. I think that all smaller cities are like that. Coming in is developing a new relationship, you've got to put in the time.

Would you guys ever consider expanding Toro to a new city beyond New York and Boston?
JB:
Absolutely, I think.
KO: That would be fun.
JB: I think doing Toro in another city would be great mostly because we get so many ideas in our head. We want to do so much and then our chefs de cuisine are like, "The menu's too big." We don't want to take anything off, we want to put a new dish, so then we start talking about new restaurants. Maybe it will be Toro, maybe a new restaurant altogether. But it would be great to grow.

Are there specific cities you have in mind?
KO:
You never know.
JB: You can ask each of us that question and the answers going to be different.
KO: I'll be like, "Jamie, we should open in Austin, Texas," because we just did an event in Austin...
JB: Then we go there and I'm like, "Oh wait, it's too fucking hot."
KO: Yeah and then he'll be like, "Oh, we should open in Pittsburgh," and then I'll be like, "Eh, it's a little tough to get to." We always have these ideas and we'd love to open others but again, the timing has to always be right and we have to have infrastructure to feel comfortable to do it. You never know.

Bissonnette and Oringer in the Toro NYC kitchen, 2014. [Photo: Nick Solares]

What else are you working on?
JB:
I really want to do breakfast at Coppa Boston but our chefs aren't behind it.
[Laughs]
KO: And bagels at Coppa Boston. Because we've been playing around with a bagel pop-up once a month for the last couple of months and we have a wood oven there. We made oysters Rockefeller cream cheese and we did like...
JB: Charred broccoli with trout roe and just really fun stuff.
KO: He loves breakfast. My wife's favorite meal is breakfast and I make breakfast every morning. I make like three different things for my kids every morning. We both love cooking breakfast, so one day we will serve breakfast in one of our restaurants... or open up a place to serve breakfast.

It seems like everyone these days is racing to open their version of Shake Shack. Is fast-casual something you guys have ever talked about?
JB: Not really.
KO: We've joked around about Spanish fast-casual because we both love this one place in Barcelona called Tapas 24, but it's not fast-casual, it's more of a restaurant. But it's fascinating, between Sweetgreen and Shake Shack and Chipotle and all these other places. We love Middle Eastern flavors and we've joked around about having a falafel place or something like that. It's not what we do, and it's hard to do unless you really understand the logistics, the numbers, and the volume. Tacos for instance: It's so many steps to make a taco and you can only charge three or four bucks per taco as it is, to make a plate in one of our restaurants. Unless you can really jam on the volume, as expensive as labor is now, it's tough. It's a numbers game.

What would a fast-casual Toro look like?
[Laughs]
JB: I don't know...
KO: Calamari bocadillos, fried calamari bocadillos.
JB: Based around a lot of the quick, casual things that we like in all the mercados between Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastian. Pinchos and bocadillos.


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