The two chefs behind the hit Spanish restaurant concept Toro have never done things in the typical way. Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette opened their first location in Boston. After a few years, they opened in New York City. And now, they're bringing their brand of tapas not to Washington, DC or Las Vegas, but Bangkok, Thailand. "There's not any city in the world right now that has more going on," said Oringer earlier this week at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. "There's an energy and they love food literally like no one else."
While Bangkok has an undeniably great restaurant scene, two chefs from Boston don't just casually end up there. The chefs demurred when asked if the new Toro came as a result of a licensing or consulting deal, but according to Oringer, "it's a full-on partnership. It's a really cool development in an amazing neighborhood; it's kind of like the Williamsburg of Bangkok." The development he's referring to is 72 Courtyard, a design-focused, multi-concept space with an open-air plan.
News of the Bangkok expansion broke in May, and Bissonnette and Oringer spent some time there prepping the space and getting ready for the grand opening on Friday, June 24. Not surprisingly, it hasn't been easy to get the restaurant to this point. "For the first few days, we didn't have AC in the kitchen and it was over 120 [degrees]," recalled Bissonnette. He said his biggest challenge was "learning how to just succumb to the fact that whatever you do, you're going to completely drenched in sweat — that took me a couple of days."
Oringer pointed out some other ways opening in Bangkok is different from opening in Boston or New York City. "You can't make the shit up that happens there," he said. "One day we didn't have water; the next day, no electricity for eight hours. Then you have construction crews coming in and ripping open the ceiling while you're prepping and there's shit falling all over the food, and nobody cares because there's no code about any of the buildings or anything like that." Shopping was also difficult. "Everything had some [challenge]," said Bissonette. "Hey, let's go get kosher salt. That took us three days."
Along with navigating the logistical difficulties, Oringer and Bissonnette had some unique culinary challenges, as well. "We thought we'd be going in and cooking Toro classics," said Oringer, "but we've now been able to adjust some things and have fun using local ingredients, making the food a little spicier and more vibrant. We both have had a blast being able to go out there and talk food with people, [eventually] saying, ‘Oh shit, we have to change the menu a little bit.'" Bissonnette points to the classic tortilla espanola as an example. "We served it to all of our cooks and front-of-house staff — they were all like, 'Meh, it's okay.' We could see they had no passion for it, whereas when we serve that anywhere else, people are like, ‘Oh my god, this is so great, so simple and so flavorful.'" According to Bissonnette, the chefs adapted, adding "potato chips to make a crumble" and changed the sauce "to have something with more tang," resulting in a final product that is "still western" and "doesn't taste Thai at all." But it does have "more punch and different solidity and texture" to appeal to the Thai palate.
Now back in America after soft-opening, the chefs have put Toro Bangkok in the hands of trusted lieutenant Zack Watkins, who's been working for the two chefs for more than five years. And it's a good thing, too, because while Toro Bangkok braces for its grand opening on Friday, Oringer and Bissonnette are in the final stretch of opening their newest Boston restaurant, an all-day Cambridge spot called Little Donkey. "We're ready to go," said Oringer. "We'll be open in probably less than three weeks, pending inspections." So that's two restaurants in one month, on two different sides of the world, something Oringer acknowledges usually isn't the norm. "That's fucking crazy, right?"