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Grit Over Glass: The Real Estate Wisdom Of James Beard Award Nominee Ken Oringer

For chef Ken Oringer, a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award nominee for Best Restaurateur, the location and design of his restaurants are not required to be as lavish as the meals he prepares. In fact, he prefers them a little rough.

2017 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Restaurateur nominee Ken Oringer

“I get calls [from developers] almost every day. It’s hard to say no because some of the offers are very exciting, but unless the space is very architecturally interesting, I won’t go for it,” Oringer said. “I don’t usually want to have a shiny new building with glass windows. I get inspired by things that have a little more grit and character.”

Eleven years after first opening in Boston’s South End, Oringer and chef/business partner Jamie Bissonnette’s tapas restaurant Toro routinely has a two-hour wait for a table, even on a Tuesday. While the surrounding neighborhood is now one of the city’s most expensive, it was not always as desirable. The move to open a restaurant in a rougher side of town was risky for the man known since 1997 for commanding Back Bay’s Clio, one of the most upscale dining rooms in Boston.

“We felt that being on the back side of the South End near Mass. Ave. was the right balance — it was still slightly rough with the methadone clinic around the corner, but there were also multimillion-dollar condos being built all around us,” he said. “I loved the grittiness of that area, and felt like that neighborhood would really wrap its arms around a concept like Toro.”

Toro, Ken Oringer's collaboration with Jamie Bissonnette in Boston's South End

Oringer was born in New Jersey but migrated to New England for college and later worked as the pastry chef at Al Forno in Providence and at celebrity chef Jean Georges Vongerichten's Le Marquis de Lafayette in Boston. He has since gone on to open critically acclaimed restaurants of his own in Boston as well as in markets like Manhattan and Bangkok, both of which are home to Toro.

When selecting real estate for potential restaurants, Oringer's decisions come from gut instinct as opposed to simple cost analysis, he said.

“It always has to be somewhere that interests us because there’s nothing worse than having to be dragged somewhere you don’t want to be,” Oringer said. “Bangkok is a place that I’ve always loved. To fit with our brand, the building has to have an urban identity and to be a little rough around the edges.”

Coppa, an Italian enoteca and another Oringer/Bissonnette partnership in Boston's South End

The decision to branch out of his beloved Boston was not a sign that he would vacate the region as is often the case when chefs rise in fame. He was quick to point out his deep-rooted love for the city, as it is where he began to build his restaurants and now raises his children. His foray into New York was serendipitous when a friend told him and Bisonnette there was a space they needed to see in Chelsea near the West Side Highway

When the two and Oringer's wife visited the empty space, Oringer said he experienced a feeling he would never forget.

"We looked at each other and felt so stunned by the drama of that space. In Manhattan, you usually find something that’s been built to be a restaurant, and throughout the building’s life it will continue to be a restaurant. But the Toro NYC space had been vacant for a long time, and it was in an unexpected spot. We felt like there would be a surprise element there,” he said.

Oringer said these unexpected elements coupled with the location's proximity to neighborhood favorites like Colicchio, Morimoto, the High Line and Chelsea Market made the decision a no-brainer.

Back in Boston, Oringer has been a key player in building out the city’s heightened image as a food city. The downside is, while the city grows, the area his restaurants are in becomes stretched. While he has experience opening in new, untapped neighborhoods, it is not without its stress.

Interior of Toro NYC

“I’m usually the one during a restaurant opening who says ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Some of my favorite restaurants are in the middle of nowhere, but people still flock to them,” he said. “The hope is that the same will happen when you open in a new neighborhood, but there’s always some risk to it.”

There is also the challenge of tinkering with a well-established machine, but Oringer shows no fear in that area either. In 2015, after 19 years in business, he decided to close his flagship restaurant Clio, where he won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast in 2001. He reopened the space with an expanded Uni, which had been an 18-seat sashimi bar operating from Clio's lounge area.

Revamp is often on the forefront of the chef's mind, as he likes to keep his patrons on their toes. On a smaller scale, Oringer recently tweaked his extremely popular patatas bravas recipe at Toro by now cooking them in a baking soda solution to break down the potatoes and make the dish crispier.

Interior of Uni in Boston's Back Bay

“I never want to fall into a routine and forget to make those kinds of changes,” Oringer said. “Sometimes it’s a subtle change like tweaking the lighting, changing or turning up the music, or reworking the menu layout, and sometimes after a number of years you know it’s time for a bigger overhaul. It's important for me to never be totally satisfied, and to always want to be better. I’m a risk-taker by nature, and even if a concept is successful, I like to make little changes.”

Despite his success, Oringer demures at the thought that he is a neighborhood oracle even if many view his restaurants as a sign an area like the South End or Central Square in Cambridge have made it as a hot spot. 

“Believe me, if I really knew that much about real estate, I’d be doing a lot more than opening restaurants,” he said.

The James Beard Foundation Awards Gala will be held on May 1, 2017.